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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 19, 2013: Times Like These: 1935

[In such bitterly partisan and divided times, it can be easy to feel as if things have never been this bad before. Without downplaying the genuine challenges presented by our own moment, however, it’s well worth AmericanStudying other similarly polarized eras. So this week I’ll highlight five such moments, and think a bit about what we can learn from them. Your thoughts, on these moments, our own, or any others, are very welcome as always!]

On how history sometimes repeats itself—and yet how it doesn’t.
The debates lasted for months, occupying both houses of Congress and much media coverage despite the ongoing, national and global economic disaster. The debates were heated and divisive, with the Republicans castigating the administration and Democratic plan as far too expensive and as creeping (or overt) socialism, and the Democrats responding by calling the Republican position extreme, inaccurate, and destructive to the American people. The debates concluded with the Democrats pushing through—critics would say forcing through—their plan to extend a significant new government program to millions of Americans, a move that was perceived and narrated as simultaneously a victory for the first-team Democratic president and an over-reach that would come back to bite him and his party down the road.
I don’t know if I entirely succeeded, but my goal in writing that paragraph was to make it impossible to know for sure (unless you cilicked on the hyperlinks!) whether I was describing the 2010 debates over President Obama’s Affordable Care Act or the 1935 debates over President Roosevelt’s Social Security Act. I’m not usually a big fan of the “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it” frame—every historical moment is specific and distinct enough that the idea of such repetition doesn’t make a lot of sense—but the parallels between the 1935 and 2010 debates are sweeping and striking enough as to be, to my mind, inarguable. And if we grant those parallels, it becomes at least a bit harder to make the case for the ACA—which comprises a far less sweeping addition to our government and society than did Social Security—as the final nail in America’s coffin, or the moment when our national fall commenced, or whatever other apocalyptic narrative you want to trot out. Unless you want to make the same case for Social Security over these last 75 years—and precious few have been willing to go there—you’ll find your argument instantly challenged by that post-1935 history.
So remembering 1935 reminds us that history can, occasionally, seem to repeat itself. But doing so also makes clear one very simple reason why it cannot: because each and every historical event, and thus certainly each hotly debated and significant new law, does indeed change our society and future. Even at the most basic level, the Social Security Act fundamentally altered the lives of all American seniors, then and since; its existence has also substantially changed the way all adult Americans plan for and move toward the end of their lives. While it’s impossible to argue that any single historical event impacted the future more than many others, it’s similarly impossible not to recognize how much our present moment has been created out of our past, and more exactly out of the most defining and lasting influences within that history. So if this moment feels like it’s the same as 1935, with some significant justification, it’s also worth remembering that nothing has been the same since 1935.
Next divided era tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other divided moments you’d highlight?

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