THE BLOG

Taking Comfort in the Zig-Zagging of American History

11/10/2010 11:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2010-11-09-ZigZag8.jpg Like most everybody else on my side of the aisle, I've been casting around for ways to make sense of the midterm debacle. I regained some crucial perspective by looking at the past, which can tell us a great deal about the present.

I created these graphs to represent the zig-zagging of progressive trends in American history. The baseline is the United States at its inception. Considering the lack of rights for woman and slaves, not to mention the genocide of native Americans, the first line zigs rather slowly upwards until 1861. The Civil War constitutes the first great zag, as one half of the country manifested the intense fear of change inherent in every backlash to come.

The next long zig doesn't rise very sharply either. The freeing of the slaves was an unquestionable improvement, but the sharecropper south made for a dismal brand of liberty. Still, America's long boom certainly improved more lives than robber-baron wealth blighted, and women's suffrage and the migration of blacks to northern cities changed millions of lives for the better. The Crash of 1929 and the Depression marked the next zag, followed by the longterm zig sparked by the New Deal and the host of social legislation that went with it.

The next zag came with McCarthyism, as the bogeyman of Communism embodied a lot of unspoken fears about the undercurrents of incipient social change. The long zig of the Civil Rights movement followed, coming to fruition along with the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid.

Then came the zag of Vietnam and Richard Nixon, girded by the "silent majority" (which presaged the "moral" one.) Carter was perceived as a failure, but he wasn't, really. Reagan, perceived as a huge success, actually blew up deficits, damaged the environment and skewed the economy in favor of the wealthy. It took Bill Clinton 8 years to repair the damage -- his tenure looks increasingly ziggier with time.

George Bush, what a zag. Two unfunded wars, gargantuan deficits, an economy left in shambles. Those conditions made Obama's zig all the more impressive -- a list of legislative accomplishments unparalleled since LBJ. Unfortunately, the economy he saved from a second Depression couldn't recover far and fast enough to spare us from the most recent zag of the Teapublican sweep of the midterms.

Being in the middle of a zag is like speeding around a hairpin curve on a winding mountain road. It's hard not to panic, much less think you're headed in the wrong direction. But over time, history does bend upward (and to the left). The future really is on our side. (On this topic, I would be derelict not to recommend Tim Wise's most excellent piece, "An Open Letter to the White Right," presently going viral.)