It all starts with the Depression.
Everything in American politics since 1920 either leads up to or follows directly from the Great Depression. If you learn nothing else in your history classes, learn about the Great Depression of the 1930s. It will be the single most useful thing you can do for understanding how the political world of today is set up.
If you want to know why American politics in the early 21st century is so dysfunctional, you need to know how it got this way. And that’s a long story.
American politics has gone through five great ages, as far as I can tell. These are defined by the character of the issues that were most important to them. It’s not that the other issues go away when you shift to another era, but the emphasis changes.
From the beginnings of colonization in the early 1600s through the end of the Glorious Revolution in 1689 and its aftermath in the 1690s, politics in what would become the United States was centered on religion – which, for all practical purposes, was defined as Protestant Christianity. What is the proper relationship of the state with the church? How should this relationship be codified? How should states with differing visions attempt to relate to one another?
The problem with basing your politics on religion is two-fold. First of all, as Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, pointed out in so many words in the 1630s, when you mix politics and religion, you get politics. This degrades both sides. And second, religion is not an area that most people are willing to compromise about, so if you base your politics on religion you had best be prepared for war – and a particularly brutal and eliminationist kind of war, too. The seventeenth century was full of this kind of warfare. The Thirty Years’ War, for example – a brutal conflict between Protestants and Catholics over whose version of the Prince of Peace was superior – devastated central Europe and killed more Europeans than any war would do until World War I. Descriptions of the Thirty Years’ War retain their power to shock even in this jaded century, such was the cruelty and barbarism with which it was conducted.
You want to know why the Founding Fathers refused to allow religion into the Constitution in 1787? Because they were better historians than most modern Americans today and they remembered the lessons of the Thirty Years’ War, that's why.
The seventeenth century was rife with this kind of conflict even if you limit your focus to the Anglo-American world. The colonies were swept into the great political upheavals of the home islands – the English Civil War of the 1640s and 1650s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89 – both of which were, at bottom, religious conflicts.
When the Revolutionary Settlement took hold in the 1690s, Britons – colonials and home islanders alike – wanted a less conflict-ridden basis for politics. Religious issues never go away, of course. But the emphasis shifts. And from around the 1690s to the early 1760s, politics in the future United States revolves around property.
Who has property? Who doesn’t? Who is property? (This is the period when slavery becomes a major factor in the colonies.) What does having or not having property give you the right to do? This was a period of increasing economic stratification in the colonies, with the distribution of wealth becoming increasingly skewed toward the top (though nowhere near to the degree it is today) and this was reflected in political thinking. The central issues of politics in the late colonial period all had to do with property.
Property was broadly defined. It mostly meant land, but it could also mean money, chattels, movables, crops, or similar things. The one constant was that property was seen as something tangible – something you could touch. Property determined who could vote and who couldn’t. It determined who could run for office and who couldn’t. In an era that considered the primary purpose of government to be the protection of property (as opposed to defining the proper relationship between God and Man), it made sense to limit participation to those who had something to protect.
Both of the major ideologies of the period – classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism – placed a great deal of stress on property. The scholarly arguments over which dominated when are therefore transparent when it comes to this classification scheme.
But beginning in the 1760s – notably after 1763, when the colonies, flush with English pride at the successful conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, began moving toward revolution and independence – the emphasis on tangible property began to wane and politics began to take a new focus: rights.
Now, rights are just another form of property if you believe John Locke, and most colonists would have agreed with that. So the transition was a fairly easy one. And both classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism also placed a great deal of stress on rights, which made the transition even smoother.
While religion and property remained powerful political forces, the great issues of this period were all about rights. What were they? Who had them? Who didn’t? Which ones? Where was the boundary? Were rights universal or limited? Much of the Revolution was fought over these issues, and the wrangling over setting up new governments in the wake of the Revolution was even more so. By the early 19th century it was generally conceded that protecting rights – not property – was the primary function of government, and since everybody had rights (versus not everyone having property) government became increasingly democratized.
Ultimately this era climaxed with the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period intensely focused on whether blacks had any rights at all and if so how many, and how the answer to these questions affected the rights of whites. It is a sad commentary that abolition only becomes a major force in this country when slavery is seen as a threat to the rights of white people.
After Reconstruction most Americans were exhausted on the question of rights – something labor organizers in the Gilded Age found out the hard way – and from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 through the late 1960s, American politics was focused on money. Who had it? Who didn’t? What happened when you ran out of it? How do you get more of it? How do you prevent the economy from running out of it again?
In a sense this was a return to the politics of property, but in a much more specific way – there was less concern with land or movables and more concern with cold hard cash and the system under which it could be made. Everything from the Gilded Age to the Cold War can be fitted into this rubric.
And from there you transition to our present era, the Politics of Values.
As noted, this transition starts with the Depression.
The Depression shocked people. The most powerful and prosperous industrial economy on earth had shuddered to a halt, and it took the better part of the decade to figure out how to fix it. Supply-side economics do not work in a demand-side economy, something that a great many people have either forgotten today or choose to ignore in the interests of their own enrichment. It took until the Second New Deal for this lesson to be implemented in any real way, and not until World War II was it carried forward with sufficient vigor to restore prosperity.
And when the war ended, American planners were faced with a quandary. How do we keep from returning to the world of the Depression?
