March 7, 2020
Home late tonight, but have a little, anyway, to say. As I hiked this week, I thought about how the Trump administration’s muddled and inadequate response to the novel coronavirus fits in the larger pattern of the historical tensions in American government.
It seems to me that, historically, we have swung between two extremes. When our lack of government oversight of the economy leads to the rise of extremely wealthy people who take over our political system and use it to promote their own interests, a crisis lays bare the misuse of the government for the rich. Americans then rise up and insist on an active government that protects the equality of opportunity on which our democracy depends. Three times before now, we have played out this pattern.
In our history, equality and the protection of property have always struggled. In 1776, the Framers launched the idea of a government based on equality before the law for all white men. But almost as soon as the new nation won independence from England, its inhabitants discovered that there was no guarantee of equality in a land based on property ownership. In the 1790s, in the new frontier region of Kentucky, wealthy slave holders monopolized the best land, dominated the government, and then wrote laws that benefited themselves at the expense of poorer men.
So many of the same men who had framed the Declaration of Independence put the Northwest Ordinance into effect in 1787: by outlawing primogeniture and enslavement in the western lands to the north of the Ohio River, it would, they hoped, prevent the concentration of wealth and subsequent consolidation of power in the hands of a few rich men. Then, in 1788, when they ratified the framework for that body of laws on which this nation would rest—our Constitution—they focused on the protection of property.
The tension between equality and property has dominated our politics ever since.
Three times in our history, we have had to adjust our government when a crisis revealed that the full-throated protection of property at the expense of all else was destroying the equality that underpins democracy.
In the 1850s, Americans had to figure out how to absorb the crisis of westward expansion. When the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the vast American West to the United States, large slave owners tried to monopolize those new lands and plant there the human enslavement that brought extraordinary wealth into their own pockets. The spread of their system would enable them eventually to overawe the free states of the North and make enslavement national. Poor white men would not be able to compete in a land dominated by the very wealthy, but the slaveowners who dominated the government insisted that the government’s only role was to protect property. Wealth moved upward, and democracy was on the ropes.
In response to the crisis sparked by westward expansion, the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln used the government to promote equality of opportunity to poor men on the make. They separated the national finances from the wealthy and rested them instead on ordinary Americans through national taxation—including an income tax—and offered land and an education to men whose fathers could not provide those things. Americans loved the new, active government, and after it won the Civil War, thought the new system was here to stay.
But their very confidence proved to be the undoing of the new system, which fell apart as opponents insisted that an active government stole tax dollars from hardworking white men and redistributed them to those too lazy to work—often people of color.
By the 1890s, the cycle had begun again. The government focused on protection of property alone. The rise of national corporations had concentrated wealth in the hands of a few wealthy men who, in turn, dominated politics. Leaders wrote laws to protect the J. D. Rockefellers and Andrew Carnegies of the nation, while ordinary men fell increasingly behind in a world in which they could not push back against their rich employers. Industrialization seemed to destroy the equality that underpinned democracy.
To adjust to this new crisis on American democracy, voters backed government regulation of business along with government intervention in society to guarantee equality of opportunity to ordinary men and their children. Under Republican Theodore Roosevelt, the government began to regulate the actions of the so-called “Robber Barons,” trying to curb their exploitation of their workers and to get them to contribute to the urban societies in which they thrived. Congress also tried to limit child labor, so children could go to school, and to create an environment in which poor citizens could rise. Roosevelt recognized that, in order for an individual to thrive, government must grow stronger so it could level the playing field between the rich and the hardworking poor.
And, as the Progressive Era began to file down the sharp edges of industrialization to restore the equality that underpinned democracy, Americans once again stopped paying attention, and a backlash unwound the laws of the progressives.
In the 1920s, once again, the cycle began again. Men determined to protect their right to accumulate wealth insisted that the government had no role in regulation or social welfare, and must only protect property. They slashed taxes and regulation. Once again, wealth moved upward and, as rich men dominated the government, democracy was on the ropes.
In the 1930s, Americans had to figure out how to adjust the government to an international world. The Great Crash of 1929 ushered in a worldwide depression and Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and congressional Democrats used the government to regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, and promote infrastructure to enable ordinary men to make a living. With the outbreak of World War Two, they used their new active government to defeat fascism and strengthen U.S. democracy.
Their New Deal government was so popular most Americans assumed it was here to stay, and simply stopped thinking about it. And, once again, a backlash spearheaded by those who wanted the government simply to protect property erased much of the newly active government, and set out to erase more. When Republican Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, they began the process of dismantling the active post-WWII government. And, once again, wealth moved upward. As the wealthy gained more and more power, the legislation they backed endangered the equality on which democracy depends.
Now, we are in the midst of another cycle. The rise of multi-national billionaires and international mobsters who are seeking to control western democracies by cyberwarfare illustrates that we are in yet another profound crisis. But our stripped-down government cannot handle this modern world. Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus shows just how unable our government is to answer the great problems of the day.
In the past, similar times of crisis highlighted that the government's focus on the protection of property alone put the equality that underpins our democracy at risk. When that happened, Americans rose up and demanded a government that regulated the accumulation of wealth and promoted equality of opportunity for all, working for ordinary Americans rather than a small elite.
It sure feels like we are in the midst of a sea change.