When British Rule Became Intolerable

Historians tend to mark the stirrings of the American Revolution with events like the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Boston Massacre of 1770 (when British soldiers killed five Americans). In her new book, 1774: The Long Year of Revolution, Mary Beth Norton argues that it was only the aftermath of 1774’s Boston Tea Party that unified the colonies and led to revolution. One piece of evidence is how Americans referred to new laws passed by Parliament after the Tea Party as the “Intolerable Acts”.  Another is how residents of all thirteen colonies quickly joined together for the first time, creating the Continental Association (something I don’t remember ever hearing about).

This is from a review by T. H. Breen:

The most serious problem with the claim that the revolution resulted from a long-simmering sense of injustice is that ordinary Americans initially showed very little interest in confronting imperial authority. Resistance to the Stamp Act and the killing of civilians during the Boston Massacre certainly got attention, but even at the moment of greatest discontent, colonists hesitated to voice support for urban protest. In many places people feared that a few radicals were stoking a political crisis that could destabilize an imperial system responsible for widespread prosperity. . . .

The political landscape changed dramatically on the night of December 16, 1773, when the destruction in Boston Harbor of tea imported by the East India Company made the scattered protests that had gone before suddenly seem irrelevant. It took several months for the full implications of the Tea Party to play out in England and America. As Norton explains, the incident served as a political catalyst for the subsequent spread of popular resistance throughout the colonies.

To be sure, an outpouring of anger greeted the arrival of the tea. Everyone knew that by purchasing the imported tea, they would be compelled to pay a tax set by Parliament, a body in which they had no representation. . . .

As with the earlier protests, however, many Americans expressed reservations about what a group of men dressed crudely as Indians had done in Boston Harbor. They worried that extremists had taken protest to an unacceptable level. Of course, no colonists wanted to pay taxes on their favorite drink. But the tea was private property, and not a few people counseled the City of Boston to compensate the East India Company for the lost cargo. . . .

Everyone in Boston expected Parliament to punish the city for this brazen attack on private property. They assumed that negotiations with officials in London would result in censure, and then, after emotions had cooled, relations with the mother country would return to normal. That did not happen. As has occurred so often in the long history of imperial regimes, the leaders of Parliament decided to teach the troublesome Americans a lesson. A mere warning that they should behave themselves . . . would not serve the purpose. Obedience required a show of force.

Speakers in the House of Commons could hardly contain themselves. They insisted that it was time to crush the people of Boston for their audacity. One member of Parliament announced that . . . “the town of Boston ought to be knocked about their ears, and destroyed.” . . . Another MP observed that “the Americans were a strange set of People, and that it was in vain to expect any degree of reasoning from them.”

The punishment was far worse than anyone had anticipated. It was spelled out in four acts known in England as the Coercive Acts. Americans called them the Intolerable Acts. Richard Henry Lee, an influential Virginian, described the legislation as a “shock of Electricity,” causing universal “Astonishment, indignation, and concern.” The most vexing—the Boston Port Act—closed the city to all commerce; other acts restricted town meetings throughout Massachusetts to once per year and gave the royal governor of the colony enhanced authority over political appointments. Trade now had to flow through Salem, which greatly added to the cost of doing business. More disconcerting, the legislation created widespread unemployment in Boston, where many poorer residents worked on the docks.

Bostonians pointed out that it was grossly unfair to penalize the entire population of the city for a crime carried out by a small group, but British officials expressed no sympathy. They suspected that the Americans had absorbed a spirit of democracy. . . .

The show of force did not intimidate the colonists. British leaders greatly increased the chance that the situation in America would explode by appointing a military officer, Thomas Gage, as governor of Massachusetts. He seemed to possess the kind of toughness needed to pacify rebellious colonists. . . . He arrived in Boston on May 13, 1774, accompanied by a large contingent of troops. Not surprisingly, an army of occupation served only to further enflame the populace.

Within weeks imperial authority outside Boston collapsed. Officials appointed by the crown resigned; committees were formed throughout the colony to fill the administrative vacuum. Militiamen began to drill. Local bodies enforced a prohibition on drinking tea. The celebrated orator Edmund Burke had predicted this would be the result of the Coercive Acts. “Have you considered,” he asked the House of Commons, “whether you have troops and ships sufficient to enforce an universal proscription to the trade of the whole Continent of America?” When it became clear that his audience was determined to bring the Americans to heel, Burke concluded, “This is the day, then, that you will go to war with all America . . . ” No one listened.

