Voters in Bellamy’s day argued about where and when to fight wars. Now that’s handled by the experts; when four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017, it came out that key senators hadn’t even known troops were stationed there. Similarly, Bellamy lived through elections in which farmers fiercely debated monetary policy with bankers. Yet today, the dollar — a global currency as well as a domestic one — is managed quietly by the unelected governors of the Federal Reserve.
An opaque government favors insiders who know how to work its levers. The Beltway is packed with long-term residents — advisers, functionaries, think tank experts and lobbyists. Even elected representatives tend to be long-haulers, as can be seen in their ages. Though the baby boom lasted only 18 years, we’ve just finished a 28-year streak of boomer presidents. It was broken, finally, by Joe Biden, a pre-boomer president.
The aging of politicians tracks with the aging of the population in general. But it’s meant that younger people — the ones most given to “noble aspirations and high dreams,” as Bellamy wrote — are blocked from power.
In the Democratic caucus, the six members of the insurgent, left-wing “squad” are all in their 30s and 40s (the most famous, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is 31). So are most of the congressional boat rockers on the right, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Josh Hawley, Lauren Boebert, Tom Cotton, Elise Stefanik and Matt Gaetz. The average senator’s age, by contrast, is 63 and rising.
In “Looking Forward,” Roosevelt noted the brewing extremism of his day. But the real trouble wasn’t wild ideas, he believed. It was rather the “hand of discouragement” signaling that “things are in a rut, fixed, settled.” Instead of quashing radicalism, he wrote, leaders should greet it as “a challenge, a provocation” and an occasion to offer “a workable program of reconstruction.”
That would be a good idea today. Such a program might try to reverse the damage that seeking global primacy has done to our country. We could take the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan as an occasion to ask whether the United States truly needs to police the planet — or is any good at it. Perhaps it’s time to exchange armed supremacy for earnest diplomacy, and the rule of experts for the rights of citizens. Clawing power back from unaccountable decision makers could let us start debating the things that our leaders rarely even mention, like taxing carbon emissions, legalizing drugs, overhauling the prison system and shuttering overseas bases.
Going big might seem unthinkable. But such fatalism is precisely the problem Roosevelt sought to address. We own the house; we’re allowed to remodel it. Doing so would not only prepare us for new challenges, but it would also establish an important point: The future is open.
Daniel Immerwahr is a professor of history at Northwestern and the author of “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.”
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