The Big Shift

How American Democracy Fails Its Way to Success

Hello darkness, my old friend: the Panic of 1873 in New York. KEAN COLLECTION / GETTY IMAGES

As Americans struggle to make sense of a series of uncomfortable economic changes and disturbing political developments, a worrying picture emerges: of ineffective politicians, frequent scandals, racial backsliding, polarized and irresponsible news media, populists spouting quack economic remedies, growing suspicion of elites and experts, frightening outbreaks of violence, major job losses, high-profile terrorist attacks, anti-immigrant agitation, declining social mobility, giant corporations dominating the economy, rising inequality, and the appearance of a new class of super-empowered billionaires in finance and technology-heavy industries.

That, of course, is a description of American life in the 35 years after the Civil War. The years between the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, and that of President William McKinley, in 1901, were among the least inspiring in the history of U.S. politics. As Reconstruction proved unsuccessful and a series of devastating depressions and panics roiled the economy, Washington failed miserably to rise to the challenges of the day. 

Not many Americans can name the drab presidents who drifted ineffectually through the corridors of the White House during those years; fewer still know the names of the senators and representatives with whom they worked. Almost no one not professionally engaged in the study of U.S. foreign policy can remember a diplomatic accomplishment between the purchase of Alaska and the construction of the Panama Canal. When the politicians of those days are dimly remembered, it is more often for scandal (“Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” went the campaign chant referring to President Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child) than for any substantive accomplishment. 

But if these were disappointing years in the annals of American governance, they were years of extraordinary importance in American history. This was the period in which the United States became the largest and most advanced economy in the world. As transcontinental railroads created a national market and massive industrial development created new industries and new technologies, astonishing inventions poured out steadily from the workshops of Thomas Edison and his imitators and rivals. John D.

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