Today America chooses a new president in what is one of the most pivotal elections in history. The world changed sharply during the Bush administration with two recessions, 9/11 attacks, wars in the Middle East, and rising new powers in China and India. The two candidates for President – Senators McCain and Obama – offer distinctly different paths America will take in addressing this new world.
The other elections with similarly important choices occurred not during celebrated modern campaigns such as 1960 (Kennedy v Nixon) or 2000 (Bush v Gore), but in the years when America faced a tranformed world:
- 1952 (Eisenhower v Stevenson) with a war in Korea, a newly communist China, and an assertive communist Russia.
- 1916 (Wilson v Hughes) with 3 decades of war dawning in Europe and industrial transformation at home and abroad.
- 1860 (Lincoln v Others) with America on the verge of the Civil War.
- 1844 (Polk v Clay) with huge consequences for the geographic expansion of the U.S. Without Polk, there would arguably be no Texas, Oregon, Washington, or California in the U.S.A.
- 1824 (JQ Adams v Others) when the young nation was sorting out its political divisions. The ultimate winner was Andrew Jackson who lost in 1824 but came back powerfully in 1828 to serve two terms as a strong centralizer of power.
This election may be similarly pivotal. Surely there will be critical decisions the next President makes regarding the Supreme Court and global economic policy. And yet something about this entire post-1990 era reminds me of another political low point in U.S. political history. The Second Industrial revolution in America occurred during roughly 1870-1900, and at that time the most important things shaping society were technological changes from steam power to electricity — trains, telegraphy, and the whole climate of innovation.
Today’s Presidents may be in the same historical box. The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s is similar sociologically to the end of the Civil War in the early 1860s. The next forty years saw politics take a back seat to technological change. It did not seem so at the time, but it is obvious to us now.
Carnegie, Rockefeller, Edison dominated Blaine, Cleveland, Hayes. So who will history remember from our time? Gates, Jacobs, Berners-Lee or Bush, Clinton, McCain, and Obama? As Joel Achenbach writes, “The ability of the White House to rivet our attention is not matched by its ability to shape daily life. The most important event of the last 25 years, for example, may not have been anything that came out of the political world, but rather the development of the personal computer and the Internet, which in turn played a key role in circulating capital on a global scale at the touch of a button.”