burning of white house

200 years ago last Sunday, British soldiers burned Congress and the White House, causing President Madison to flee the capital, and marking the nadir for American soldiers (and, perhaps, our nascent nation), who would afterward rally to a draw.

battle of liege

100 years ago this week, news of the fiery Battle of Liège, where Germany killed 20,000 Belgians in its opening salvo of the First World War, spread around the world, causing France to fortify its defenses and Britain to enter the war.

What are we doing this week? Not learning, that’s what.

European and American historians have often marked 1914 as the “real” beginning of the 20th century, and what they mean is that even after Queen Victoria died in January 1901, in many ways the Victorian era continued for another 13 years. Class codes were hardly disrupted; novelists generally wrote about God in reverent terms; technology was generally considered benign; relations amongst developed nations generally proceeded as they had for the previous century, save for a rhetorical flourish or two. As the many anniversary notices have lately attested, it was the Great War that really swept away the Old Order of the 19th century, leveling empires, enfranchising women, proving the deadliness of new technologies (like mustard gas, machine guns, and tanks), and causing most of a continent to question its faith in God. (Enter Marx and Freud, stage left.)

You could make a reasonable case that the European-American 19th century began in 1814 or 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which were something of a hangover from France’s tumult of the end of the 18th century. From 1815 (Waterloo) to 1914 (just after Liège), no British soldier fired a shot in anger on the continent. Yes, there were minor wars in Crimea and Alsace-Lorraine and Africa, but the post-Enlightenment century in Europe was remarkably stable…that’s one reason no one believed that 1914 would become as deadly as it became.

On the American side, the burning of the White House marked a turning point, not just for the war, but for the fledgling country. The United States had lived in perpetual fear of Britain and France since before the beginning. Every single policy of the American government – from the founding documents, to Washington’s first acts as President, to the Quasi-War, to the Louisiana Purchase, to impressment of sailors, right up to the War of 1812 – was in some way a triangulation between Britain and France, to keep either from being able to swallow us up. After the Treaty of Ghent ended our part in the Napoleonic Wars, we really said Goodbye to All That.

The Founding Fathers held considerable sway over our nation through Madison’s re-election in 1812 – but after Madison abandoned ship, the writers of the Constitution lost their halo. The nation turned instead to Congress, led by people like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and John Calhoun, and to a brash young general named Andrew Jackson. More importantly, we turned away from Britain and France and toward our own affairs. James Monroe was able to campaign in 1816 on bringing forth an “Era of Good Feelings” (feelings? What the hell were those? How very post-Enlightenment) and for at least a century afterward, history books duly taught that Monroe’s presidency, from 1816 to 1824, was exactly that. The truth was more complicated: people in Florida didn’t feel too good about Jackson’s imperial ventures, and the battles over the Missouri Compromise – presaging the Civil War – were not feelgood affairs. Still, America, like Europe post-Napoleon, turned a page 200 years ago.

What about now? Yeah, right.

As this recent New Yorker article about Rick Perlstein’s books attests, we’re still basically living in the 1970s: oil prices are always shocking, inflation never stops being worrisome, we maintain something like the opposite of faith in our President.

It’s true that it felt like the century began on 9/11, and you can make a case for a post-9/11 century based on more than just our foreign policy and security policies; the wired, smartphone-enabled era has well and truly begun. But outside of our digital lives (can we even think outside those anymore?), too much of our public lives seem bogged down by paradigms from the 20th century. Wall Street controls our politicians; wages have flatlined since forever; race relations are based on fighting over a “victim mentality” and white privilege; the two parties have perfected nothing other than the art of the stalemate. Our century’s only two Presidents are perhaps the most aloof public figures of our time; they don’t want to work for love or votes (unlike Bill Clinton), and we really don’t want to give to them. Outside the tech industry and their own family and friends, do Americans like anything about the 21st century? We need an Era of Better Feelings.

It shouldn’t take a major war for us to change. Frankly, we have changed, but our politicians haven’t caught up. 42% of Americans, according to Gallup, identify with neither party, the highest number since Gallup started asking. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 76% of American adults weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than them. 71% think the country is on the wrong track. 30% expressed confidence in the Supreme Court, 29% in the presidency, 7% (seven percent!) in Congress. These are all historic highs. For the first time, a majority disapproves even of their own Congressman. Though we’re not in recession, a plurality, 49%, thinks we are. As Doug Sosnik wrote in Politico, “It is difficult to overstate the depth of the anger and alienation that a majority of all Americans feel toward the federal government.”

Despite all this, entrenched interests on K Street and Wall Street enforce a zero-sum game between the parties, not utterly unlike the zero-sum game that was our War of 1812 (let’s invade Canada from Detroit! Never mind! Rinse, repeat) or the let’s-move-six-inches-in-two-years trench warfare of World War I. But eventually, the fever broke, and the survivors got on with their lives. You’d like to think that our grandchildren will someday read about our fever breaking.

The moment is ripe. It wouldn’t take much to mobilize our mood.

All we need is one famous person – say, Meryl Streep – to run on a populist platform something like Huey Long’s. If Ross Perot could pull 19% of the vote in 1992 (and poll at 35% that summer), how well can a genuinely populist third party do now, considering those current numbers? Even if money wins and the populists come in third, our rhetoric will shift the other two parties toward the kind of problem-solving that feels all but impossible right now.

Can we begin this 21st century already?

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