Los Angeles Times political pundit Ronald Brownstein had the interesting idea of comparing George W. Bush’s presidency to that of little remembered 19th century Democrat James K. Polk. Polk won office in 1844 with a tiny popular vote margin, governed as if he had a huge mandate, and led the nation into an extremely unpopular war against Mexico. Brownstein draws remarkably bland lessons:

It’s worth considering Polk’s record not because Americans will take up arms against each other anytime soon — although you might never know that from listening to talk radio — but because it suggests that a president who slights the need to build national consensus can seed long-term problems that aren’t immediately apparent amid short-term successes. …

Bush, like Polk, launched a war whose initial justification has spawned bitter dispute….

Bush would place the nation’s security on a more stable foundation if he worked harder to find a consensus agenda with those critics whose assessment of the threat in Iraq and at home was closer to his own.

I don’t share Brownstein’s apparent hope that offering mild suggestions to GWB will moderate his behavior because he wants to improve his place in history. But having dropped out of academia so as to interact with history as an activist for justice instead of as professionally cautious scholar, I’m willing to offer some broad, sweeping comparisons.

  • Polk governed from the perspective and in the interest of one sector of the national economy to the detriment of another. He was president for the slave-holding South. Bush is governing in the interest the section of the economy that thrives on resource extraction, most obviously of oil, but also including mining, lumbering and agriculture. Bush’s economy runs on unskilled, low wage, non-union labor. The current blue states have lost their manufacturing base and with varying success made a transition to a relatively well-paid, knowledge-based economy. They are out of the extraction business.
  • The economy Polk represented was on its last legs, although that was not necessarily clear to contemporaries. Many probably thought that cotton would be king forever. In fact, northern industry was about to eclipse agriculture as the engine of wealth. Resource extraction doesn’t look so promising in the current global economy; even if we have not found most potential oil fields, extraction economies and their attendant exploited populations seem an unsatisfactory model for the future. Will the U.S. really go the way of Peru or the United Arab Emirates? On the other hand, it is not at all clear that the U.S. can win a leading role in an international competition in science-based innovation.
  • Southerners hoped Polk’s imperial war would enable their slave system to expand into new territory. Bush’s Iraq adventure seems more like aggressive defensive flailing, aiming prop up an aging system of world dominance that is threatened from numerous directions: insurgent fundamentalisms, new powers, new nationalisms, new technologies.
  • Most importantly, Polk won his Mexican war, scared the British into ceding Oregon and Washington State to the U.S., and generally succeeded with his imperial plans. Regardless of how it is spun, there appears to be zero chance that Bush will succeed in his Iraq adventure.

The contradictions that Polk’s presidency revealed between geographical regions with profoundly different cultures and economic interests led to civil war twelve years later. The U.S. was a rising power, energetically colonizing a continent and on the verge of creating vast wealth. Polk governed in the interests of the losers in the civil war, but nonetheless laid a territorial foundation for future prosperity.

The U.S. today is learning that military and economic power has limits. Bush’s presidency is likely to be remembered as a destructive detour by a society forced to adjust to the reality of being one nation among many that share a fragile planet.

Cross posted at Happening-Here

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