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Today's turn-of-the-century problems

Michael Barone on

Substance abuse is another common theme. Alcohol consumption was actually considerably higher 100 years ago than it is today; Prohibition, which took effect in 1920, really did significantly reduce alcoholism and improve public health. And though oxycodone was not available then, drugs were a problem.

You can see it lurking just around the corners in the turn-of-the-century novels of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris and even the aristocratic Edith Wharton. Respectable forces choked off the explicit narratives we are used to today, not because unrespectable behavior wasn't common but because they knew it was.

Mehlman notes that various political, market and social reforms addressed problems of turn-of-the-century America. He might have added that immigration -- beneficial on the whole but greatly disturbing to many -- was largely ended by legislation in 1924 and wouldn't have continued during the Depression or World War II in any case.

The problems he doesn't mention were addressed, as well -- by public schools dedicated to Americanization, by the outreach of Protestant and Catholic churches and voluntary organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Clearly, something like this could help the people Charles Murray describes as left behind.

But some of the homogenizing forces that produced the high family stability, the cultural consensus and the high church membership of postwar America were pretty dire. The Great Depression tended to equalize incomes and wealth by lowering incomes and destroying wealth. Not desirable, however much you dislike economic inequality.

World War II, with 16 million Americans out of 131 million in the military, brought together people from diverse backgrounds and hostile regions, and GI benefits gave veterans a leg up on attending college and buying homes. Good effects, but no sane person wants a total war.

As Bruce Mehlman suggests, political and economic reforms could address the problems he identifies today as such reforms did 100 years ago. But it's not clear what could be done about the problems he leaves to the side.

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Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News and World Report. Distibuted by Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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