From the vantage point of Louisiana, the stalemate on health care on Capitol Hill looks eerily familiar. In Baton Rouge this year, two legislative sessions billed as opportunities for meaningful tax and fiscal reform went nowhere. In many other states around the nation, legislative logjams seem the order of the day. In Illinois last month, state lawmakers passed their first full-year budget since 2015 after years of half-measures and bickering. Analysts warned that it might not be enough to save Illinois from becoming the first-ever state with a junk credit rating.
Clearly, the political culture seems out of sync with the urgency of the times. Is there a way forward?
There have been other periods in the country when the national hunger for change contrasted sharply with a sense of widespread stagnation in the halls of power. Or so we’ve been reminded by “Man’s Better Angels,” a new book by Philip F. Gura that’s a good bet for end-of-summer reading lists.
Gura revisits the Panic of 1837, when the American economy tanked. The reversal shook national confidence, which led to a lot of questions about the status quo. Americans wondered how their politics might better respond to a world than was becoming more global, and yet, for all its increasing connection, often felt more alienated.
“People no longer did business face-to-face but inhabited a vast, impersonal world where events across the Atlantic might impact grain prices in Buffalo, where the tightening of credit in London might bring a Louisiana cotton broker to ruin,” Gura tells readers.
Although Gura doesn’t make the comparison himself, his observations invite readers to consider the similarities between the aftermath of 1837 and the global recession of 2008, which also led to wariness about globalism and a general distrust of the ruling class at home.
So what happened to the reform impulse in 1837? Many activists opted to look inward instead, focusing on change at the personal level, and hoping that self-improvement, collectively, would add up to some broader change in the culture. It wasn’t unlike our own day, when people tend to embrace yoga or meditation, rather than city hall or the state house, to improve their lot in life.
The problem with that, as Gura suggests, is that when average people drop out of the public square, then politics is left to politicians, deepening the gap between government and the governed. Little wonder that what goes on among elected officials can seem so divorced from everyday experience.
One finishes “Man’s Better Angels” with the thought that there is really not much new under the sun — that then, as now, real reform rests in the hands of citizens willing to get involved in their own political fates. It’s as easy — and as hard — as that.