" Gentlemem, I implore you; change the spirit of the government, for it is that spirit that is leadfing you to the abyss. "
Alexis DeTocqueville, speech to the French Chamber of Deputies, January 1848 ( Six months later, France was in the throes of revolution.)
Most of my adult life has been devoted to the study of politics in general and Aerican politics in particular. I was born in 1958, and have vague but real memories of the end of the Age of Ike and the Camelot era. I lived through the extraordinary upheaveals of the nineteen- sixties. The Vietnam War and Watergate were the formative experiences of my early years.. I have studied American political institutions and the their history. I know the nuts and bolts of american politics. I have observed every important American politician, and every political trend and idea of the last half century. I think I can confidently say that America may now be going through one of the most profound political crisises of its history, a veritable " crisis of the regime."
It has been bad in this country before now. The late seventies witnessed what Paul Johnson, the British jouranlaist and popular historian, cal,led "Americas suicide attempt". . Many American were vexed and troubled in those days of nationwide "malaise". America seemd Impotent, adrift and purposeless. I remember it all too well.
However, those dark days of the late seventies, when the nation wa still reeling from Watergate and the Vietnam debacle, were nothing compared to the anxiety and pessimism which seem to grip us today. Some like to compare our current situation to the great Depression, when some thoghtful observers feared America might go to Communist or Fascist. ( Indeed, some Americans hoped we would. ) However, back in those days, most Americans still retained a stubborn faith in our basic institutions. No, for a full parallel with what is going on today, we would have to go back still further in our history. I am not refering to the Populist and Progressive insurgencie sof the eighteen nineties and early nineteen hundreds. Instead, , I am goiing back still further, to the "Disruption of Democracy" , the "Ordeal of the Union', the chaos which gripped America in the years leading up to the Civil War.
e some of you mioght think I am waxing apocalyptic or even hysterical, but all the signs are there. A few weeks ago, the well-seasoned observer of, and participant in, American politics,James Carville, was guset on Imus in The Morning, and he claimed that he seriously feared civic unrest in America. Only yesterday, another guest on the same program, John LeBoutillier, recounted aconversation he had had with two veteran Democratic parrty strategists, Pat Cadell and Doug Scoen, in which they said America was in a virtually " pre-revolutionary" situation. Never in their collective experience had either of these two veteran observers sensed a more profound pessimism and anger among most Americans, or a greater gap in belief and outlook between the average voter and the members of Americas political class. Both parties are held in widespread contempt, our whole political process is seen as profoundly corrupt, and American instituions are seen as more unreliable than ever before. More and more Americans have almost lost faith in the American dream, and are convinced that their children will grow up in a world far worse than that of their parents.
What is particularrly scary about the times in which we live is the possibilty of an unsrupolous demagogue taking advantage of the chaos. A third party candidate with what Emerson once called " nerve and dagger"(and a large bankroll" attempt to take adavantage of the curren drift and malaise . Somewhere out there in America there is someone who fits the bill. We might get lucky, and this outsider might be a genuine statesman. However, I have my doubts. In short, America is in deep trouble, and it will take enlightened statesmen- aand informed and prudent citizens- to rescue us. Unfortunately, both seem to be in short supply at present.