Rendezvous with destiny
William Natbony is an attorney and business executive specializing in investment management, finance, business law and taxation. He is the author of The Lonely Realist, a blog directed at bridging the partisan gap by raising questions and making pointed observations about politics, economics, international relations and markets.
In his speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, at the height of the 20th Century’s philosophical and political clash between democracy and its domestic and international fascist and communist alternatives, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went all-in on American democracy. America, he said, stood at a crossroads that marked the turn of “a mysterious cycle in human events,” adding that, “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Indeed it did!
In the “mysterious cycle” of the 2020s, today’s generation of Americans also has a rendezvous with destiny. The Great Depression and World War II became the crucible that molded the last Greatest Generation… and it was that generation that was responsible for creating the American-led world order that relegated fascism and communism to the dustbin of history. The US-China rivalry, war in Europe, inflation, declining U.S. influence, etc., are among the challenges the current generation is facing today.
As with all leaders, FDR has both admirers and detractors. His policies reformulated American democracy. They extended – many would say “overextended” – the reach of the federal government. Some historians have argued that FDR’s New Deal policies were necessary steps in preserving America’s democracy, recognizing that any number of politicians, public figures and clergy at the time advocated for a German- or Soviet-style dictatorial, socialist/communist model. Other historians see FDR’s legacy as marking the beginning of a populist slide from capitalism to socialism, from individual freedom to Statism. Both perspectives are correct.
The 1930s marked the beginning of “a mysterious cycle” that led America to adopt more intrusive government policies that provided a safety net from Great Depression privations, though at a cost. The New Deal nevertheless was a visibly successful alternative to Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s Soviet Communism, at the same time facilitating America’s ability to respond to the economic, military and political challenges that foreseeably awaited German and Japanese military adventurism. The New Deal began the slide into Statist policy-making that marked a departure from 150 years of virtually unfettered capitalism. However, coming as it did at the turn of a major economic and political cycle, history properly views it as a necessary set of measures that was successful in revitalizing democracy and delivering economic relief.
President Biden believes that the 2020s presage another turn in the “mysterious cycle.” Unfortunately, President Biden is not FDR…, nor does he have FDR‘s more than 60 percent electoral support. His public statements nevertheless reflect the view that American democracy is as much at risk at home and abroad today as it was in the 1930s, and that history will record the 2020s as the turn in yet another major economic, military and political cycle. Support for that belief is found among any number of commentators, including in the “Principled Perspectives” series authored by Ray Dalio, perhaps today’s foremost purveyor of cycle theory. His research describes historical turns as occurring at 75-100 year intervals.
Moreover, the similarities between the 2020s and the 1930s are striking, both politically and economically. The 1930s witnessed the clash of democracy and fascism/communism at both the international and domestic levels, while the 2020s feature a conflict between democracy and autocracy at the international level and political ideology and culture warfare at the domestic level. There are ~30 international champions of autocracy today that rule over 25 percent of the world’s population. Autocratic governments have seen their greatest impact in China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Hungary and, most recently, in Turkey’s re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Domestically, the conflict is between two extremist forms of populism, each of which advocates statist policies and neither of which articulates a traditional conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat platform. The domestic schism – and its similarities to the 1930s – is neatly-framed in the policies articulated by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.
The foundational linchpin of Governor DeSantis’ platform is the populist premise that the far left has kidnapped America’s government by undemocratically gaining control over the institutions that educate Americans. Governor DeSantis traces America’s problems to a flawed progressive education system that has corrupted – and continues to corrupt – American minds, curtailing freedoms by indoctrinating public school and university students with far-left curricula and books that are based on the diversity, equity and inclusion scripts favored by innately progressive corporate policy-makers and their fellow-travelers in the media. The consequence, he asserts, is a Federal government packed with leftists who parrot indoctrinated progressive views. In his memoir, Governor DeSantis writes that, “Because most major institutions in American life have become thoroughly politicized, protecting people from the imposition of leftist ideology requires more than just defeating leftist measures in the legislative arena.” Governor DeSantis believes that it begins with government intervention in every aspect of the education system. His remedy is for America to adopt the same policies he has pursued in Florida – in short, statism.
“Statism” is a political system in which the State has substantial centralized control over social and economic affairs. It dictates curricula, standards of social interaction, books that can and cannot be read, etc. In many instances, statism understandably leads to authoritarianism (as it has in the roughly 30 autocracies that exist today). Even when intended to be benevolent – as former President Trump, President Biden and Governor DeSantis believe their versions of statism to be –, statism nevertheless is inconsistent with democracy, free enterprise, free speech and individual rights. The sad truth is that there’s little difference between left-wing and right-wing populists’ reliance on the State to solve perceived problems. Solutions are never acceptable to all. Effective democracy entails messy compromises. With today’s tribalist divisions, populist rhetoric will continue to drive both the right and the left to confrontation-over-compromise in an ongoing culture war.
The Ukraine War, the sundering of trust between China and America, the nativist, protectionist retreat from mutually-beneficial trade relationships, the weakening of America’s global influence and of the U.S. dollar, America’s massive debt and deficits, the rise of populist autocracies, etc., are all signs of the start of another “mysterious cycle.” Today’s stalemate means that Americans again are on the cusp of experiencing a Rendezvous with Destiny. The hope is that today’s generation proves itself as capable as America’s Greatest Generation.