A few photographs to go with the essay.
Can it be? Are we there already? Suddenly it’s Christmas and we’re gliding helplessly toward January. 2011 is nearly past, its events crystallizing into memories. No longer anything to be experienced, only sensations and impressions to be recalled. The end of the year, my birthday (which is on Christmas), and the holidays themselves, with their connotations of hope and new beginnings, invite retrospection, a consideration of where we’ve been and where we might be going. Yet I don’t feel like writing anything political today. The sort of analysis and judgment that comes so naturally to me seems somewhat out of place on this, my birthday. How much better to dwell on the more irreducible memories of a recent journey.
I love getting out to see the countryside. This fall, my husband and I took a couple of overland journeys, traveling out into the West by rail and car. Mid-October found us boarding the California Zephyr, an amazing train that takes you across the Plains and Rockies, then down toward San Francisco via the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento River Valley. The passengers’ excitement was palpable, their reserve broken down in the face of scenery so spectacular and varied. Strangers addressed one another in tones of excited exclamation, in tones that were hushed and confiding. People hurried to breakfast early, then rushed to take up posts in the observation car, their eyes trained out the windows, cameras at the ready. The land was like a drug we couldn’t get enough of: it was vast, it was awesome, it was enthralling, overwhelming. It was great, for a change, to feel proud and happy. “The United States are endless; they’re endless!” I heard an Englishwoman saying.
Yet the truth is far more complicated. To ourselves, the United States are a half-known place, some parts thriving and well-cultivated; others poor, undeveloped, ill-used; still others useless, exhausted, polluted, sterile. The frequent sight of worn-out factories and public buildings, collapsing farmsteads, wildlife in flight, and rural junkyards full of rusting machinery bespeak the exhaustion of an era and an earlier mode of living.
Back when it was known as the New World, there was no predicting what kind of place this would become. The arrivistes who came here across the centuries from Asia and Europe had wildly differing hopes, conceptions, and ideas. They were variously hunters, explorers, traders, colonists, and missionaries. Many of their odysseys were ephemeral or concluded disastrously. In the end, the people who enjoyed the most success were those able to enter into a direct relationship with the place, who got past their own fixed ideas and entered into a creative relationship with their surroundings.
Foreigners who came here with pre-conceived goals—whether it was to trap fur, find gold, or convert “natives” to Christianity—had a limited use for the place and tended greatly to undervalue its potentialities. The benefits of their forays were miniscule compared to those of the Indians who worked out an elaborate rapprochement with the land, or the Virginians who later learned the ins and outs of tobacco cultivation from the Indians. Lacking access to the most desirable oceanfront land, mid-Atlantic settlers rejoiced to have discovered what they thought of as “the best poor man’s land” in Pennsylvania. These were the people who tended to stay: the people who saw value where others couldn’t. In time, their ingenious interaction with the land and its materials gave rise to new foods, new habits, new industries, new livings.
Two hundred years later, much of the US still has a half-settled, half-developed, incipient character. The proper uses of the land are still being tried. With each decade, the population continues to redistribute itself, providing a register of Americans’ shifting perceptions of geographic advantage and opportunity. We are still working out how the nation’s natural endowments can best support our life as a people. Even in the face of globalism, however, the land beneath our feet remains the basis of security, prosperity, and innovation. The nation’s resources, varied and vast but not limitless, require careful stewardship and cultivation. Politically, the proper use of this great inheritance remains a central and complex but under-explored theme.
A touchstone of my thinking is the election of 2008, which in my mind I refer to as “the critical election that wasn’t.” For historians, the term “critical election” has a special meaning. It does not mean simply an election that is vital or all-important; it means one that changes the party system itself by re-defining what one or more of the political parties represent. In a critical election, the parties themselves undergo significant change, as the central ideas around which they are organized are reformulated in ways that are fundamental, many-sided, and long lasting.
Whereas every presidential election cycle introduces some new ideas and personalities, not every election produces change in the parties’ basic ideas and tenets. A critical election is a rare sort of generational event that attains landmark significance because, by aggregating ideas in a new and different way, it charts a new direction for the country and opens up new possibilities. When such an election occurs, the basic message of an entire political party is transformed. Political parties sometimes die; new parties emerge. So, critical elections are about more than the candidates and their characters; they are about the ideas that define our nation and how these ideas come to be embedded in a structure of power.
There have only been a handful of critical elections in our history, and it’s no wonder, because when critical elections occur it can be kind of scary. The parties are usually in a state of crisis, and the nation’s political discourse as a whole is usually in a state of heightened controversy. Yet critical elections, which involve massive levels of thought, input, and organization at every level of the citizenry, are necessary. They’re salutary. They’re the means by which the parties retain their usefulness by meaningfully organizing large blocks of citizens around constructive national ideas and goals. Through them, new strategies and principles are given a fighting chance to redress our most pressing problems and controversies.
The key agents in critical elections are gifted ideologues and statesmen who understand how to combine new ideas in a synergistic, holistic way that can appeal to a majority of the citizenry. Without critical elections, the parties become calcified, leaving voters without constructive options, and leaving the nation itself without worthy and inspiring goals, which are necessary to its continuance and integrity.
The idea of a critical election is somewhat esoteric, but it’s a concept that helps us makes sense of what’s happening with the parties. Although Americans may not be conscious that some such redefinition is in the offing, there are signs that both the Democratic and Republican parties are losing their salience and no longer meaningfully organize the mass of the electorate around the issues and goals that matter most to voters. As a consequence, circumstances are ripe for independent party movements or for the redefinition from within of either or both of our dominant political parties. Depending on your temperament, this prospect could be either welcome or alarming.