Welcome to Talking Politics, KBIA’s Weekly show dedicated to talking about local and national politics. Today Terry Smith, a Columbia College political science professor and regular political commentator for KBIA, returns to the show for a commentary about an analogy he sees between a childhood passion of his and today’s presidential politics. The transcription of Terry Smith's commentary is below.
I got a book for Christmas on one of my favorite subjects: trains. It is full of gorgeous pictures of steam locomotives and famous passenger trains. The florid prose portrays the days when railroads were THE way to travel and ship goods and, in intimate, technical detail, describes how those massive locomotives worked. Some of them weighed more than a million pounds.
Back in the day you could go almost anywhere in America on a train. Both Columbia and Kirksville had two railroads with passenger service. There were four railroads with direct passenger service between St. Louis and Kansas City. Many industries rose up around railroads. Railroads employed hundreds of thousands of workers and all of them had strong unions. Railroads were all about heavy industry and manufacturing, the heart of the country’s economy.
I’m old enough to remember the end of the golden days of railroading. To a seven-year-old standing in a gondola car five feet away, the City of New Orleans blasting by at 95 mph, followed five minutes later by the Panama Limited, is something you don’t forget. If you are into the romance of the rails, as I am, this book is for you: Pure nostalgia for a time that is long gone.
Never mind that old-time railroading was inefficient, an environmental disaster, hyper-regulated by the federal government, and subject to financial chicanery that makes the recent Wall Street shenanigans look like a child shaking a piggy bank. But I was nonetheless wistful when I finished the book. And when I reentered the world of 2016, the book made me think of presidential politics.
The vocal right wants to turn back the clock to days when everyone went to church and knew their place and cities were safe and American was respected, if not feared, abroad. The vocal left wants to turn back the clock to big government, big labor and small military.
There are problems with this. You folks on the right: You can’t force people to go to church. Women and minorities will never again be second-class citizens. Cities were never safe; there was just less sensationalistic media coverage of crime. The U.S. was respected and feared until the Vietnam disaster. What has happened since has not been pretty.
You folks on the left: Big government is unaccountable government and expensive government. Who is going to protect the public interest? Who is going to pay for it? You can soak the rich and still be far short of the revenue necessary for your schemes. Big labor was also too often corrupt labor and unproductive labor. And in the early 1940s we learned an almost-fatal lesson about having too small a military.
To borrow a phrase: Those trains have left the station. They are out of sight down the track. And many Americans are left on the platform, waiting for a party or candidate who presents a compelling – but realistic – future. They are not wondering when another train is coming along. They are wondering IF another train is coming along.