Hello darkness, my old friend: the Panic of 1873 in New York.

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

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  • WALTER RUSSELL MEAD is James Clark Chace Professor of Foreign Policy and the Humanities at Bard College, the Global View columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Hudson Institute.
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