Why It's Time to Worry

By Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, December 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

Why It's Time to Worry


Thomas, Evan, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas

Can the United States go the way of Germany in the past--a great society undone by terrible social turmoil?

On a trip to Berlin in the spring of 2009, I visited the German Historical Museum, intending to stay an hour or so. I spent much of the next two days there. The museum is laid out chronologically, from the time of the Romans through the Cold War. As I wandered through rooms of gorgeous art and fascinating artifacts, I felt like a passenger on a doomed voyage. Germany has been, throughout its long history, a magnificent vessel that repeatedly capsizes. The museum presents great intellectual and cultural achievements--undone or sullied by terrible social convulsions, one after another. It's as if Germany were a ship with tall masts and great sails but no keel to keep it upright in a storm.

It has always been my belief that similar upheavals could not happen in the United States. At least since the Civil War, America has been blessed with self-correcting mechanisms that preserve a basic social and political stability. The first of these is the U.S. Constitution (once the sin of slavery was expunged), with its checks and balances. The second is social mobility. I never believed the warnings of Paul Kennedy, the Yale scholar who made people nervous in the late 1980s with his prediction that America would succumb to the fate of ancient Rome, or the hegemonies of 19th-century Britain and 16th-century Spain. Those empires allowed their upper classes to loot the treasury while they clung to power. Our upper class keeps changing, thanks in part to the refreshments of constant immigration.

True, America has a paranoid streak in its politics, and demagogues come along from time to time to feed on anger and resentment. But I have always subscribed to the 51 percent rule. The Huey Longs and Joe McCarthys can rant and rave, but they can never get to a simple majority in a national election. Their lies will ultimately be exposed by a free press, and the common sense of the American people will prevail. The political pendulum swings in the United States, sometimes wildly. But it always swings back.

Lately, though, I'm beginning to wonder. It's not that I see an immediate danger. I think the Tea Partiers, despite their contradictions, are not all wrong about Big Government. But I worry that, in time, a clever fearmonger could manipulate popular opinion into an electoral mandate. I no longer take for granted America's gyroscope. Politics is becoming so polarized that neither side credits, or even hears, the other. The gap between rich and poor is growing in ways that mock American middle-class egalitarianism. In 1970 the richest 1 percent made 9 percent of the nation's income; now that top slice makes closer to 25 percent. CEOs who once made 50 times the average worker's salary made more than 500 times as much in 2001.

America's social harmony has depended at least to some degree on economic growth. It is easier to get along when everyone, more or less, is getting ahead. But when the pie is shrinking, social groups are more likely to turn on each other. America has always been a remarkably classless society--obsessed by status and money, perhaps, but fluid enough so there was never an identifiable social class that was able to keep the rest out. But as the perception grows that the rich are intent on getting richer and the rest be damned, the folks outside the gated community are growing restless. …

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