Will the Financial Crisis Usher in Change?

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After the reality of our dismal economic situation hit with full force, the New Republic turned to “some of the most thoughtful people” they know for insight on how the troubled economy will change the country. The short essays bring a big picture perspective to the financial crisis, which is particularly useful to those of us struggling to understand what numbers like $700 billion mean for the future.

Our current situation is being widely compared to the Great Depression, but Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College and New Republic contributing editor, says it’s not likely to have the same effect on our political culture:

Too much about the United States has changed over the past few decades for history to come anywhere close to repeating itself. The most important of those changes is that the anger that greeted the Great Depression is of very different quality than the anger apparent now. Seemingly like the 1930s, Americans are denouncing Wall Street. But their hostility is too diffuse and incoherent to help them channel it constructively. The past eight years have seen the enactment of public policies that time after time rewarded lobbyists, increased the wealth and power of the already best off, and redistributed income away from ordinary Americans. Yet by and large Americans accepted all this without protest. Now, all of a sudden, they are speaking like Populists of old, attacking greed and calling for regulation. Their protest, alas, is more symbolic than concrete. As such, we are unlikely to witness blame assigned where it belongs; nor are we apt to see the passage of serious reforms dealing with long-term structural changes in the economy or any diminution of lobbyist influence. A scary economic moment will transform itself back to politics as usual in the blink of an eye.

But Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, believes the downturn holds important lessons about politics as usual, particularly during the Bush years:

When it comes to statecraft, the chief lessons of the Bush era are these: Arrogance and hubris have revealed the very real limits of American global leadership; recklessness and ineptitude have revealed the limits of American military power; a foolish and self-indulgent unwillingness to live within our means has now made clear the limits–and the fragility–of American prosperity. We may choose to ignore these lessons–neoconservatives will insist upon it–but the consequences of doing so will be severe.

A season of reckoning is upon us. To say that is not to imply that the United States is now condemned to an irreversible downward spiral. It’s not. It is, however, time for us to clean up our act and to put our own house in order. When it comes to foreign policy, that means restoring a balance between our commitments and the means that we have at hand to meet those commitments.

… Realism and modesty must become our watchwords.

Lastly, Columbia University provost and history professor Alan Brinkley thinks we could see important, though not fundamental, changes in American politics:

Is this the end of the “end of big government?” Will the right fade into obscurity to be replaced by the long-awaited revival of liberalism or progressivism? I doubt that we will see such a fundamental shift in the polity. But I think it is realistic to hope that the highly ideological politics that have driven our public life now for several decades will give way to a somewhat more pragmatic and realistic approach to our problems.

Look for continuing contributions to this series, which are being posted on the New Republic’s blog, the Plank.

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