During the summer of 1774, it became clear that the punitive policies championed by the North administration were stunningly counterproductive. . . . The suffering of Boston soon became the cause of colonists outside the city. They sensed that if they did not support resistance, they too might soon find themselves living under military occupation.

. . . People living in distant colonies sent food to the unemployed workers of Boston. . . . Britain’s show of toughness encouraged ordinary people from New Hampshire to Georgia to reach out to other Americans who before this moment had been total strangers. They began to talk of themselves as if they were no longer British, or at least not as British as they had been before Gage and his army arrived in Boston.

The spreading resistance movement persuaded political leaders of the various colonies to meet in Philadelphia in early September 1774. The first Continental Congress brought Americans of very different backgrounds together. . . . Prominent figures such as . . . the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly presented powerful arguments for reconciliation. Some of his colleagues sensed, however, that the moment for constructive compromise had passed. The people needed direction. Otherwise the defense of American rights would fragment.

The Continental Congress devised a brilliant solution. On October 20, it authorized the creation of the Continental Association, which bound the thirteen colonies in order to bring additional pressure on Parliament by cutting off trade with Britain. Boycotts had been tried before, but because of local jealousies and competition among merchants, they had failed to achieve their purpose. The Continental Association was different. It established precise dates for the cessation of the importation of British goods. It also set down regulations for trade with the mother country. According to the Congress, the goal of the commercial regulations was “to obtain redress of these grievances which threaten destruction to the lives, liberty, and property of his majesty’s subjects in North America.”

The problem was how to enforce these regulations. How could the Congress unite thousands of small communities in a common effort? The answer appeared in the eleventh article of the Continental Association, which transformed the entire character of the resistance movement. A document of such fundamental significance in the history of the United States merits close reading:

That a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association; and when it shall be made to appear, to the satisfaction of a majority of any such committee, that any person within the limits of their appointment has violated this association, that such majority do forthwith cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British-America may be publicly known, and universally contemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively will break off all dealings with him or her.

The association signaled the moment in a new revolutionary narrative when ordinary Americans realized that there was no turning back. At the time, almost no one was calling for independence. The groundwork for that break, however, was now in place. The crucial move was that the Continental Congress gave ordinary Americans the responsibility for monitoring commercial violations, but as one might have predicted, these local committees quickly assumed additional duties. By 1775 they were legitimizing popular resistance to imperial rule and channeling mobilization. The Continental Association did something even more important: it revealed the pressing need for some form of centralized authority to oversee the actions of thirteen very different colonies. Unity was essential to sustaining a common cause.

Norton accomplishes something more than a revision of the traditional story of the coming of the American Revolution. She reminds us that even when it seemed inevitable that continuing protest would lead to violent confrontation with British troops, there were intelligent, articulate people in America who wanted desperately to head off the crisis. . . .

It was hard for people such as the Reverend Thomas Bradbury Chandler, an Episcopal minister from New Jersey, to break with the comforting security of a monarchical regime. He wrote an immensely popular pamphlet called “The American Querist”, which consisted of one hundred questions designed to challenge assumptions driving the resistance movement. . . .

[But] writers of Chandler’s persuasion . . . were defending a social system that no longer made sense to many Americans.

The committees that enforced nonimportation seemed to Loyalists to invite anarchy. Mob rule, Chandler and his allies claimed, would destroy the ordered security of a monarchical world. The Reverend John Bullman, an Episcopal rector in Charleston, South Carolina, railed against the notion that ordinary men were capable of judging “the Fitness or Unfitness of all persons in power and Authority.” Bullman rejected the idea that a person “who cannot perhaps govern his own household, or pay the Debts of his own contracting,” should “dictate how the State should be governed.” Chandler shared this opinion. He asked, regarding “interested, designing men…or ignorant men, bred to the lowest occupations,” whether “any of them [were] qualified for the direction of political affairs, or ought to be trusted with it.” . . . . As the events of 1774 demonstrated, however, a great many Americans of the lowest occupations strongly disagreed.

