Citing a book I’ve always meant to read but haven’t yet—Benjamin Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth--Matthew Yglesias makes a very interesting point: that a crisis doesn’t represent an opportunity; that people become more selfish, clannish, and parochial—attitudes that don’t correlate well with liberalism—as bad times visit them. The implication here is that a recession is a bad time to attempt major liberal reform, and indeed Yglesias thinks that the attitude that crisis represents opportunity is borne out of a “simplistic reading of the New Deal.”
It’s an interesting idea, but let's take a look at the historical evidence. Here are the periods in American history I associate with major reform: the Jacksonian period*, the Civil War, the Progressive period, the New Deal and the Great Society. Of these five, three began in periods that were economically expansionary—Jacksonian, Progressive, and Great Society—but three had a feeling of general crisis. Those were the Civil War, the Progressive period, and the New Deal—people forget this now, but the Progressive period was punctuated in its early days by strikes, class warfare, financial crises (e.g. Panic of 1907), general inequality, and corrupt government, all of which engendered a feeling in the Progressive intelligentsia that Something had gone very Wrong. And of course the Great Society’s achievements basically all took place in an America that had a very…interesting feeling: Kennedy had just been assassinated and those Communists were always a problem (on the other hand, the true crises of the 60s occurred after the Great Society’s signature legislative achievements were enacted).
*Note: I hate to use the term “Jacksonian period” because Andrew Jackson was a jerk and not a very good President besides. He had few achievements and many blunders. But significant progress did occur during the period and historians have chosen to call it that and…jeez. Just don’t call him a good President. In fact, of all the Presidents on our money, Jackson is just slightly ahead of Kennedy as an undeserving honoree. I’d love to kick both off their money and put some different figures on. But this is a subject for sometime else: Jackson, not great President. I refuse to endorse the conventional wisdom on that point.
So consider the historical evidence mixed on the point of “crises produce opportunity.” Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that we wasted an opportunity in 2009: Democrats had 60 seats. That’s more than enough.