There are several theories about history. One is that history repeats itself in cycles so if we want to plan for the future we must learn from the past. Another view is that history is a straight line on which present and future events are totally unlike the past, in which case there is not much to learn from reading history. A third view is that history is a spiral in which present and future events resemble, to a degree, past events but are always full of novel and unpredictable situations. In this case, we can learn from history, but are not able to say that the future will be just like the past. I tend toward the third view. I think there is much to learn from reading history, but we must acknowledge that the future will be full of surprises. Humans don’t really change that much, but circumstances do change enough to make prediction difficult.
With that in mind, I reflect on the situation that confronts us today in which the middle class is disappearing in the widening gulf between the very wealthy and the very poor. It resembles, in many respects, the situation that we read about at the turn of the last century, the age of the infamous “robber barons.” The period is described for us by Doris Goodwin in her excellent book The Bully Pulpit in which she says:
“At the start of [Teddy] Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, big business had been in the driver’s seat. While the country prospered as never before, squalid conditions were rampant in immigrant slums, workers in factories and mines labored without safety regulations, and farmers fought with railroads over freight rates. Voices had been raised to protest the concentration of corporate wealth and the gap between the rich and the poor, yet the doctrine of laissez-faire precluded collective action to ameliorate social conditions.”
These conditions brought about the age of the “progressive” Republican party and the “Trust Busters” with Teddy in the lead. Roosevelt became famous and beloved because he was viewed, despite his patrician background, as “one of us,” complete with his cowboy and rough-rider images. He was a brash extrovert, an astute politician, and was smart enough to befriend members of the “third estate” to take on the machines and giant trust companies that controlled politics. He was also a man of wide interests and remarkable intellectual acumen who connected with the common folks around him because he really did believe that everyone deserves a “square deal.”
I have often wondered during Barack Obama’s presidency why he hasn’t used the media to arouse the public more than he does. Reagan knew how to use it, and Obama has considerable rhetorical skills and could go before the public and make his case for some of the programs he has been unable to work through a small-minded and obtuse Congress. Immediately after the shootings in Sandy Hook, for example, he could have gone before the public with an appeal to encourage them to put pressure on an intransigent Congress, urging some sort of gun control. But he maintained his usual low profile, despite the fact that the vast majority of the citizens in this country, and even a majority of those who hold NRA memberships, wanted some sort of gun control measures. Obama simply rattled his verbal sabre a bit and the time passed for action without anything being done, despite his promises to the distraught parents of the slain children.
So, as one looks around to see if there is any politician determined and brave enough to take on the likes of the NRA and the other corporate giants who have taken over the reins of government, any possible “Trust Busters,” one sees only a couple of faces that stand out — such as Bernie Sanders, whom many reject as a bit “out there,” and Elizabeth Warren, who is relatively new at the job, but does seem to be bright enough and determined enough to take on the powers that be. Can she establish the rapport with the press that Teddy Roosevelt had in order to arouse the giant that is the citizenry in this country, asleep on its couch watching the latest sporting event? Or will she be bought out or silenced somehow, as we in Minnesota suspect Paul Wellstone might have been when he became a thorn in the side of the powers that be? In that regard, while we do live in an age that resembles in many respects the world in which Roosevelt lived, it is also an age in which the wealthy have refined their slight-of-hand tactics to very effectively manipulate the strings of power, clandestine maneuvers have become the order of the day, and the corporations have become owners of most, if not all, of the public media. One must wonder if Warren’s voice, as an example, would be allowed to be heard if that voice was saying the kinds of things the media don’t want the people of this country to hear? Gone is the “Golden Age of Journalism.” McClure’s Magazine is no more. Now we have Fox News and the corporate-owned media simply entertain; they provide precious little information. Where are the voices that need to he heard?
These are interesting questions, and it remains to be seen if there is anyone in the political arena who, with or without the help of the third estate, is willing and courageous enough to take on the powerful lobbies and corporations that support them and go toe-to-toe with the unscrupulous powers that pull the strings in Washington. And if there is anyone courageous enough, will they be able to swim against such a powerful current? If the answer to these questions is “no,” then we are not likely to see another Teddy Roosevelt emerge, take the country in hand, and lead it out of our present morass. What then?