BERKELEY – The odds are now about 36% that the United States will be in a recession next year. The reason is entirely political: partisan polarization has reached levels never before seen, threatening to send the US economy tumbling over the “fiscal cliff” – the automatic tax increases and spending cuts that will take effect at the beginning of 2013 unless Democrats and Republicans agree otherwise.
More than a century ago, during the first Gilded Age, American politics was sharply polarized as well. In 1896, future President Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican attack dog. He denounced Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as a mere puppet of the sinister governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld.
Bryan, Roosevelt said, “would be as clay in the hands of the potter under the astute control of the ambitious and unscrupulous Illinois communist.” The “free coinage of silver” would be “but a step towards the general socialism which is the fundamental doctrine of his political belief.” He and Altgeld “seek to overturn the...essential policies which have controlled the government since its foundation.”
Such language is as extreme as any we hear today – and from a man who was shortly to become Vice President (and later President, following the assassination of William McKinley). We have heard Texas Governor Rick Perry call obliquely for the lynching of his fellow Republican, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, should he come to the Lone Star State. And we have seen Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach explore the possibility of removing President Barack Obama from the ballot in Kansas, because, Kobach suggested, Obama is “not a natural-born citizen.”