Never Been This Bad?

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Category: Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public
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Independence Day was a hot one this year. Amid the celebrations and the record high temperatures, I thought about the framers of our constitution, who, in 1787, dealt with similarly oppressive heat. July 4, 1776, witnessed the founding of our nation, while July 4, 1787, passed as the document that would found our government was created. These thoughts about beginnings got me to thinking about all the recent talk of endings among the chattering classes and the punditocracy.

Depending on the day – or the issue being discussed – our liberty, our democracy, or our very country faces imminent demise. If candidate X doesn’t win in November, America is doomed. Unless this law is/is not passed, our very way of life is threatened. Sometimes, we receive reports, rather than warnings. Recently, Scott Walker’s recall victory killed our democracy, and the ACA being upheld killed our liberty. June was a tough month for America. Things have never been this bad.

On the other hand, maybe they have been.  

Consider this example: “The American people have witnessed the calamitous consequences of full and unrestricted Democratic control of the Government. It has been a record of unparalleled incapacity, dishonor, and disaster.” While this sounds like it could have been said during election campaigns in 1980, 1994, 2000, or 2010, it is actually from the 1896 Republican Party platform. I’m sure it wouldn’t take much doing to locate similar passages about Republican control of the government. The dishonor and disaster is always “unparalleled.” Our country experiences continually escalating levels of governmental disaster, and somehow survives them all.

Another example comes from our Supreme Court. In 1918, in Hammer v. Dagenhart, Justice Day warned about the “far reaching result of upholding the [child labor] act,” and predicted “all freedom of commerce will be at an end” and “our system of government be practically destroyed.” Uh oh. Despite these dire warnings, in 1941, a similar act was indeed upheld, and our system of government has lived to tell the tale.

Meanwhile, back in 1896, Thomas Reed, Speaker of the House (pictured above), in response to some rhetorical hyperbole he was facing, said, “I have not been in Congress as long as I have without learning that ‘constitutionality’ and ‘unconstitutionality’ on the other side of the chamber are mere phrases, and that when a gentlemen of the other side, with swelling voice, denounces the tariff as unconstitutional, he merely means that he does not like it.” Loosely translated: “Take it easy, guys. It’s not the end of the world.”

At this point, you may be wondering why am so well versed with 1890’s politics. A friend, who knows I love old books, gave me one entitled The Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896. As I paged through this 19th century version of politico.com, I saw national issues that looked familiar: monetary policy, foreign policy, immigration, the balance of trade, and labor relations. (There was nothing about healthcare, though. In 1896, you were paying out of pocket for your amputations, leeches, and patent medicines.) Party platforms sounded familiar, too. Republicans demanded that “immigration laws be thoroughly enforced,” while the Democrats called for the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes. (Not everything was the same. Democrats were calling for smaller government, while the Republicans pledged to protect the production of, among other things, hemp.) It seems like we can tackle the same problems repeatedly, and even have parties switch positions on them, without risking the destruction of our nation. I would venture to say that, considering the progress made since 1896, we can not only survive, but also thrive in the midst of all these thorny political issues.

So, the next time you hear someone worrying that something will spell the end of the republic, tell them to take a deep breath and relax – we have been through it all before. Maybe if these folks spent more time in front of old books, instead of TV cameras and twitter feeds, they would make less dire predictions, and more progress.

P.S. Political stunts, like political speeches, are also subject to encore performances. We all know that the senate filibuster (which nicely combines a political speech with a political stunt) goes way back. Another venerable tradition is the “walkout.” Early in 2011, fourteen Democrat state senators fled Wisconsin in an effort to block the adoption of Act 10. Back in 1890, Speaker Reed was trying to pass new rules with which the Democrats of the time disagreed. In an attempt to deny a quorum, Democrats tried to flee the house chamber before the vote was taken. In a move I attribute as much to the lack of instant news media as to practicality on his part, Speaker Reed solved the problem by simply locking the doors.

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3 Responses to “Never Been This Bad?”

  1. Nick Zales Says:

    This is an interesting and useful article. People are prone to the “chicken little” syndrome.

    However, as I understand it, this generation of young people will be the first in American history to have a lower standard of living than any group before. While the end may not be near, things are and will continue to be miserable in many ways for many people into the foreseeable future. It is mind-boggling to think of how many lives have been turned upside down by the outrages of Wall Street. Ironically, those Wall Street folk, the great self-proclaimed capitalists, were the first to seek bailouts from the taxpayers.

  2. Eloquently written. Independent of your new-found 1890 history perceptive, your blog is well written.
    I too have a thirst for real history, and I find the newer books on our forefathers to be much more revealing than the history books from high school and college. The campaign of 1860 also had many same issues and many different issues. If our constitution could survive the turmoil of the confederate states session it surely can survive todays issues.

    The one difference between the past and today that really worries me is that we are approaching a majority of voters dependent on government welfare, social security, medicare, and medicaid, who will continue to vote for more of the same. Charlie Sykes’ “Nation of Moochers” is a real problem that will not go away if we continue to feed it with more welfare and debt.

  3. Nick Zales Says:

    John Orth raises some interesting questions. Did we really “survive” the Civil war? The aftermath was 100 years of rampant racism in the South. Even with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its amendments, we still have a society based on race and wealth.

    As for “welfare,” I am less concerned about feeding hungry people, even if they are lazy, which many are not. I am far more concerned with spending a trillion dollars a year on defense and homeland security. Add in trillions for bankers and the real welfare problems is the Department of Defense and Wall Street. While people may vote themselves money, the DoD and Wall Street is where the real “welfare” money is going.

    One thing is for sure, our national debt will never be paid. The interest on it alone dwarfs most items in the federal budget. More nation than one in the past has been dragged down and dissolved because of excessive debt. The Congressional Budget Office is predicting the interest on the national debt will be $5.5 trillion over the next ten years. This is one item that is definitely a “things have never been this bad” matter.

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