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How America Will Change

In an effort to start making sense of what is an indisputably confusing situation, we asked some of the most thoughtful people we know the question: How will America change as a result of the economic downturn?

The cultural and political effects of the Great Depression lasted much longer than the Depression itself. An entire generation of Americans--my parents' generation--voted Democratic, chose Social Security over economic liberty, believed in government, and admired political leadership. The effects of Depression-era politics eventually faded, as the effects of any kind of politics generally do, but as bad as the economic conditions of the 1930s were, the political consequences in the decades following were positive.

Will the financial crisis of 2008 produce similar long-term effects? I do not think so. Too much about the United States has changed over the past few decades for history to come anywhere close to repeating itself.

The most important of those changes is that the anger that greeted the Great Depression is of very different quality than the anger apparent now. Seemingly like the 1930s, Americans are denouncing Wall Street. But their hostility is too diffuse and incoherent to help them channel it constructively. The past eight years have seen the enactment of public policies that time after time rewarded lobbyists, increased the wealth and power of the already best off, and redistributed income away from ordinary Americans. Yet by and large Americans accepted all this without protest. Now, all of a sudden, they are speaking like Populists of old, attacking greed and calling for regulation. Their protest, alas, is more symbolic than concrete. As such, we are unlikely to witness blame assigned where it belongs; nor are we apt to see the passage of serious reforms dealing with long-term structural changes in the economy or any diminution of lobbyist influence. A scary economic moment will transform itself back to politics as usual in the blink of an eye.

The fact that the language being used to respond to the financial crisis emphasizes fear is a second reason to question how much America will change. FDR was a president who somehow managed to instill hope in dreadful times. These days, our leaders instill dread in relatively good times. Many have already noticed how the financial crisis is being "sold" with the same techniques as the war in Iraq. The consequences are also likely to be similar: cynicism toward politics, constant lying and manipulation, scare-tactics that appeal to emotions rather than facts on the ground. The only thing we have to fear is the fear of fear itself.

The New Deal, finally, gave rise to extremist politics. But in those days most of the demagogues--Father Coughlin, the activists of the American Liberty League--were outside the halls of power. These days, voices of the extreme right (and to a lesser degree the extreme left) sit in the House of Representatives. Capable of stopping the bailout the first time around, they are likely to lose the next vote tomorrow. But win or lose, the bailout represents a movement of the extremes against the center. For that reason, the partisan polarization that has characterized American politics over the past two decades will continue, and perhaps even be strengthened if the economy does not respond.

It is true that, as many have pointed out, we are about to enter a period in which regulation is no longer a dirty word and laissez-faire no longer the touchstone of economic policy. But this does not mean that something coherent and disciplined will triumph. American democracy has suffered great damage in an era of polarization, sound bites, talk radio, and low-information voters. It will recover some of what once made it healthier. But it is too much to expect it to recover fully.