One can appreciate why loyalists equated revolutionary change with disorder. [But] mobilization for the fight for independence did not promote anarchy. Americans followed the Continental Association’s regulations, sacrificing the imported consumer items that brought them so much pleasure. The revolutionaries who came forward in 1774 would have found it hard to understand modern Americans who define liberty as the right to do whatever they please during a time of national crisis, even though they know that their self-indulgence threatens the welfare of the larger community.

Harry Truman’s Healthcare Plan and Our Current Sorry State

What President Truman tried to do and where we are today, by David Oshinsky for The New York Review of Books:

“Bow your heads, folks, conservatism has hit America,” The New Republic lamented following the 1946 elections. “All the rest of the world is moving Left, America is moving Right.” Having dominated both houses of Congress throughout President Franklin Roosevelt’s three-plus terms in office (1933–1945), Democrats lost their majorities in a blowout. Some blamed it on the death of FDR, others on the emerging Soviet threat or the bumpy return to civilian life following World War II. The incoming Republican “Class of ’46” would leave a deep mark on history; its members, including California’s Richard Nixon and Wisconsin’s Joseph McCarthy, were determined to root out Reds in government and rein in the social programs of the New Deal.

One issue in particular became fodder for the Republican assault. In 1945 President Harry Truman had delivered a special message to Congress laying out a plan for national health insurance—an idea the pragmatic and immensely popular FDR had carefully skirted. As an artillery officer in World War I, Truman had been troubled by the poor health of his recruits, and as chairman of a select Senate committee to investigate the defense program during World War II, his worries had grown. More than five million draftees had been rejected as “unfit for military service,” not counting the 1.5 million discharged for medical reasons following their induction. For Truman, these numbers went beyond military preparedness; they spoke to the glaring inequities of American life. “People with low or moderate incomes do not get the same medical attention as those with high incomes,” he said. “The poor have more sickness, but they get less medical care.”

Truman proposed federal grants for hospital construction and medical research. He insisted, controversially, not only that the nation had too few doctors, but that the ones it did have were clustered in the wrong places. And he addressed the “principal reason” that forced so many Americans to forgo vital medical care: “They cannot afford to pay for it.”

The facts seemed to bear him out. Close to half the counties in the United States lacked a general hospital. Government estimates showed that about $11 million was spent annually on “new treatments and cures for disease,” as opposed to $275 million for “industrial research.” Though the nation claimed to have approximately one physician per 1,500 people, the ratio in poor and rural counties regularly dipped below one per 3,000, the so-called danger line. On average, studies showed, two thirds of the population lacked the means to meet a sustained health crisis.

The concept of government health insurance was not entirely new. A few states had toyed with instituting it, but their intent was to replace wages lost to illness or injury, not to pay the cost of medical care. Truman’s plan called for universal health insurance—unlike the Social Security Act of 1935, which excluded more than 40 percent of the nation’s labor force, mostly agricultural and domestic workers. Funded by a federal payroll tax, the plan offered full medical and dental coverage—office visits, hospitalization, tests, procedures, drugs—to all wage and salary earners and their dependents. “Needy persons and other groups” were promised equal coverage “paid for them by public agencies.”

People would be free to choose their own doctors, who in turn could participate fully, partly, or not at all in the plan. Private health insurance programs would continue to operate, with policyholders required to contribute to the federal system as well—a stipulation the president compared to a taxpayer choosing to send a child to private school. “What I am recommending is not socialized medicine,” Truman insisted. “Socialized medicine means that all doctors work as employees of government. The American people want no such system. No such system is here proposed.”

It did him no good. At the first Senate hearing on the proposal, Ohio’s Robert A. Taft, . . .  known to his admirers as “Mr. Republican,” denounced it as “the most socialistic measure that this Congress has ever had before it.” A shouting match ensued. . . . Taft retreated, but not before vowing to kill any part of the plan that reached the Senate floor.

. . .  A predictable coalition soon emerged, backed by pharmaceutical and insurance companies but directed by the American Medical Association, which levied a $25 political assessment on its members to finance the effort. At its crudest, the campaign pushed a kind of medical McCarthyism by accusing the White House of inventing ways to turn a brave, risk-taking people into a bunch of “dainty, steam-heated, rubber-tired, beauty-rested, effeminized, pampered sissies”—easy pickings for the nation’s godless cold war foe. “UN–AMERICAN SYSTEM BLUEPRINTED IN THE KREMLIN HEADQUARTERS OF THE COMMUNIST INTERNATIONALE,” read one AMA missive describing the origins of Truman’s plan.

