Thursday, April 7, 2016

Wisdom on Sanders and Trump, from 1837

History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes, as the saying goes.

American politics today is a decent rhyme for events from 180 years ago. When you read the following, replace "Republican" for "Whig," and think of the financial crisis of 2008:
There were immediate reasons for youthful rhetoric and high drama in 1837. Throughout the spring, just as Martin Van Buren inherited the presidency, a terrible panic gripped the American economy. The price of cotton fell precipitously in the South, while banks suspended specie payments and unemployment climbed in northern cities. The panic severely shook public confidence and galvanized Americans to take sides, defining themselves both politically and in a generational sense. Whigs and Democrats bitterly blamed each other for the disaster. But for many young Americans, the Panic of 1837 exposed the bankruptcy of all American politics, and an older generation conducting its affairs selfishly.
The text is from the book Young America, by Ted Widmer, published by Oxford Univesity Press. I am quoting from the 1999 edition. Ted is a smart guy: he got his Ph.D. at Harvard, is formerly the librarian of Brown University, worked in the White House, and is currently a fellow at the Center for American Progress.

For a more timely view, I recommend Paul Solman, the economics correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He recently interviewed Robert Reich, a liberal, and Charles Murray, a conservative, about the economic forces behind the rise of Sanders and Trump. What Reich and Murray say is consistent with 1837: there is now a general disillusionment with the establishment, grounded in economics, that transcends party, and that helps explain why the two breakout candidates are off to either side of mainstream. Paul's interviews with Reich and Murray, linked here and here, are well worth watching.

By the way, returning to the quoted text: Ted Widmer, its author, who is a friend of mine from college, used to play heavy metal guitar for a semi-famous rock band, The Upper Crust. In the linked video, Ted is in the red coat, singing the second song. The band may be the answer to the musical question, what would Paul Revere and the Raiders sound like, if they had graduate degrees? Recommended listening.