I was speaking to juniors at a high school in California last week about history, time, National Parks — making a connection with the past. But then I realized that we are in a moment right now where the challenge is to understand our present. Here’s what I mean — after 9-11, many said America would never be the same. And, two wars later, in a sense that is true. If you wanted to pick a forking event for the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps that was it. And yet, as the Tea Party has played such a large role in the last Congressional election — and thus in Washington’s ability to function, and now Occupy Wall Street goes global — the question is where are we in time?
Are we at the birth of a new 4 party system in which the two main parties splinter? If you recall your US history, the Federalists were once the Conservative pro-business party, the Republicans grew up out the Know-Nothing party, but then became aligned with abolition — in other words parties that now (or until recently) dominate the political landscape were born, grew, evolved, changed. And yet, in the late 19th Century the Greenback Party, the Populists, indeed the Socialists, all faded. They flared up, flared down, faded away. It may be that the niche-ing of our lives — the way Facebook and twitter, and all the infomatic tools that marketing folks have — means we now only speak to ever tighter groups of like-minded people. In that ever more insular digital universe, perhaps we will need more parties to reflect hardened lines. So we may have presidential elections without a clear electoral winner — especially if states continue to splinter off assigning electoral votes by local rather than statewide winners — we may elect a portrait of ourselves: so hunkered down and divided we cannot agree on anything, so we are forced to turn to an equally fractious and partisan Congress — see the election of 1876 to understand how badly that can turn out.
Or maybe it will all fade — by election time Romney and Obama will duke it out to the swell of billions of dollars in advertising and both wings, left and right, will seem like old news. From an educational POV, the question is not just which way all this will play out, but to alert students to the fact that history is happening all around them. They do not need to rush to agree with one side or the other, but they do need to notice — is this the fork in the road that defines our political future? If not, what could or would that be? Where are we in time?