Precious freedoms were at stake, Americans were told: when the president claimed that medical choices would remain in private hands, he was lying; federal health insurance meant government control; decisions once made by doctors and patients would become the province of faceless bureaucrats; quality would suffer and privacy would vanish. Skeptics were reminded of Lenin’s alleged remark—likely invented by an opponent of Truman’s heath plan—that socialized medicine represented “the keystone to the arch of the socialized state.”

The economist Milton Friedman once described the AMA as “perhaps the strongest trade union in the United States.” It influenced medical school curriculums, limited the number of graduates, and policed the rules for certification and practice. For the AMA, Truman’s proposal not only challenged the profession’s autonomy, it also made doctors look as if they could not be trusted to place the country’s needs above their own. As a result, the AMA ran a simultaneous campaign congratulating its members for making Americans the healthiest people in the world. The existing system worked, it claimed, because so many physicians followed the golden rule, charging patients on a sliding scale that turned almost no one away. If the patient was wealthy, the fee went up; others paid less, or nothing at all. What was better in a free society: the intrusive reach of the state or the big-hearted efforts of the medical community?

Given the stakes, the smearing of national health insurance was not unexpected. What did come as a surprise, however, was the palpable lack of support for the idea. For many Americans, the return to prosperity following World War II made Truman’s proposal seem less urgent than the sweeping initiatives that had ended the bread lines and joblessness of the Great Depression. Even the Democratic Party’s prime constituency—organized labor—showed limited interest. During the war, to compensate workers for the income lost to wage controls, Congress had passed a law that exempted health care benefits from federal taxation. Designed as a temporary measure, it proved so popular that it became a permanent part of the tax code.

Unions loved the idea of companies providing health insurance in lieu of taxable wages. It appeared to offer the average American the sort of write-off reserved for the privileged classes, and indeed it did. Current studies show that union members are far more likely to have health insurance and paid sick leave than nonunion workers in the same industry. . . .

At about the same time, popular insurance plans like Blue Cross emerged to offer cheap, prepaid hospital care . . . . In 1939 fewer than six million people carried such insurance; by 1950, that number had increased fivefold. In the years after Truman’s plan died in Congress, the government filled some of the egregious gaps in the private insurance system with expensive programs for the poor, the elderly, and others in high-risk categories, thereby cementing America’s outlier status as the world’s only advanced industrial nation without universal health care. . . .

[In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service] succeeded because the Labour Party won a landslide victory in 1945 in a country battered by war and facing a bleak economic future—precisely the opposite of the American experience. Opinion polls in the UK showed strong support for a government-run system offering universal, comprehensive, and free health care financed by general taxation. But the threat of a physicians’ strike forced Labour’s health minister, Aneurin Bevan, to scrap the idea of turning doctors into full-time government employees. . . .

The UK excels in universal coverage, simplicity of payment, and protection of low-income groups. While the NHS remains quite popular, it also is seriously underfunded: the UK ranks dead last in both health care spending per capita ($3,900) and health care spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (9.6) among the six European nations [reviewed in Ezekiel Emanuel’s book Which Country Has the World’s Best Healthcare?] The most common complaints . . .  concern staff shortages and wait times for primary care appointments, elective surgeries, and even cancer treatments . . .  “The public does not want to replace the system with an alternative,” writes Emanuel. “All the public wants is a fully operational NHS.”

By contrast, the US health care system—if one can call it that—excludes more people, provides thinner coverage, and is far less affordable. It combines socialized medicine practiced by the Department of Veterans Affairs, four-part federal Medicare (A, B, C, D) for the elderly and disabled, state-by-state Medicaid for the poor, health coverage provided by employers, and policies bought privately through an insurance agent or an Affordable Care Act exchange—all of which still leave 10 percent of the population unprotected. . . . “The United States basically has every type of health financing ever invented,” Ezekiel adds. “This is preposterous.”

And extremely expensive. America dwarfs other nations in both health care spending per capita ($10,700) and health care spending as a percentage of GDP (17.9). Hospital stays, doctor services, prescription drugs, medical devices, laboratory testing—the excesses are legion. Childbirth costs on average about $4,000 in Western Europe, where midwives are used extensively and charges are bundled together, but close to $30,000 in the US, where the patient is billed separately by specialists—radiologists, pathologists, anesthesiologists—whom she likely never meets, and where charges pile up item by item in what one recent study called a “wasteful overuse of drugs and technologies.” There is no evidence that such extravagance makes for better health care outcomes. The rates of maternal and infant death in the US are higher than in other industrialized nations, partly because the poor, minorities, and children are disproportionately uninsured.

