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Did a Minnesota legislator from long ago predict our current political mess?

The author was not a time traveler from science fiction but Ignatius Donnelly, one-time Minnesota senator and representative, lieutenant governor and U.S. congressman.

Ignatius Donnelly
Ignatius Donnelly
One hundred and thirty years ago a Minnesota legislator published a novel set 100 years in the future. It predicted the violent demise of the United States resulting from wealth inequality and corruption.

The author was not a time traveler from science fiction but Ignatius Donnelly, a one-time Minnesota senator and representative, lieutenant governor and U.S. congressman. Donnelly was possibly the best known Minnesotan of the 19th century. He was a leader of the budding national reform movement and also the author of a best seller about Atlantis, a pseudo-scientific yarn about a lost civilization with heavy moral overtones.

Donnelly tried his hand at imaginative fiction several times with stories about social upheaval. His most interesting political parable, “Caesar’s Column,” a melodramatic tale set in 1988, anticipates the futuristic work of H.G. Wells. In his book Donnelly shows how bad things can get as a result of unchecked wealth and power. He depicts the U.S. being destroyed after a bloody uprising of the poor and disenfranchised. Donnelly seems intent on providing a political as well as moral lesson about what comes from wretched economic excess.

Now, several decades after Donnelly’s timeline, national upheaval — if not imminent war — is again in the air. How seriously should we take provocative remarks by public figures, including the president, that incite civil disruption and violence? For example, a Stanford historian has asked how and why the country has arrived on the brink of a “veritable civil war.” Iowa Rep.  Steve King warned that red states have “8 trillion bullets” in the event of a civil war, and a poll conducted in June 2018 found that 31% of probable U.S. voters believe that a second civil war is likely within the next five years.

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A new civil war scenario is fueled by lopsided economic conditions and inflamed cultural conflicts that have created a desperately struggling and disaffected citizenry who are primed to “shake things up” in a big way. Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen (“Average Is Over”) confidently predicts a coming era of drastically reduced living standards for most Americans. He expects that a future United States will resemble today’s Texas. Many folks move to that state for low taxes, cheap real estate and a better chance of finding a job, however minimal. Their tradeoff is a poor educational system, skimpy health insurance coverage for many, subpar public services, and high crime, not to mention the heat or humidity. Employment prospects for those without trade experience, high tech or professional skills may increasingly resemble work life in an Amazon warehouse.

Professor Cowen, speaking from his Koch brothers endowed faculty chair at George Mason University, believes that Americans will make this bargain in order to have “more cash in their pocket” to buy the goods they need to survive. Unfortunately he may be right about the shape of things to come. Added to the bad news for the 85-90% of U.S. population not belonging to the privileged meritocracy is a shrinking life expectancy resulting from inadequate health care (access, cost) and premature death from despair: drugs, alcoholism, suicide.

Larry Struck
Larry Struck
So even without an all-out national conflagration we can anticipate an era of semi-feudal stability agreeable to the ruling plutocracy. The overused image of a frog in water slowly heating to a boil seems apt. Symptoms: increasing class, racial and income segregation in housing and social life; more money and corruption in politics; weakening of constitutional and legal restraints — all leading to the demise of realistic economic opportunity for the majority, aka The American Dream. Being deprived of access to the good life unsurprisingly leads to anger, cynicism, and resentment, which are not solid pillars for a functioning democracy. Unhappy voters can blow off steam between elections by demonizing or attacking immigrants, minorities or your generic “other.” Warnings about these ominous trends come and go almost daily. Who remembers the stir created by Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster “Capital,” which analyzed global financial ills?

With these dark clouds on the horizon we can reasonably wonder how the country landed in its current predicament. Explanations abound, from failures of capitalism to our innate neuro-programming. I’m partial to an anthropological diagnosis originally applied to societies that collapse or became extinct. In “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” Jared Diamond sees four stages of a society’s failure to address large-scale problems like climate change or resource depletion:

  • A problem, let’s say political corruption or dysfunctional wealth disparities, is not anticipated.
  • The problem is anticipated but not perceived when it arrives, e.g. seen as unimportant.
  • The problem may be anticipated and perceived, but no action is taken to address it, e.g. too much trouble, or we’ll deal with it later.
  • The problem is anticipated, perceived and addressed, but the attempted solutions fail.

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Using this explanatory scheme you can take your pick where we went wrong and why. Getting the train back on track before all the wheels come off is the future challenge. Granted, there are those who will say, “What problem? The market’s fine. The people are having their say! “ That’s a discussion for another time if we can find enough common ground.

If he were around today, no doubt Ignatius Donnelly would probably not be too surprised by our political turmoil having seen the first Gilded Age unfold. One hundred years before his dystopian novel was written, an earlier American made a prescient remark. In 1786 as the U.S. was forming, George Washington wrote this enduring political assessment to James Madison:  “No morn ever dawned more favorable than ours did, and no day was ever more clouded than the present.” Still true today, there is so much promise and potential in the U.S. if we can manage to get past our self-inflicted screw-ups. Whether we can restore the Founders’ original vision will depend on how much is left to work with after the dust settles. There may be more rebuilding to do than we imagine because, as another Minnesotan named Dylan mused, “Look out kid, they keep it all hid … the pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.”

Larry Struck is a writer based in Edina.

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