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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Politics and Fourth Turnings

As many readers know by now, William Strauss and Neil Howe, who wrote Generations and The Fourth Turning, divided American history into periods of approximately 80 years, called saeculums (Latin for a long human life.) In turn they divided each such period into four "turnings," a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling and a Crisis. After the civil war crisis, the High lasted approximately from 1867 to 1885, the Awakening from about 1885 to 1905, the Unraveling until 1929 or so, and the crisis through 1945. In our own time the High ran from 1945 to 1965, the Awakening from then until the mid-1980s, the Unraveling from about 1985 until. . .sometime in the last 8 years. (Future students will decide when the crisis began largely based upon what happens in the next ten years or so. I suspect that if there is a Democratic resurgence and a turn away from low taxes, income inequality, torture and imperialism in the Middle East, the Bush years will rank as the end of the Unraveling, but if present trends continue--which frankly seems more likely to me these days--we shall date the crisis to 9/11/2001.)

Each turning has a different style of politics. The High is the era of consensus, with cooperation between the major parties but intolerance of any extreme dissent. Because it follows the crisis it is also often an era of relatively high taxation in an effort to shrink the accumulated debt. The Awakening generally involves a loosening of social bounds, some reforms of obvious injustices, and the emergence of new concerns such as the environment (which was a very hot issue in each of the last two Awakenings.) It also has always been a time of greater interest in women's rights. The state weakens, politics become more partisan, and cultural issues become important during the Unraveling, while aging professional politicians struggle to find enough common ground to hold things together (as Bill Clinton did in the 1990s.) But the Crisis is an apocalyptic period. Rhetoric becomes controversial and absolutist, and opposing world views fight to shape the next five decades or so.

Karl Rove, I feel quite sure, has read Strauss and Howe. Although they have never been seriously treated at length in a major newspaper or magazine (and the only really good review either book got in the mainstream press was written by yours truly), they are known through the grapevine, and Rove is obsessed with history. But in any case, the Bush Administration and the Republican Party have generally held the initiative for the last seven years--and seem to have regained it since their 2006 defeat--precisely because their rhetoric has been far more appropriate to a crisis era than that of the Democrats. The past, they have proclaimed again and again, is irrelevant--we are in a new era calling for new principles. Holding their beliefs with religious fervor, they never admit a mistake. Most of all, they stay relentlessly "on message"--the tactic which one White House official predicted would enable them to prevail even against a Democratic Congress. And indeed, it has.

Triangulation remains the Democratic tactic of choice. The Congress has repeatedly caved in on civil liberties issues, and now, thanks to Diane Feinstein and Chuck Schumer, it will confirm the third consecutive Attorney General who has proclaimed that Presidential power is absolute. Charles Rangel is now introducing a bill to roll back some of the Administration's tax cuts, and the Democratic leadership is running for cover. The Congress does not want to close the loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay 15% taxes on most of their income, while upper middle class Americans pay a marginal rate of twice that. It continues appropriating money for the Iraq war while trying to make capital of scandals like Blackwater which are the inevitable consequences of fighting it in the first place. And on Iran, the pressing issue of the moment, most of the candidates are not disputing the idea that Iran must somehow be prevented from having nuclear weapons and that a US attack cannot be ruled out. None of the front-runners, for instance, suggested during last week's debate that we should not attack Iran without a Security Council resolution authorizing an attack (which, obviously, we would never get.) Barack Obama is emerging as an exception simply because he's willing to talk to the Iranian government.

And no one, clearly, is triangulating more enthusiastically than the most likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. The other night she tied herself in knots trying to support and oppose her own Governor's plan to give illegal immigrants drivers' licenses at the same time. She talks repeatedly about wanting to go back to the 1990s (I doubt even Alf Landon or Wendell Wilkie expressed nostalgia for the 1920s in 1936 or 1940.) And, of course, she voted to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and claims only to oppose a "rush to war."

A few weeks ago I wondered here whether Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who led us so brilliantly through the last two Fourth Turnings, had faced the issues before them squarely before they reached the White House. Now I am ready to answer that question.

In Lincoln's case the answer turns out to be an unequivocal yes--even though Lincoln, amazingly enough, did not make a single speech of any note between his nomination as President in May 1860 and his election in the fall. Campaigning as we know it was not yet an established part of Presidential campaigns, and agitation was left to the party faithful while the candidate maintained an Olympian reserve. But in New Haven on March 8, 1860, Lincoln defined slavery as the critical issue before the country and left no doubt where he stood.

