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?
Part of the problem, both with Obama and with the media in general, is the fragmenting of news reporting and communication wrought by the Internet. Newspapers especially have lost vast amounts of advertising revenue the last 15-20 years, and in response have had to greatly reduce the size of news staffs and resources allotted for more thorough and sustained coverage. And what staff does remain is stretched so thin between print and online content, it often works hour to hour. The only places, generally, to find quality in depth print reporting these days is in a handful of magazines, which don’t have the mass, universal reach newspapers once did.
So the bully pulpit TR once enjoyed is now a bunch of little pulpits squeaking to us with not nearly the clarity or consistency.
I think Obama has misguaged both this fact and how to more effectively use the Internet. Remember that he had great success in raising money online in his first presidential campaign, so I can’t help but think that distorted his and his team’s views of the Internet. It’s very good for a one-time connection, but not as good for repeated connections – users just have so many choices. So Obama may give one speech or news conference on a topic, or his aides or cabinet members will. They post video and text on the White House web site, and if course news outlets carry it.
But too often, I think they do a one-and-done. There, now it’s out there and will live forever in cyberspace. A lot of people will see our message. But that is not necessarily so – they may see it today, but with the news cycle turning over so fast and many people not grabbing the news at all but things like kitten videos, there is not as much follow-through. To cut through all the noise and distraction, Obama has to be more like TR, pounding the issue day after day after day. Roosevelt did because of the limitations of mass communication – just newspaper and telegraph. Obama, perhaps, needs to do it because of the excessive, omnipresent amount of mass communication.
Obama can demand 30 minutes of air time on the major TV networks any time he wants to. FDR used the radio the way Churchill did. There are ways to get through to the people. If it is not done the people will,continue to slumber on their couches watching the latest sporting event.
Great piece, Hugh. We are watching the series, “The Men who made America” on Netflix. Its a 4 parter, and we most recently watched part 3 on JP Morgan. In watching it, and the descriptions of the lack of labor controls, cuts in wages, increases in work hours—the similarity to today and where we are headed is astounding. History is repeating.
As far as Obama goes, he does have the bully pulpit, but for 6 years he has refused to use it. In the cases you identify, Obama made an impassioned speech, then walked away, I assume he expected that we would all fall in line because of his rhetoric, or his minions would get the job done. We know from gun control, whistleblowers, drone attacks, NSA spying, etc that all Obama gave us, or intended to give us, was words. I’m still waiting for the free and open discussions he promised us on Drones and Domestic spying.
You know better than I do that the information will not be forthcoming! Obama has been a tremendous disappointment. He can talk the talk, but he seems unwilling or unable to walk the walk. He really doesn’t know how the political game is played.
I see him believing the game is beneath him…
I honestly think he has no idea how it’s played!
i was instantly on the ‘spiral’ theory… today bob, (piran cafe) silvana (monoalludor) and i were visiting, and the conversation rolled round to racism, gun control and apathy. there are many who know things are amiss, but they shug and wonder what can one person do… how can people be nudged from apathy?.. they shrug and think they cannot make a difference.. but it takes everyone…
you definitely do your share, and hopefully you awaken a few. thanks! z
Thanks, Z. “McClure’s Magazine” helped Teddy get many of his reforms through an intransigent Congress by rousing the ire of its readers, pointing out the corruption of the huge corporations. But many more people were suffering then — and there wasn’t any TV to entertain them and take their minds off their troubles!
Ya, I agree with the spiral theory. I think we never really resolve any of the issues of humanity. Sometimes progress is made and we plateau into some complacency. Then the regression progresses and the struggle heats up again, and it seems we’re either back where we started, or sometimes slip farther back. So round and round it goes hopefully moving slightly up toward a better life for us ALL –or not.
Hugh, well done. I agree with your spiral theory as well. Teddy’s square deal mantra was framed when he went out west after his wife and mother died on the same day in the same house. He was beyond devastated and went to live among hard working common people in the west. He valued a hard day’s work, but recognized it would not get many safe and secure as the game was stacked against them. He embodied a perfect storm to fight for an equal opportunity being denied many.
Dana’s points are excellent as well. With pseudo-news source so splintered allowing groups to operate with their own set of facts (as they call them), Teddy may have had a harder time today. It would have been a different fight. When you have “Merchants of Doubt” who are PR engines working with the Robber Barons, even obvious causes to many are uphill struggles. They would have been aligned to fight Teddy, as they do Obama.
Reagan was not a paragon by any means and would have a hard time getting elected today in his own party. But, he had two keys to the success he had. He had a flair for theatre to sell a concept and he had a friendly adversary in Speaker Tip O’Neill. While they disagreed, they worked together to make things happen for the country.
Right now, Congress is largely useless and that is a shame. The Dept of Defense says Congress’ inability to govern is a threat to national security. Yet, they do nothing. Few are operating off real facts and prefer to make speeches that no one is listening to. I wish the TV cameras would pan the audience any time a speaker is saying something, because few people are there to listen. I wish the President did not have to resort to executive action so much, but to get anything done, this is what we are left with. Yet, we are needing so much more governance over drone, data privacy vs. security, etc. that we are not getting.
To me, one of the easiest and biggest issues staring us in the face is our infrastructure needs which are falling apart in front of us and have been for years. Borrowing money to restore or maintain an asset is different than borrowing money to pay for operations. And, these investments would create hundreds of thousands of jobs far more than other investments. Yet, we cannot even make a decision on that. And, this is something the private sector cannot pay for by itself, so it has to be government led.
I am sorry for the soapbox. Great post, BTG
I willingly hand over the soap box whenever you want to hold forth! What you have to say is always spot on and moves the conversation along nicely. Many thanks.