We're at a very dangerous moment. The May unemployment report showed only 69,000 jobs created, all part-time, and only half of what's needed just to keep up with the natural growth of the labor force. The eurozone is headed for collapse and much of Europe is in recession. China, expected to lead world recovery, is slowing, as is India. We may never have escaped the Great Recession, but if we did we're on the edge of another downturn. Put another way: The Great Depression went on for more than a decade and had recessions embedded in it, like tornadoes in a hurricane.
Faced with this, the institutions and practices that were built up carefully to mitigate just such an event are either gone — Glass-Steagall — or in a free-fall of legitimacy. The European Union. A peaceful, strong Germany. A global system of free trade. An economy where the pursuit of profit, monopoly and plutocracy is offset by checks and balances that serve the common good. The paralyzed and compromised Federal Reserve. The "fixed" and hamstrung-by-extremists Congress. And, I am sorry to rub salt in your hopes, President Obama. Economic conditions are not as bad as they were in the Depression. Yet. Leadership is worse, at least among American politicians. Hardly any will even tell us the truth about our actual circumstances.
History offers a valuable "fund," as George F. Kennan put it, upon which we can draw to understand our present circumstances and perhaps plot prudent responses.
Now, sadly, Americans are less interested in history, and less informed, than ever. There are facts, and then there are the "facts" of the vast right-wing echo chamber. Nevermind the rigorous and nuanced and necessary arguments over what they mean (What if Britain would have stayed out of World War I?). Too many Americans are way past that. I keep getting emails from my newspaper column readers telling me how the eurozone crisis is all about "the failure of socialism." When I try to explain the real reasons, I get back another two pages of Heritage Foundation talking points. What does one do to reach such people, who vote?
But in times of tectonic change, when global systems are fundamentally shifting, when reckonings are slamming home, history is a limited guide. We're simply on our own. We could go there with the best of American values, such as decency, democracy and open-mindedness. Or we can go with Joe McCarthy, who would no doubt be helping Scott Walker in his recall (and if Wisconsin can't be wrested from the right, what state outside the coasts can?).
A Romney presidency may be a prelude to disaster or the real thing. A prelude, I write, because the hard right may see him simply as a place holder until they can use the Permanent Republican Majority to seat a President X who will do all their bidding. Push will come to shove sooner than we think. None of this need be inevitable, but the trajectory continues to bend toward something evil.