Americans live in a perpetual now, and the now of 2016 is looking decidedly grim. A quick summary of our current situation:
- U.S. finances are shaky, with an exploding national debt, two economic crises since the year 2000, and the next one possibly around the corner.
- The once superb U.S. economic machine has been hollowed out by globalization and outsourcing.
- College education, once the ticket to middle class wealth, is now both overpriced and of questionable value.
- Immigration is lowering wage scales and sharpening competition for the jobs that remain.
- National security, both internal and external, is both expensive and increasingly in question.
Our two major political parties, awash in ideological sound bites, are not much help:
- The Democrats appear single-mindedly dedicated to the indefinite growth of the federal government.
- The present Republicans are split between “status quo” and “reform” wings and seem incapable of any kind of decisive action.
Our political establishment is in increasing disarray. Cornered between a reckless but dominant federal administration and an increasingly rebellious (and armed) populace, it appears ready to split into warring factions, and possibly sink into national chaos.
How does America pull itself out of the ditch? As a first step, we could take a lesson from our own history. No historical example could shed better light on this predicament (and opportunity) than the way the Republican Party came to be in 1850s, when the United States of America were in deep trouble, just as they are now.
Lessons from Antebellum America
Let’s look back at pre-Civil War America, an America that was even more divided than today’s:
- The slavery issue was tearing the nation apart (and eventually did, bringing civil war in 1861).
- The country had not recovered from the Panic of 1837 and the following hard times. There was no stable national currency, with states and banks each printing their own. A bank’s average lifetime was five years, gold and silver were being hoarded and the money supply was too low to support the economy.
- Nascent American industries were threatened by superior British technology and lower prices.
- Immigrants could not afford land prices driven sky-high by speculators. They swelled East Coast urban populations, putting pressure on wages and living conditions.
- There was a shortage of technical personnel – such as surveyors, engineers, veterinarians, attorneys. The shortage was critical in the new Midwestern states.
These issues went unresolved due to political gridlock. The Democratic Party had a lock on the federal government and used it to defend and perpetuate slavery. The opposition Whigs vacillated between idealistic reform ideas and a comfortable – if precarious – status quo.
Northern abolitionists and Southern “Fire-Eaters” were (rhetorically) at each other’s throats, even as real shooting was about to start in “Bleeding” Kansas.
The birth of the Republican Party was a spontaneous reaction to the passage of the (pro-slavery) Kansas-Nebraska Act. But its leaders understood that a one-issue third party had no chance – two such had failed already. Only a platform addressing all the issues listed above would do, and such a platform they proceeded to build. It included:
- A transcontinental railroad linking San Francisco to New York, to allow for trans-continental commerce.
- Financial reform and a sound common currency.
- Free land distribution to deserving settlers.
- “Agricultural and Mechanical” state colleges, financed by land grants.
- A high tariff to support American industrial growth.
- A negotiated end of slavery, starting with the Missouri Compromise.
It became, quite possibly, the most successful platform in U.S. history. The early Republicans were practical men, not ideologues. They opened the party’s door wide to all, recruiting many of the best politicians of their time, Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig, being one of them.
Within six years the Republicans dominated Congress and Lincoln was President. When the South seceded, Republican control of Washington was complete.
Over the following five years the Republicans managed the Civil War and passed their entire platform into law. The great railroad was completed in 1869. The Homestead Act killed land speculation. “A&M’s” appeared in nearly every state, revolutionizing higher education. A single currency, the “greenback dollar” was introduced. Emancipation was proclaimed.
A higher tariff not only financed the Federal Government, but generated exceptional economic growth. American inventiveness gave rise to entirely new industries. Novel production methods and management techniques were developed, and thirty million immigrants were housed, educated and provided with jobs.
By 1900 the U.S. economy was both the largest and the most efficient in the world. It provided a fitting foundation for “the American century,” which saw the United States prevail both in World War II and the Cold War.
It was a glorious time, but such epochs can leave behind a national hangover. We are clearly dealing with a doozy right now.
The Way Ahead
As in 1850s, it is time for a change. Whether the spark will come from the political establishment, a Third Party, or from political “outsiders” such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, it must:
- Offer practical solutions to the problems listed above. Such solutions exist, but need now to be formulated with courage and clarity.
- Provide enough patriotic incentive to transcend ideology and create a new “national interest majority.”
Just as in pre-Civil War America, the seeds of reform are coming from the right of center and garnering broad-based support. Nearly 70% of Republican primary voters support “outsiders.” Much support of the leading Republican candidate comes from independent voters and right-leaning Democrats. Is this truly another uprising from the center?
The question remains whether the political establishment can squelch this uprising or whether the Republican Party can return to its roots, reform itself and become a party representing a wider cross-section of the people.
Enough ordinary Americans rose up and took back the political process from the ruling classes in the 1850s. It is up to us to do it again.
Born in Poland, Jacek Popiel was educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant. His book “Viable Energy Now,” grew out of his military and international business experience and his professional involvement with energy issues.