It’s been a recurring theme in the progressive Internet community, this notion that with each new defeat, setback or disappointment we are one step closer to an inevitable apocalypse. In moments of despair and disillusionment the conversation inevitably turns to predictions of the coming Orwellian nightmare, with jackbooted fascists and religious fanatics dragging the nation further down the road to self-destruction. The four horsemen of the progressive apocalypse; endless war, economic instability, loss of civil rights and corrupt government always loom on the horizon ready to destroy democracy as we know it.  It’s become a familiar thread that runs through our discourse, a fatalistic, resignation of powerlessness that permeates our thoughts.

While much of this sentiment is heartfelt, expressed with eloquence and quite compelling, it contains a flaw in logic that makes it not only wrongheaded but in some ways dangerous.  

As a nation and a people we have endured far more troubling times and managed to not only survive, but in fact thrive. There is nothing we are presented with today that we have not faced at one time or another in our history, and triumphed over. We simply need to look at the past to see that, although faced with great challenges, the Republic and our Democracy are far from dead and buried.

There are common themes that seem to run through this new progressive fatalism:

  • A press controlled by business interests that manipulate and distort the truth
  • An executive branch that has usurped power and is overreaching it’s Constitutional restraints
  •  A Congress controlled by special interests and the moneyed classes
  • A lack of regulation and control over Corporations and big business
  • Growing militarism
  • An economy that seems on the brink of collapse due to debt, peak oil and a diminished manufacturing base

The question now raised is: Are these concerns any different from those expressed before in the past?

“You supply the pictures, and I’ll supply the war”. Certainly that famous quote from William Randolph Hearst could not more clearly demonstrate a case where the press distorted and manipulated the facts to drive a nation to war. In fact throughout most of our history our “free press” has been little more than mouthpieces for one or another political or corporate point of view. The concept of a truly “adversarial” press that questions government policies and leadership is a twentieth century phenomenon, born from the Muckrakers of the turn of the century (who appeared in direct response to the yellow journalism of both Hearst and Pulitzer). But the notion that Edward R Murrow would take on McCarthy, or Woodward and Bernstein- Nixon, is the exception rather than the rule as far as journalism goes. So while we rile against FOX or Tweetie, believing that we are the first to encounter a manipulated and owned press, it is not the case.

Of course to talk about Executive overreach one would only have to say one word – Nixon. But that would be too easy and could be dismissed as an exception based open his unprecedented mental flaws. Instead look to Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin, Roosevelt’s attempts to pack the court, Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus, or Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territories. All of these can clearly be seen as a case where the executive usurped powers not given to him under the Constitution. So while the Unitary Executive is a frightening concept to deal with it is in essence just a new wrapping on an old package.

When we look at the Congress and it’s relationship to moneyed interests we can go back to the Founding Fathers to see that there has always been a direct connection. They fact that slavery was not addressed in our Constitution is a direct result of that relationship. From that time foreword ” Whats good of US Steel is good for America”  has been the prevailing wisdom in Washington. A cursory look at the relationship between Congress and the labor movement confirms this. It was not until well into the twentieth century, when labor finally became a political force, that any shift in that paradigm began.

To look at the unrestricted power of big business and corporations and view that as new occurrence is of course impossible. Laissez-faire policies have dominated our history from the start. In fact the battle between unrestricted business and the interests of society on a whole have been at odds since our inception. In fact the very notion that business could and should be restricted in any way is again a rather modern concept, first appearing in the Trust-Busting  period of the Gilded Age. So when we look at today’s giant multinationals and the enormous amount of power they wield, we must realize that they are no more powerful in our time than  the Union Pacific Railroad, Standard Oil or US Steel where in theirs.

When it comes to our apparent growing militarism, again we should look to the past. From the time we began our genocide of the indigenous people of this nation, through our conquest of northern Mexico, to our entanglements in the Philippines around the turn of the century, through WWI and II, the Cold War, incursions into Central and  South America and the Caribbean, and various hot wars like Korea, Vietnam and  Desert Storm. We have almost always been in a constant state of war. The periods between wars have been few and of short duration. An argument could be made that some of these wars have been wars of necessity, and this would be true, but many others have been wars of convenience and conquest. Some like the “War of Westward Expansion” lasted over 200 years. Others such as our war in the Philippines have become nothing more than historical footnotes even though we lost more lives there then we have lost thus far in our current fiasco in the middle east.  So when we decry our current involvement, and feel like we are the first to oppose and question our military posturing, we must remember that this has been going on since our nation’s inception. It says far more about our culture and national goals than about the current situation … we are a warlike nation and always have been … should we work to change that … of course… but it’s nothing new.

When it comes to economic concerns, we are far from the first to deal with economic uncertainty. Of course the Great Depression is an obvious example, but there are many more. The US treasury at one point was so depleted that J.P. Morgan had to underwrite the government. There have been numerous devastating recessions and depressions that have led to widespread turmoil and hardship. We have lost major cities, Chicago and San Francisco due to fire and earthquake. We have had our richest farmland dry up and blow away. We have seen great industries grow and fortunes made only to be rendered obsolete like the railroads or whaling. The transitions and turmoil we face today is not that far removed from those of our forebears.

If you’ve read thus far, I need to commend you first of all for putting up with the little history lesson … so I will proceed quickly to my point  (there really is one, you see)


 `Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. `But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’

 I realize that it’s disheartening to see our leadership galloping full fledged into the abyss. I know that it appears that we are powerless to stop them … but if history proves anything … we are not.

The astute reader has probably noted that many of the examples I have used in my little historical narrative come from the period between of the gilded age through the nineteen sixties, and this is no coincidence. I chose them because they are the periods of the first Progressives through the end of the New Dealers. When faced with many of the same problems we are faced with today, these early progressives, liberals, socialists, labor organizers muckrakers and new dealers changed the course of history. If not for them we to might have faced the same specter of fascism that overtook Europe in the same period, when faced with similar problems. Instead our progressive ancestors gave us child labor laws, unions, food and drug regulation, minimum wage and workplace safety regulations, anti-trust legislation, the 40-hour workweek, social security, civil right legislation, women’s suffrage and later women’s rights and a list to long to write of other accomplishments.  

So my question to all is … do we allow ourselves to be beaten down and marginalized by our setbacks, or do we brush ourselves off and re-enter the fight.  Have we really been so badly beaten down by our oppressors that there is nothing left to do but sit back and watch our Republic wallow in it’s death throes. I think not. Surely the black man who fought his entire life for the simple right to be treated as a human being didn’t give up. The labor organizer beaten down by Pinkertons and state militias didn’t waver. The starving Okie looking simply for survival didn’t crawl up in a ball and die. The poor immigrant living in a cold water flat and working in a sweatshop didn’t pack up and run home. These people endured … and so should we. We need to take up the fight of those who came before us. We have grown fat and complacent as a nation and are to willing to roll over rather than do the hard work of making a better world. Thank God those who came before us did not do the same.

Cross posted from: Manning the Barricades

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