For head-spinning price disparities, however, nothing compares to pharmaceuticals. Americans account for almost half the $1 trillion spent annually for prescription drugs worldwide, while comprising less than 5 percent of the world’s population. It is probably [i.e. definitely] no coincidence that the pharmaceutical industry spent almost twice as much on political lobbying between 1998 and 2020 as its nearest competitor, the insurance industry. . . .


Whenever the president is asked why he wants to eliminate the Affordable Care Act (which means people with “pre-existing conditions” would no longer be protected, among other things), he says he’s going to announce a beautiful replacement for the ACA “in two weeks”. Or “next month”. It’s always in two weeks or next month. Reporters never press him for details, because they know he’s full of crap.

Una volta un truffatore, sempre un truffatore (once a con man, always a con man).

PS:  Ezekiel Emanuel says different countries do different things very well, but if he had to choose his personal favorite, he’d pick healthcare in The Netherlands, with Germany, Norway and Taiwan in the running.

Let the Pendulum Swing

Two social scientists predicted that America was facing the Turbulent Twenties, based on their study of historical patterns. History shows how to calm things down and improve people’s lives. Here’s most of their article from Noema magazine: 

Almost three decades ago, one of us, Jack Goldstone, published a simple model to determine a country’s vulnerability to political crisis. The model was based on how population changes [affected] state, elite and popular behavior. Goldstone argued that, according to this Demographic-Structural Theory, in the 21st century, America was likely to get a populist, America-first leader who would sow a whirlwind of conflict.

Then ten years ago, the other of us, Peter Turchin, applied Goldstone’s model to U.S. history, using current data. What emerged was alarming: The U.S. was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Even before Txxxx was elected, Turchin published his prediction that the U.S. was headed for the “Turbulent Twenties,” forecasting a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe. . . .

Our model is based on the fact that across history, what creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins.

First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality.

Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded.

Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.

Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government. But their actions alone are not sufficient. Urbanization and greater education are needed to create concentrations of aware and organized groups in the populace who can mobilize and act for change.

Top leadership matters. Leaders who aim to be inclusive and solve national problems can manage conflicts and defer a crisis. However, leaders who seek to benefit from and fan political divisions bring the final crisis closer. Typically, tensions build between elites who back a leader seeking to preserve their privileges and reforming elites who seek to rally popular support for major changes to bring a more open and inclusive social order. Each side works to paint the other as a fatal threat to society, creating such deep polarization that little of value can be accomplished, and problems grow worse until a crisis comes along that explodes the fragile social order.

These were the conditions that prevailed in the lead-up to the great upheavals in political history, from the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, to the revolutions of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century, the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the twentieth century and the many “color revolutions” that opened the twenty-first century. So, it is eye-opening that the data show very similar conditions now building up in the United States.

In applying our model to the U.S., we tracked a number of indicators of popular well-being, inequality and political polarization, all the way from 1800 to the present. These included the ratio of median workers’ wages to GDP per capita, life expectancy, the number of new millionaires and their influence on politics, the degree of strict party-line voting in Congress, and the incidence of deadly riots, terrorism and political assassinations. We found that all of these indicators pointed to two broad cycles in U.S. history.

In the decades following independence, despite growing party competition, elites in office often compromised and voted together, and rising national prosperity was broadly shared. But that wave of positive conditions peaked around 1820; from there, political polarization and economic inequality rose sharply in the years leading up to the Civil War. The crisis indicators peaked in the 1860s but . . . they remained high until 1920 (the years of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Gilded Age, violent labor unrest, and the anarchists).

Then, the tide shifted, and a second wave of greater unity and prosperity began to gather strength. Contrary to expectations, World War I and the Great Depression did not produce a rise in political instability indicators. Instead, the country pulled together. The reforms introduced during the Progressive Era and clinched in the New Deal reduced inequality and strengthened the economic share of workers; during and after World War II, the country agreed on new tax policies and increased spending on roads and schools.

