Reviews | The strange and sad death of the American political imagination

Voters in Bellamy’s day were arguing over where and when to go to war. Now it’s handled by the experts; when four American soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017, it emerged that key senators were not even aware that troops were stationed there. Likewise, Bellamy experienced elections in which farmers fiercely debated monetary policy with bankers. Yet today the dollar – a global currency as well as a national currency – is managed quietly by the unelected governors of the Federal Reserve.

An opaque government favors insiders who know how to use its levers. The Beltway is teeming with longtime residents – advisers, government officials, think tank experts and lobbyists. Even the chosen ones tend to be long haulers, as can be seen at their age. Although the baby boom lasted only 18 years, we have just completed a 28-year streak of boomer presidents. It was broken, ultimately, by Joe Biden, a pre-President of the baby boom.

The aging of politicians goes hand in hand with the aging of the population in general. But it does mean that the younger ones – those most attached to “lofty aspirations and big dreams,” as Bellamy writes – are stranded from power.

In the Democratic caucus, the six members of the insurgent left-wing “squad” are all between 30 and 40 years old (the most famous, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is 31). The same goes for most of the congressional boat rockers on the right, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Josh Hawley, Lauren Boebert, Tom Cotton, Elise Stefanik, and Matt Gaetz. The senator’s average age, on the other hand, is 63 and is increasing.

In “Looking Forward,” Roosevelt noted the brewing extremism of its time. But the real problem was not the crazy ideas, he believed. Rather, it was the “hand of discouragement” signaling that “things are in the rut, fixed, settled”. Instead of crushing radicalism, he wrote, leaders should hail it as “a challenge, a provocation” and an opportunity to deliver “a workable reconstruction program.”

It would be a good idea today. Such a program could attempt to undo the damage that the search for world primacy has done to our country. We could use the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan to ask ourselves if the United States really needs to watch the planet – or if it is good at it. Maybe it’s time to trade armed supremacy for serious diplomacy, and expert rule for citizens’ rights. Reclaiming the power of irresponsible decision-makers could allow us to start debating things our leaders rarely mention, like the taxation of carbon emissions, the legalization of drugs, the overhaul of the prison system and the closure of bases abroad.

Gaining height may seem unthinkable. But such fatalism is precisely the problem Roosevelt sought to solve. We own the house; we are allowed to remodel it. This would not only prepare us for new challenges, but it would also establish an important point: the future is open.

Daniel Immerwahr is professor of history at Northwestern and author of “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States”.

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