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Cycles of democracy?

August 6, 2011 - Harry Eagar
Many years ago, while reading Allan Nevins' histories of the period after the Civil War, I was startled by his suggestion that the war might have been avoided had the voters not elected four consecutive bums as president in the years before 1860.

Now, the streak of bums started just about 60 years after elections began, and while I did not think of it at the time, 60 years after Lincoln, voters returned another string of bums, starting with Harding, that culminated in another disaster, the Depression, and the election of another of your best presidents.

When I was reading Nevins, in the early '70s, we hzd not yet gotten 60 years past FDR, but you know what happened when we did: another string of bums, starting with Reagan and leading to another calamity – several, in fact, including a humiliating defeat in Iraq and another disastrous economic crash. But, not, this time, followed by the election of a great national leader supported by a committed Congress.

Well, it might be too early in the brief history of democracy to declare that there is a 60-year cycle of what amounts to a nervous breakdown in the electorate, but it makes you think, doesn't it?

The breakdown doesn't happen just in the national elections. In these low episodes there seems to be a matching outbreak of crackpottery in the states, from Robert Rhett in what we might call Bad Decade I, to Ma Ferguson in Bad Decade II, to Jesse Ventura in Bad Decade III.

Bad Decade III is turning into something akin to Bad Generation. BG is not, so far, as bad as the Civil War or the Great Depression, but it is notable that BG was introduced by and in the name of unbridled property rights and small and unreactive government.

Not even a Lincoln or a Roosevelt was able to restore political order; the most either could do was mitigate the excesses of wealthy antidemocrats.

Congress is as incompetent and corrupt as it was in the 1850s or 1920s, and in 2012, American voters are going to be presented with, at least, a disaster overseas as Iran reaps the rewards of Incurious George's failed foreign wars, and, perhaps, a disaster at home as the Tea Party succeeds in its goal of kneecapping government and wrecking the private economy beyond hope of repair.


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