Frederick E. Hoxie, Opinion contributor
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Feb. 6, 2020 | Updated 3:21 p.m. ET Feb. 6, 2020
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We have been here before. Our predecessors dug in and took it one topic, one government failure and one election at a time. We should, too.
For now, it seems that President Donald Trump has gotten away with it. He stonewalled congressional investigators, he successfully bullied every Republican senator except Mitt Romney and, right after the acquittal votes, he tweeted that he would discuss “our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!” at noon the following day. At present, political maneuvering, legal sophistry, lies and intimidation appear more powerful than the rule of law. This turn of events is bad news for our democracy. What's next?
History, of course, is a guide. There are other moments in our past that were similarly dark:
►March 1857. With John Brown advocating the use of violence to end slavery, and settlers in “bloody” Kansas fighting a guerrilla war over human property in that territory, Chief Justice Roger Taney announced in the Dred Scott decision that African Americans could never be citizens. President James Buchanan and his fellow Democrats applauded the decision; members of the new Republican Party despaired.
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►January 1890. Using new technologies that enabled him to publish intimate pictures of New York tenement life, Jacob Riis published “How the Other Half Lives,” a searing portrayal of urban poverty. While the book made Riis a celebrity and shocked some, most of the public shrugged, and it took many years for meaningful reform to occur.
Changes came but not quickly
The pictures were gripping, but politicians in 1890 were more concerned with the operation of their political machines and winning partisan battles over tariffs and the gold standard. Sweatshops continued to proliferate, while children, sharecroppers and industrial workers labored on in obscurity. The rich enjoyed their privileged lives, protected by the absence of wage and labor laws, public health standards, environmental controls and a federal income tax.
►Spring 1932. Approximately 15,000 World War I veterans and their supporters rallied in Washington, D.C., to demand early payment of a “bonus” that Congress had promised to deliver in 1945. With nearly a quarter of the workforce unemployed, the Dust Bowl expanding and hunger stalking the nation, the desperate veterans demanded federal action. President Herbert Hoover ordered military units to disperse them and destroy their temporary camp. Government intervention, the president warned, would inevitably lead to socialism.
Today we see echoes of these sad times — indifference to poverty and mounting environmental crises, combined with political paralysis — all made doubly dangerous by a chief executive who equates the public good with his own personal interests.
One might think that these historical examples suggest we should wait for a “great man” (or woman) to launch a new era of reform. After all, the 1850s ended with Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction. The 1890s brought Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era. The 1930s ushered in Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. But those spikes in public action were produced by human action.
Citizens demanded an end to apathy
These periods of reform were set in motion by thousands of people who demanded an end to apathy and despair, and called for specific changes and innovations to improve public life. Those citizens were determined to use our democracy to solve problems rather than obscure them. They had faith in an American ideal. Their faith was expressed in passionate debate about real problems and how best to alleviate suffering. They rejected those who retreated to the short-term political expediency that has become the specialty of the modern GOP.
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Political passion about people’s real problems cuts through sophistry and lies. It raises spirits and dissolves bunk. Public action also relies on free speech and a free press.
Mary Louise Kelly, a veteran NPR foreign correspondent, was not intimidated when Mike Pompeo cursed at and bullied her in an attempt to dodge hard questions that a secretary of State should be prepared to answer. She and her colleagues understand that democracy relies on an open and responsive government held to a standard of fair play: Everyone gets a say, everyone deserves a fair hearing and then we vote. If you cheat, jive or lie, you undermine the system and need to be called out.
This is a discouraging moment. But we have been here before. Our predecessors dug in and took it one topic, one government failure and one election at a time. The issue is not the president, as unfit as he may be, but the real world that he and his lackeys ignore. Stay focused on the problems of that world and on the democracy that is our salvation. Keep the faith.
Frederick E. Hoxie is professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His latest book is “This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made.”
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