Americans see their nation in a steep slide, polls reveal, crashing down in a heap of wanting leadership, dysfunctional lawmakers and out-of-touch policies. Only doom can follow the gloom.
Not so fast, Dr. Alasdair Roberts says.
True, survey respondents have consistently put the United States on the sinking side of “right track/wrong track” questions. Most recently, 6 in 10 Americans have the nation heading in a bad direction.
But Roberts, a professor at the University of Missouri’s Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs, thinks the United States has experienced this direness in the past and came out of it just fine.
“We’ve gone through this before,” he said in a telephone interview from Columbia. “There’s a trough where things look bad, where the mood of the country is very sour. And that’s partly because we’re still trying to sort out what the problem is and no one has figured out a formula, figured out a story that explains how the country moves forward.”
His latest book, “Four Crises of American Democracy,” speaks to exactly this point. He identifies periods in the nation’s history when citizens doubted their system of government. The current situation, the professor said, requires context.
“We’ve gone through these moments of democratic malaise before,” Roberts said. “It’s about the country rethinking the paradigm that defines what government does and what the goals of government ought to be.”
One of these times came in the 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter, in a speech to the American people, said the nation suffered from “paralysis and stagnation and drift.” (Though popularly regarded as his “malaise” speech, the professor pointed out, Carter never actually used that word.)
Roberts said that such troubling times have not proven fatal to the United States. Rather, these moments in history led to democratic shifts that required time to sort themselves out.
In what Roberts calls the “crisis of discipline,” Americans in the 1970s feared the government had become burdened with demands impossible to accommodate.
This led to three decades of government rollbacks, beginning in the Ronald Reagan administration and continuing with the presidency of Bill Clinton, who announced in his 1996 State of the Union Address that “the era of big government is over.”
Voters today find themselves not entirely comfortable with the small-government model, Roberts said, but also skeptical about federal agencies being able to competently deal with problems.
“People are not happy with the paradigm that has governed public policy for the last 30 years,” he said. “They want to go in a new direction, but we’re still not quite sure what that direction is.”
Roberts also cites the “crisis of mastery,” from 1917 to 1947, driven by concerns over the nation’s economy and national defense, and the “crisis of anticipation,” more current and propelled by pessimism that government can’t respond to long-term issues like immigration and climate change.
Writing about the “crisis of representation,” the author looks at a time between 1890 and 1920 when many Americans believed the system favored the rich. Women could not vote, nor could most African-Americans.
“What’s going on in that period is lots of people saying democracy is a sham. To borrow (Donald) Trump’s words, I suppose, the system is rigged,” Roberts said. “The rhetoric we’ve heard lately about the power of the 1 percent, that’s actually a concept that was brought into play at that time.”
Author of five previous books, Roberts got his law degree at the University of Toronto and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in public policy at Harvard University. He serves as co-editor of the scholarly journal Governance.
“Four Crises of American Democracy” will be published in December by Oxford University Press.