Karl Marx famously quipped that great historical events and personages appear twice, first as tragedy and second as farce. The tragedy he had in mind was the French Revolution and the farce was its pale successor that took place in France in 1848. To the contrary, events leading up to the revolution turn Marx’s formulation around, in that farce preceded tragedy. A second example that demonstrates this historical dyslexia was an attempt to forestall the Civil War called the Crittenden Compromise. Both historical occurrences offer hard lessons for political leaders today.
First, events leading to the French Revolution demonstrate a sort of perfect storm of fiscal insanity by a regime that, in modern parlance, was enthralled to its political “base” at the expense of responsibility to the great majority of citizens in the most advanced country in Europe. The problem began at the top with Louis XVI, an unimaginative slob who was more interested in gluttony than governing; his most insightful observation was that he was not fit for the job that fell into his lap when his grandfather, Louis XV, died in 1774. The elder left him with an aristocracy that was expensive, parasitic, politically intransigent, and economically harmful. He also bequeathed a huge debt dating back to Louis XIV. This trio of Louises left France bankrupt.
Now a responsible leader would have exercised leadership by hiring tough and experienced counselors, acting on their advice, and dealing with the problem aggressively, but Number XVI did none of that. Instead, he continued to seek short-term political advantage, blaming and firing advisers and much more, against the backdrop of looming national catastrophe. The fiscal mess did not get better, and in fact took a huge turn for the worse when the horrible winter of 1788-89 afflicted the country, instigating famine, hatred, radicalism, and eventually revolution. The only thing left for Louis to do was to call for a meeting of the Estates General, inaugurating a series of events that eventually led to his beheading.
Many lessons emerge from this experience. For one, real reform is impossible unless you have a leader with the stomach for the job and, frankly, the courage to carry it out. Second, playing musical chairs with advisers is a waste of time; ministers come and go, but unless hard decisions are made, problems remain. Statesmanship succumbed to farce in that Louis XVI’s thick-headed efforts to keep his regime in power and avoid tragedy virtually guaranteed its occurrence on a much vaster scale.
Pairing these points with the lesson of the Crittenden Compromise completes our story. This proposal was a last-ditch effort to preserve the Union by restoring the Missouri Compromise, forbidding the abolition of slaveholding on Federal property in the South, and respecting the property that consisted of American slaves. Most newly elected Republicans reacted with horror for the simple reason that voting for the Crittenden Compromise would eradicate the Republican Party’s reason for being, the whole point of its existence, which is why President Lincoln refused to take it seriously. Though offered as a serious proposal, it was actually an exercise in self-delusion that would have only postponed the inevitable; the issue of slavery by this point was beyond compromise. In short, it was a farce, well-meaning but irrelevant to an ultimate solution to the problem.
America’s current farce, ready to give birth to tragedy, involves the Obama Administration’s teleprompter-challenged reactions to economic recovery, describing job-creation failure as merely a “bump on the road.” The administration’s acceptance of trillions in new debt to try to reduce unemployment and stimulate economic growth goes beyond farce and borders on the pathological.
Republicans are hardly any better. Any proposal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for cutting a few trillion dollars in spending is a farce; what is the point of having a “ceiling” if it can always be raised? This Crittenden Compromise-like quid pro quo should be rejected as firmly as President Lincoln’s congressional Republicans rejected its original version in 1860. Both Republicans and Democrats need an Abraham Lincoln-like epiphany—which the 16th president experienced after the Battle of Shiloh—that teaches both sides that the country’s enormous financial obligations cannot just be “lowered” or “controlled” like the spread of slavery; deficits must be ended and debt must be paid for, period. Absent this, don’t expect a positive outcome to the travails of the summer of 2011; American leadership on both sides of the aisle so far has not demonstrated enough courage to face an issue that has dispatched great nations in the past.
There have been arguably three watershed moments in American history: the founding, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. Count the 2012 elections as a likely number four. Unless our elected leaders eliminate this civilization-threatening level of indebtedness, there likely will not be a number five. In the meantime, may the farce be with you, because tragedy is just around the corner.