The 1950s were a golden age of worker progress and party cooperation; even in the 1960s and 1970s, despite serious racial conflicts, the country’s leaders were able to agree on remarkably far-reaching reforms to improve civil rights and environmental protection. However, the 1960s were a high point in our indicators of political resilience; in the 1970s and 1980s, things began to turn, and by the 1990s, a new wave of rising inequality and political divisions was well underway, exemplified by Newt Gingrich’s policies as speaker of the House. In the next two decades, the crisis indicators rose just as sharply as they had in the decades before the Civil War. It was not just that by the late 2010s, overall inequality was rising to the levels not seen since the Gilded Age; median wages in relation to GDP per capita also were falling to historically low levels.

Writing in the journal Nature in 2010, we pointed out that such trends were a reliable indicator of looming political instability and that they “look set to peak in the years around 2020.” In Ages of Discord, published early in 2016, we showed that America’s “political stress indicator” had turned up sharply in recent years and was on track to send us into the “Turbulent Twenties.”

The Political Stress Index (PSI) combines the three crisis indicators in the Goldstone-Turchin theory: declining living standards, increasing intra-elite competition/conflict and a weakening state. Growing PSI indicates increased likelihood of political violence. The Well-Being Index indicates greater equality, greater elite consensus and a more legitimate state.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police have delivered a double-barreled crisis to U.S. politics. America has reacted with a nationwide, months-long series of urban protests. But this explosion of protest is not just the result of this year’s events. The U.S. has weathered epidemics and racial protests before and produced legislation that made the country better as a result.

What is different this decade is that these events are occurring at a time of extreme political polarization, after decades of falling worker’s share in national income, and with entrenched elite opposition to increased spending on public services. These trends have crippled the U.S. government’s ability to mount an effective response to the pandemic, hampered our ability to deliver an inclusive economic relief policy and exacerbated the tensions over racial injustice that boiled over in response to the video of Floyd’s death.

Is the U.S. likely headed for still greater protests and violence? In a word, yes. Inequality and polarization have not been this high since the nineteenth century. . . .

American exceptionalism was founded on cooperation — between the rich and the poor, between the governors and the governed. From the birth of the nation, the unity across economic classes and different regions was a marvel for European observers, such as St. John de Crèvecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville. This cooperative spirit unraveled in the mid-nineteenth century, leading to the first “Age of Discord” in American history. It was reforged during the New Deal as an unwritten but very real social contract between government, business and workers, leading to another age of prosperity and cooperation in postwar America. But since the 1970s, that contract has unraveled, in favor of a contract between government and business that has underfunded public services but generously rewarded capital gains and corporate profits.

While this new neoliberal [i.e., conservaive, pro-corporate] contract has, in some periods, produced economic growth and gains in employment, growth has generally been slower and far more unequal than it was in the first three postwar decades. In the last twenty years, real median household income has stagnated, while the loss of high-paying blue-collar jobs to technology and globalization has meant a decline in real wages for many workers, especially less educated men.

As a result, American politics has fallen into a pattern that is characteristic of many developing countries, where one portion of the elite seeks to win support from the working classes not by sharing the wealth or by expanding public services and making sacrifices to increase the common good, but by persuading the working classes that they are beset by enemies who hate them (liberal elites, minorities, illegal immigrants) and want to take away what little they have. This pattern builds polarization and distrust and is strongly associated with civil conflict, violence and democratic decline.

At the same time, many liberal elites neglected or failed to remedy such problems as opiate addiction, declining social mobility, homelessness, urban decay, the collapse of unions and declining real wages, instead promising that globalization, environmental regulations and advocacy for neglected minorities would bring sufficient benefits. They thus contributed to growing distrust of government and “experts,” who were increasingly seen as corrupt or useless, thus perpetuating a cycle of deepening government dysfunction.

How can Americans end our current Age of Discord? What we need is a new social contract that will enable us to get past extreme polarization to find consensus, tip the shares of economic growth back toward workers and improve government funding for public health, education and infrastructure.

This sounds like commonplace leftist discourse and a weak response to such extreme conditions. Let us therefore drive home both the urgency of the crisis and the possibility of changing course by looking at two historical cases where countries teetered on the brink of calamity but managed to pull back and forge a new path to progress.

