“A system in which the best option is inadequate to the nation’s needs is by definition in crisis,” said Guardian journalist Gary Younge last week in a thoughtful video reflecting on the end of the Obama presidency.
While Obama was a thoughtful, talented leader who had numerous symbolic and practical achievements, these achievements were insufficient to solve the numerous issues at hand. This was less a reflection of Obama as an individual than of the severity of issues facing the United States.
He ran headfirst into long-term, structural issues, things that are bigger than any individual, no matter how talented, could possibly overcome. Obama couldn’t solve the ongoing paralysis of the legislative branch of government, broad-based distrust in government more generally, high and still-rising income inequality and decreasing social mobility, generational racial gaps in income, wealth, and education, and climate change, to name just a few of the cornucopia of deep-seated problems that underlie American politics in the winter of its discontent.
Crises are dramatic turning-points with existential implications. As a medical term, it refers to the critical stage where the patient will either recover or die. To say that a political system is in crisis isn’t to lament an electoral loss or to denounce a law—it’s a claim that the structures and institutions here today might not survive much longer. Might is the key word here. Patients recover. Governments adapt and survive, and political systems can bend as well as break. Crises are about stakes, not guaranteed outcomes.
Risk and uncertainty can be both deeply appealing and profoundly unsettling to different observers. Those for whom the status quo works or the prospect of sudden shifts seems scary probably view crisis as a bad thing. Those with a gamblers’ temperament or dissatisfied with the world as it is may be more likely to embrace moments when radical change is possible. These attitudes often inform political goals and tactics.
The combination of uncertain but potentially decisive consequences and intense politics make it difficult to figure out when we’re in a crisis or how we got there. But we think history can help, and that’s why we, PhD historians Keith Pluymers and Patrick Wyman, are doing the History Matters podcast.
One of the major tasks for historians is understanding change over time. Over generations of work, we’ve debated what constitutes a crisis and how well crisis works as a model to understand political transformations.
In Episode 2 of History Matters we place our current systemic crisis in historic context. Keith looks at the rise of the military-industrial complex and the rise of the interstate highway system, while Patrick talks about the breakdown of consensus government in Congress in the 1990s and the ongoing trashing of the norms and values that formerly constrained political behavior. From there we look further back to the English Civil War and the fall of the Roman Republic to think about past crises and moments of political breakdown, and how long-term structural issues made those moments of breakdown possible.
There are eerie similarities, including the idea of challenges to a leader or ruler’s legitimacy and the importance of unwritten rules and norms in setting the limits of acceptable political behavior. There are also some crucial differences, namely a greater tolerance for political violence.
We’re neither pundits nor prognosticators, and history doesn’t tell us what’s coming next. But we believe it reveals that our current crisis goes far beyond election outcomes and has far deeper roots than the past 18 months or even the past eight years, something a media and political world predicated on the lightning-quick turnover of news cycles is ill-equipped to handle.
If that sounds interesting, give it a listen. You can get caught up with the first episode here.
In our next episode, we’ll be exploring a topic we briefly discussed in this edition, settlement patterns and how they help to determine the structures of the economy and our politics.