Judge Steven Platt: Do We Still Believe in the Future?

The Maryland State Board of Elections has extended the days for early voting in the fall. Photo by the Howard County Board of Elections.

In 1953, Bernard Baruch, a financier and adviser to Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman, made remarks on CBS Radio titled, “Why I Still Believe in the Future.” His words have been repeated and reprinted many times since.

As we reach the second half of the year 2020 and look back at the very visible and audible anger and frustration of both those who vote, and those who don’t in our country and around the smaller and flatter world we live in, I couldn’t help but recall those words which I first heard and read about 10 years ago. When I did, I found myself reflecting on the optimism which those words evoked during a time, like now, when the frustration, anger and cynicism of the people of our country and indeed the world, dominated the media landscape.

Steven I. Platt

The difference which I notice between the decade leading up to this past year, 2020, and the decade which proceeded the year 1953, which I have only read about, is one of degree, not kind. In 2020, it seems to me that there are more politicians, which I define as anyone who seeks political office, particularly the highest office in the land, whether they call themselves an “outsider” or not, seeking to convert the peoples’ frustration, anger and cynicism to their own use — i.e., fulfilling of their partisan, ideological, or even personal psychological “talk therapy” needs and ambitions.

These manipulations may be designed to eliminate or at least ameliorate the candidate’s personal insecurities and resentments or an arguably loftier purpose, but whatever they are, they are destructive.

The causes of the peoples’ anger, frustration, and cynicism have been intensifying over the last decade and have been documented by exit polling in what has been described by a seemingly captivated mainstream media as the “change elections” of 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2016. Those causes are a combination of economic, political, psychological and sociological conditions.

They are, therefore, not likely to be remedied by a single election and certainly not an election that results in more broken promises by the candidates of today and the elected officials of tomorrow, who out of ignorance of our governmental structure and operations, demagoguery or both, campaigned promising things that he or she couldn’t politically or even constitutionally accomplish even if his or her life depended on it.

As New York Times syndicated columnist and author most recently of a book called “Character,” David Brooks, points out, “the heart of any moral system is the connection between action and consequences. Today’s public anger on both the right and left arises from the belief that this connection has been severed in one realm after another – public and private.” Terrorists (Isis, Isil, Al Qaeda, etc.) kill innocent women and children, but we, the “good guys,” don’t “take them out.” The greed of Wall Street financiers sends the world into recession and keeps upping their unfair share of our riches and politicians who we elect “don’t do anything about it.” The IRS targets average citizens legally and NSA spies on us unnecessarily, but they do so with “impunity.”

These are some of the complaints of a populace that’s at best dissatisfied and at worst restless and anxiety-ridden about the future.

This does not, however, mean that this current reality is immutable. While in 2020, we seem to have more than our fair share of partisans, ideologues, demagogues, and charlatans on both the left and right playing on our worst instincts, none of whom need or deserve any further acknowledgement or recognition from me, prior eras had their own versions of these poster children – the Joe McCarthys, George Wallaces, the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, etc.

Is the anxiety of the body politic today, while different, any worse than what Bernard Baruch described in 1953 as “the thunder of war, the stench of concentration camps, the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb, and the threat of a terrible holocaust clouding all of our tomorrows”? As Baruch noted, “these are not conducive to optimism.”

Despite this metaphorical dark cloud cover, Baruch proclaimed in 1953 and thereafter “my faith in the future though somewhat shaken is not destroyed.” He then explained, “I sometimes doubt that man will achieve his “mortal potentialities,” but I never doubt that he can.

Baruch based his optimism on his faith “in the power of the human mind to cope with the problems of life” and his conclusion that “to nothing so much as the abandonment of reason does humanity owe its sorrows” an “whatever failures I have known, whatever errors I have committed, whatever follies I have witnessed in private and public life have been the consequence of action without thought.”

We have therefore been forewarned of the perils of “action without thought.” We should heed that warning, which is based on history and experience. We should also be wary of thoughts, even in a campaign context, that are unaccompanied and devoid of analysis.

We live in a complex world that is increasingly interconnected. Addressing that complexity is not accomplished by being “politically correct” — but complexity is also not effectively dealt with by oversimplification of issues for partisan, ideological or religious purposes, whether politically correct or not.

Bernard Baruch would say we can in fact solve our problems by placing our trust in the unfettered intellect, reason, wisdom, and compassion of smart individuals, not in crowds. The collective blogosphere, talk radio, and cable TV, tea parties and interest groups — whether claiming omniscience, heavenly blessing, or other supernatural powers or origins — do not address any reality except their own. That said, let’s try analytics in the next few years. We might just like it!

— STEVEN I. PLATT

The writer is a Senior Circuit Court Judge.