In 1895, H.G. Wells wrote the classic science fiction tale The Time Machine, with its ingenious concept of being able to travel through time and to see a future that has been destined by the actions of the present.
America at the turn of the 20th century was in a state of political flux and tumult. Industry was rapidly developing an ever more enormous presence, not only in our economy but also in terms of the influence it could wield on its own behalf. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” was growing, with workers forced into low-paying, long-hour jobs while industry leaders reaped record profits with no intention of rewarding their workforce accordingly.
And with “the fabric of society” being threatened by anarchists (including the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901) civil liberties were taking a back seat, especially when it came to union protests for better wages, shorter work hours per day, and safe working conditions. Capitalism, unfettered, was proving to be a “winner take all” economy that served the few and left the many in a post-industrial revolution serfdom.
The protagonist In Wells’s book, an English scientist, would travel past 800,000 A.D. to land in a time almost unrecognizable from his own. But if we (with apologizes to Mr. Wells) changed his time traveler to an American who only went to the year 2011, would he find this country quite different or all too familiar?
Would he feel we had made progress, or would he see a nation that more than 100 years later struggles to bring the fruits of progress to a majority of its citizens and not just the privileged few?
Would compassion, and the once-conservative idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” be in fashion, or would these be looked upon as elements of a socialist conspiracy to rob the wealthy?
Our time traveler could have saved himself the trouble, because the political landscape of today mirrors in many ways the time he would have left behind. The middle classes, boosted, as economist Robert Reich often states, by the greatest economic recovery between 1945 to 1970, now have seen their salaries flat-line, their investments falter because of reckless traders who are severely under-regulated, and their medical costs skyrocket. While most modern countries around the globe provide quality, affordable health care to all their citizens as a basic right, the very idea of providing health insurance in a “Medicare for all” approach is framed here as a villainous conspiracy to rob the well-off who by the way provide jobs for the rest.
So our 19th Century time traveler will have come a long way for nothing. Just as in his time, he will find an America where industry continues to create a wide schism between owner and worker; where one political party uses its power for deregulation, while the other is ineffective in its attempts to balance the scales. Moreover he will confront the harsh reality that greed goes unchecked for the most part and is even glorified as American exceptionalism.