America’s Cycles of Change

Cycles of Change: Excerpt #2

Tue, 10 November 2015
Cycles of Change: The Three Great Cycles of American History & the Coming Crises That Will Lead to the Fourth

Successive 32-40-year eras have defined United States history since the Constitution was ratified. But within that pattern, each two consecutive eras form a larger 72-80 year cycle. The historical transition between eras at the end of the 72-80 year cycle has always been far more severe.

The political upheavals of 1824 and 1828 launched the Era of Jackson. They were dramatic. But the nation did not face economic collapse. Nor did it face political disintegration. There were widespread fears that America would suffer its equivalent of the French Revolution. But the opposite happened. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams all abhorred the rise of Jackson. But Jacksonian popular democracy was absorbed by the political institutions of the United States. And it rejuvenated them.

The Prairie political revolt of William Jennings Bryan caused a similar panic in 1896. Republican Party stalwarts were appalled by Theodore Roosevelt’s accession to the presidency in 1901. But in reality, the continuity between the Third and Fourth Eras then was striking.

Prosperity returned and continued. There was no significant overhaul of political institutions. The Republican Party continued to dominate national politics. The Fourth Era continued the post-Civil War national dominance of the Republican Party and the Northwestern industrialists. They had ruled during the Third Era. They continued to rule in the Fourth. But they did so as a more progressive GOP supported by kinder, gentler industrialists.

The crisis of 1968 was a relatively mild one too, despite all the sound and fury of the time. Key Fifth Era legislative achievements were not touched for most, or all of the Sixth Era. Sixth Era leaders never dared to dismantle or radically reform FDR’s Social Security system. Even Lyndon Johnson’s disastrous welfare policies were not reformed until 1996. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the architect of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. But he repeatedly expressed his admiration for FDR and his determination to leave the Social Security system in place.

However, the crises of 1860-1865 and of 1929-1933 were far more intense. In 1860-1861, the American Union actually disintegrated. In 1932 through the early months of 1933, the social and economic systems of the United States were genuinely close to collapsing. FDR himself believed this was a real danger at the time.

The current crisis started with the financial crisis of September 2008. But it may get far worse. The years starting after 2016 are likely to see a national crisis on the scale of the Civil War or the Great Depression. The crisis may involve elements of devastating war and economic collapse.

Each of the six eras of U.S. political history since 1788 was shaped by the successful response to a great crisis or challenge. So great was the crisis in each case that it shaped for the rest of their lives all those old enough to have experienced it.

There could be no reform of the welfare system or any move to privatize the Social Security system of the United States as long as significant numbers of people who remembered the horrors of the Great Depression were still alive and in dominant political positions. Conservative ideas and philosophies have dominated the last 30 and more years of national American life because the memories of scores of millions who remembered the upheaval and chaos of the late 1960s were still so strong.

Dominant ideas and interests refuse to leave room for more innovative approaches. They stay in the saddle until they are forced out. And they are only forced out of power and the commanding heights of public opinion when they have become so outdated and out of touch with a rapidly changing world that their obsolescence is finally evident to most, though never to all.

Of the six successive eras traced in this book three were dominated by the Democratic Party and three by the Republican Party. Each of these eras has been dominated by politicians, vested interests and intellectual ideas that were particularly associated with – and dominant within – a different specific region of the nation.

Each era has been heralded or established by a visionary, ‘prophetic’ political figure. Each of them has seen one dominating president who set the national agenda for the next quarter century to three decades of American political life, and who usually set most of its social tone and mythic structure. Usually, the dominant president is also the prophetic and inspiring one. But this is not automatically so.

The dominance of one party over the other is overwhelming but not total during an American political era. The natural political rhythms of stagnation, exhaustion, human error and failure, and the natural desire for change and fresh blood always allows the minority party during each era to capture the presidency at least with one president and often with two.