Now these two ideas, the property idea that Slavery is right, and the idea that it is wrong, come into collision, and do actually produce that irrepressible conflict which Mr. Seward has been so roundly abused for mentioning. The two ideas conflict, and must conflict.

Again, in its political aspect, does anything in any way endanger the perpetuity of this Union but that single thing, Slavery? Many of our adversaries are anxious to claim that they are specially devoted to the Union, and take pains to charge upon us hostility to the Union. Now we claim that we are the only true Union men, and we put to them this one proposition: What ever endangered this Union, save and except Slavery? Did any other thing ever cause a moment's fear? All men must agree that this thing alone has ever endangered the perpetuity of the Union. But if it was threatened by any other influence, would not all men say that the best thing that could be done, if we could not or ought not to destroy it, would be at least to keep it from growing any larger? Can any man believe that the way to save the Union is to extend and increase the only thing that threatens the Union, and to suffer it to grow bigger and bigger? [Great applause.]

Whenever this question shall be settled, it must be settled on some philosophical basis. No policy that does not rest upon some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained. And hence, there are but two policies in regard to Slavery that can be at all maintained. The first, based on the property view that Slavery is right, conforms to that idea throughout, and demands that we shall do everything for it that we ought to do if it were right. We must sweep away all opposition, for opposition to the right is wrong; we must agree that Slavery is right, and we must adopt the idea that property has persuaded the owner to believe -- that Slavery is morally right and socially elevating. This gives a philosophical basis for a permanent policy of encouragement.

Continuing, Lincoln denied any desire to harm slavery while it existed but insisted that it must be kept out of new territories. He argued effectively that the language of the original Constitution showed that the Founders had regarded it as an evil (since they had avoided any use of the word "slave"), and that if restricted, it would eventually disappear. Lincoln, as I have shown here, had grasped the essentials of the Strauss-Howe paradigm as early as 1838, in his Springfield Lyceum speech, and he knew the country was at a turning point. Whether he knew it or not, he had laid the foundation for the civil war in the New Haven speech--and I would guess that he at least suspected it.

In his acceptance speech in 1932, Roosevelt touched more bases than Lincoln, and made some contradictory promises. He pledged both to alleviate terrible economic distress and to balance the budget, and he took the Republican leadership on with respect to two specific party issues, the tariff (which he argued was too high) and Prohibition, which the Democrats as a party had finally decided to oppose. But his conclusion was equally sweeping and even more forward-looking. It also referred quite explicitly to the shift from a third turning to a fourth.

One word more: Out of every crisis, every tribulation, every disaster, mankind rises with some share of greater knowledge, of higher decency, of purer purpose. Today we shall have come through a period of loose thinking, descending morals, an era of selfishness, among individual men and women and among Nations. Blame not Governments alone for this. Blame ourselves in equal share. Let us be frank in acknowledgment of the truth that many amongst us have made obeisance to Mammon, that the profits of speculation, the easy road without toil, have lured us from the old barricades. To return to higher standards we must abandon the false prophets and seek new leaders of our own choosing.

Never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major American parties stood out in such striking contrast as they do today. Republican leaders not only have failed in material things, they have failed in national vision, because in disaster they have held out no hope, they have pointed out no path for the people below to climb back to places of security and of safety in our American life.

Throughout the Nation, men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government of the last years look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.

On the farms, in the large metropolitan areas, in the smaller cities and in the villages, millions of our citizens cherish the hope that their old standards of living and of thought have not gone forever. Those millions cannot and shall not hope in vain.

I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.

The New York Times notes today that President Bush's name comes up far more frequently in Democratic presidential debates than in Republican ones. So it does, but the leading Republican candidates have yet to express any significant difference of opinion with the incumbent on any issue. They are equally as militant abroad, equally as anti-government at home. It seems, in short, as if only one candidate next fall will be using the sweeping language of a Lincoln or FDR. His words will, to be sure, have far less relation to reality, and the policies they call for will probably bring continued disaster. But the Republican candidate could yet carry the day, simply because his rhetoric will more closely match the mood of the country. Democrats, take note.

1 comment:

Pat said...

"Congress has injected jellyfish DNA in order to strengthen their spines."

(someone on 4T)

The outgoing tide will sweep away some of our Congresscritters, too.