Jeremi Suri: Lessons From a Fallen Empire

Americans are more innovative than ever, says UT historian Jeremi Suri—but our government isn’t. To ensure future excellence, Suri argues, we must look to the past.

Vienna was the center of European creativity from 1780-914. It was the city of Mozart and Beethoven, of Klimt and Kokoschka. Vienna pioneered modern art as we know it. And the Austro-Hungarian capital led the new science of psychoanalysis with the work of Sigmund Freud and his many followers. The mix of ethnicities and cultures in this uniquely cosmopolitan 19th-century city made it a true crucible of innovation and creativity. You can still see and hear the remnants of that long-gone golden age today in the music, the art, and the libraries that have outlasted their political masters.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918, but not because it failed to cultivate new ideas or nurture personal freedom. Like the U.S. today, it was filled with expressive, entrepreneurial, and free-thinking groups. The problem was that the Habsburg political system, which for three centuries had held diverse groups together, generated remarkable wealth, and defeated foreign tyrants (notably Napoleon), failed to adjust to new demands for national independence and democratic participation.

Franz-Josef served as emperor for more than 60 years before his death in 1916, as a pious, hard-working, and fair-minded political leader. He even encouraged equality for Jews at a time of rising anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Nonetheless, the system of imperial monarchy that he directed failed to address the growing demands for independence, development, and wealth redistribution throughout his lands. Despite his efforts, he was a prisoner of a stagnant and outdated set of political institutions.

Even with the best of leaders and institutions, large societies cannot prosper if they cannot adjust to change. At the same time that the cosmopolitan city of Vienna entered a terminal crisis in 1914, much more provincial cities like Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland led a rapid growth in American wealth and power behind their flexible political systems of governance.

These Midwestern cities were the heart of a Progressive Movement that courageously assessed the needs of businesses and citizens at the time, and experimented with institutions in ways that traditional Europeans would never contemplate. The Progressives believed in the U.S. Constitution, but they took their inspiration from the needs of the time, what William James and John Dewey called a “pragmatic” impulse.

Pragmatic reforms were the engine behind the transformations that allowed American society to grow and adjust while European society stagnated. Americans in the late 19th century created the public high school before any other society, with the expectation that all workers needed some basic vocational and intellectual preparation for a modern economy.

Americans invested in railroads and highways on a scale that no other society would match until Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Most important, Americans expanded political participation for poor citizens, for immigrants, and for women beyond other countries at the time. (African-Americans, still frequently denied the right to vote in the former Confederacy, were the notable exception to this final trend.)

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire entered the First World War, it was a sophisticated but stagnant political regime. When the U.S. entered the First World War, it had a still provincial but incredibly dynamic government, ready to experiment with new policies and institutions, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve System to manage a modern economy in 1913. People in Chicago and Detroit were not better innovators than their counterparts in Vienna, but they had a government that was more responsive and encouraging of their new solutions for contemporary challenges.

This basic historical analysis is the source of my combined frustration and optimism about the future of the U.S. in the early 21st century. Our society is filled with more creative young people than ever before. Just look at our technology, our medicine, our entertainment industries, and our university campuses. No other country has as many diverse individuals pushing the boundaries of innovation on a daily basis. We continue to nurture and attract the best people in these and other fields. American society is as creative as it has ever been, as impressive as the Vienna of Mozart and Beethoven.

The problem is our governance, and that is the source of my frustration. I believe this is a frustration shared by millions of other Americans. Our political system that served us so well in the past does not harness the creativity of our citizens today. It does not address the core challenges that most need flexibility and innovation. Our political system is stagnant and non-responsive to needs across society. Our political system often disgusts us in its daily operations, and it does not inspire us. Citizens do not look up to our politicians for good reason.

Despite all of our new technology, we have failed to build 21st-century infrastructure for our society. Our electrical power grid, our roads, our airports—they are all crumbling. Despite our remarkable advances in medicine, we have made absolutely no progress during the last decade in delivering health care to all citizens in a way that is affordable, cost-effective, and sustainable. We are, in fact, bankrupting ourselves because we cannot manage the best medicine in the world.

And then there is education. Since the 1970s, our system of education has failed to provide the social mobility for hard-working people of modest means that it pioneered in prior generations. Children of well-educated professional parents get a high quality education today, preparing them for success. Children of poorly educated non-professional parents get an inferior education, and they are statistically stuck in the same circumstances where they started. What happened to the American dream of self-improvement for the unwashed masses?

The real “game changer” for the American future is whether our society can summon the will to bring the creative impulses of our citizens into government. We have good solutions for our challenges, but they are not getting attention from our government as it exists. American citizens must demand creative leaders and more dynamic political institutions, as they have not in the last decade. American voters must begin, as they did in the late nineteenth century, by electing school board leaders, mayors, and governors who offer innovative policies, not the empty rhetoric about cutting waste or class warfare that animates this year’s presidential election so far. The U.S. needs more innovative and responsive government if it is to avoid the fate of Habsburg Vienna.

Jeremi Suri photo via Game Changers video.

Vienna photo circa 1910-1915, via the Library of Congress.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at UT, where he has appointments in the Department of History, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and the Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

This article first appeared on the Global Trends 2030 blog, moderated by LBJ School assistant professor William Inboden.


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