The solution they came up with was elegant in its simplicity and utopian in its aims, and is known as the Politics of Growth. The world, they said, did not operate on a Zero-Sum basis. The pie could grow.
A Zero-Sum world is a world with a fixed pie. If you want a bigger slice, somebody else must – by definition – get a smaller one. This is a world of conflict between the haves and the have nots, a world very much like the Great Depression. But in a world defined by the Politics of Growth, the pie is constantly expanding. Thus, everyone will get more pie even if their slice, in percentage terms, stays constant.
Further, you can actually reduce the size of some of the bigger slices in percentage terms, give that extra to those who don’t have anything to call their own, and everybody still ends up with objectively more pie because the whole pie keeps growing. Even if your percentage drops from 25% to 20% in order to give some to the poor, your 20% is still larger than the previous 25% in absolute terms.
So everybody wins. Social conflict is eliminated. All you have to do is keep the pie growing indefinitely, which in the immediate aftermath of WWII – with the US the sole remaining industrial economy not pounded into rubble – seemed an eminently reasonable task.
When you look at the world this way, it seems positively un-American that there would be people left out of the general prosperity. If America is about an ever-growing pie that encompasses all, the idea that there are those on the outside looking in, whose pieces are small or mere crumbs, is unpatriotic.
Thus you get the first phases of the social protest movements of the late 1950s and into the 1960s – the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, the Youth Movement, and so on. They are all founded on the idea that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with American values except that not enough people are included in them in practice – watch how often they cite the Declaration of Independence, for example. And they score some impressive victories.
But eventually it becomes clear to these movements that for all their achievements their larger goals remain elusive, and they radicalize. They start looking for fundamental changes, they start embracing more extreme tactics, and they stop citing the Declaration of Independence. One of the big shifts that they make is to personalize things – “the personal is political,” they say.
Ironically enough, though, while the vast majority of these social protest movements are on the left, it is the right that will adopt that slogan and turn it into an agenda.
By the late 1960s it is clear to the right that basing politics on money is a losing game for them – they have nothing to offer the vast majority of Americans, since by any objective standard the economic policies of the left have made most Americans better off than they would have been otherwise. They need a new platform. A number of conservative politicians – notably Richard Nixon – realized that the idea of the personal as political, the idea that politics could be run as a cultural conflict of values – was that platform.
It takes a long time for this shift to solidify. It begins with the backlash against the social protest movements of the 1960s. It intensifies with the movement of evangelical Protestants into mass politics in the 1970s (what is more personal than faith?). It expands its reach under Reagan in the 1980s, despite the fact that Reagan – a Cold Warrior and an economic right-winger – neither understood nor really sympathized with the social conservative agenda. It crystallized with Pat Robertson’s 1992 declaration of the Culture War live on television. It’s a long time coming.
But beginning in the late 1960s and intensifying through today, the ground underneath American politics shifts from money to “values” – a nebulously defined term but one that stresses cultural positions (including but not limited to religion) over economic or traditionally political ones.
The right mastered this long before the left even knew the ground had shifted. Long after most Americans began to think about politics in terms of values, the left continued to offer an economic vision of politics and to be confused when this was rejected by the very people who would have benefited most from it. When Thomas Frank looked at how people in the new right wing voted and asked “What’s the matter with Kansas?” he realized that the question only made sense if you continued to assume that people defined their interests economically. If so, then the working class and rural voters who put right-wingers in power were clearly cutting their own throats. But if you saw it in cultural terms, then there was nothing the matter with Kansas – they were voting for people whom they felt had their own values.
This shift has had two main consequences for modern American politics.
First, it has made our politics much more extreme, much more confrontational, and much less successful at actually governing the country in any meaningful way. The difference between a 2% tax and a 4% tax is fairly easy to work out if your framework is economic and you assume that politics is the art of compromise and dealmaking. But the difference between, say, pro-choice and anti-abortion is much, much harder to bridge, in part because nobody wants to be seen as compromising their values and in part because it’s not clear what there is to compromise on. There’s no “3%” in that scenario. Thus you end up with a fair amount of people shouting extreme positions at each other, and an utter lack of people discussing practical solutions to actual problems.
Second, it hides economic issues. When the focus is on values issues, people shift what matters to them. They will vote for leaders who claim to have the same values, even if those same leaders are actively undermining the economic position, livelihoods and political rights of those same voters. When economic issues become cultural issues, the dollars and cents fall by the wayside. We have now reached a point where even taxes are now seen as cultural issues – values issues – rather than economic ones. And again, you end up with people shouting extreme positions at each other and nobody discussing practical solutions to actual problems.
This is especially true on the right. They are the ones who engineered this shift. They are the ones who are good at it. And they are the ones who stand to lose the most if it goes away. The left persists on pointing out that the economic ideas proposed by the right are dangerously stupid, that they wouldn’t work even in a perfect world, and that their net effect will be to destroy the economy and political power of the United States both at home and abroad, as if that were the point. It isn’t, not to the right. To the right, it’s about holding the proper values and reality be damned.
You want to know why politics is so screwed up in the United States today?
The story starts with the Depression. It moves through the Politics of Growth to the social protest movements. It slides from there into the Politics of Values, the latest of the five ages of American politics. And where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.