The United Kingdom in the 1820s was coming apart. After defeating Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington became the leader of an elite group that sought to maintain the dominance of the traditional landlord elites. As prime minister and then leader of the House of Lords, Wellington sought to ignore, rather than adjust to, the new realities of the booming cities of Birmingham, Manchester and other burgeoning cities of the fast-growing industrial economy. Meanwhile, the workers of these cities demanded political reforms that would give them a voice in Parliament.

These workers particularly objected to the infamous “Corn Laws,” which, by placing tariffs on imports of foreign grain, kept the costs of food (and hence the profits of English landlords) high and the real wages of workers low. Following a major workers’ protest in Manchester in 1819, which was dispersed with a cavalry charge into the crowd that left an estimated 10 to 20 dead and hundreds injured (the so-called Peterloo massacre), politics in Britain became even more sharply polarized. This became one of the first incidents widely reported by journalists, and indignation spread across the country.

Nonetheless, Wellington not only refused any legal changes, he sought to clamp down on the agitation for voting reforms. New laws were passed to expand police power and block public assemblies; newspapers were closed; protestors and journalists were jailed. Still, popular agitation continued, and there was even an attempt to assassinate several cabinet ministers. The rapid growth of the industrial workforce and the new manufacturing economy produced similar pressures for radical political change across Europe, leading to waves of revolutions in 1830 and 1848. Many in Britain expected a similar outcome, yet the country avoided revolution throughout these years.

The solution was for leaders to accept the Reform campaign, which sought voting reforms that would reduce the power of the landlords and support the new industrial working class. After the growing confrontations of the 1820s, in 1830, Wellington’s Tories lost control of Parliament, and a Whig leader who supported the Reform campaign, Lord Grey, became prime minister. Grey’s initial efforts to pass a Reform bill were frustrated, and Grey threatened to have the King create enough additional Whig peers to force the bill through. The Tories then relented, and in 1832, Parliament passed the first Reform bill, which expanded the franchise, undermined the clientage of the landed elite and gave representation to the residents of the factory cities. Additional Reform bills followed, allowing Britain, despite continued large-scale workers’ movements, to avoid the revolutions that wracked the continent and emerge as the leading economy of Europe.

A century later, it was the United States that was coming apart. In the early 1930s, democracy was retreating in Europe while the U.S. economy had fallen into a depression, with a dust bowl in the Great Plains and millions of industrial workers losing their jobs. Prohibition had heightened cultural conflict and crime, while nativist demagogues (such as radio personality Father Coughlin and Louisiana Governor Huey Long) stirred fear.

Then in 1932, Americans voted for change. Franklin Delano Roosevelt replaced Herbert Hoover as president and undertook a sweeping reform program to restore work and shared prosperity. Labor organizations were strengthened, and public works programs provided jobs for construction workers, craftsmen and artists. The resulting buildings were decorated with monuments to the dignity of labor. It took years to transition to an economy based on mechanization, skilled labor, strong unions and public education, but the result was a country strong enough to fight the rising tide of global fascism and emerge as the world’s leading economy.

The formula in both cases was clear and simple. First, the leader who was trying to preserve the past social order despite economic change and growing violence was replaced by a new leader who was willing to undertake much-needed reforms. Second, while the new leader leveraged his support to force opponents to give in to the necessary changes, there was no radical revolution; violence was eschewed and reforms were carried out within the existing institutional framework.

Third, the reforms were pragmatic. Various solutions were tried, and the new leaders sought to build broad support for reforms, recognizing that national strength depended on forging majority support for change, rather than forcing through measures that would provide narrow factional or ideologically-driven victories. The bottom line in both cases was that adapting to new social and technological realities required having the wealthy endure some sacrifices while the opportunities and fortunes of ordinary working people were supported and strengthened; the result was to raise each nation to unprecedented wealth and power.

To be sure, the path back to a strong, united and inclusive America will not be easy or short. But a clear pathway does exist, involving a shift of leadership, a focus on compromise and responding to the world as it is, rather than trying desperately to hang on to or restore a bygone era.

This has already been, and will continue to be, a violent year in America. . . . It will take heroic efforts to rebuild the political center, to join businesses and workers in partnership and consensus, and to restore fairness in both taxation and public spending. Only if all sides can again recover a stake in our government, no matter which party controls it, can we avoid sliding into a crisis that will undermine our Constitution and pit Americans against each other in a way we have not seen for generations.


Yes, if more of us vote this year, the pendulum can swing and we can set this country on a progressive path.