All civilizations move in cycles. Sometimes these cycles are the swing of the pendulum to the extremes of its arc and then back again. What rises, falls; what falls, rises. We might like to think of our national story as a straight-line march to and through the “American Century.” But it has actually been a sequence of major chapters within the Great American Novel through which our erratic story has been told.
It took 168 years to bring America out of its infancy, its Colonial settlement period, from Jamestown in 1607 until the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Quite the long infancy period to get ready for this national adventure. But when the time came, our forefathers and foremothers were ready. They moved forward, working (unknowingly) in roughly 50-year major increments.
1776-1826 was our Founding Period, organizing this new American Experiment in popular governance. It took a Revolution, a Constitution, imagination and deep commitment to move this vague concept into a working reality. All of the principal characters of this first period were a product of the Revolution and Constitutional Convention, including our first six presidents. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, and John Quincy Adams’ presidency ended in 1828, both events emphatically concluding this period. But the Experiment in Governance, and the Founders’ goal of national unity transcending the states, had held.
1826-1876 took us into an Expansion and Division Period. Presidential leadership moved from the patrician Founders to the era of the Common Man. Andrew Jackson redefined the presidency into a power equal to or greater than Congress, and fought against the wealthy’s backroom hold on national power. The country moved west and began to fill in the open space that would become the continental United States of America. Yet this expansion was continually undermined by threats to divide this hard-won unity over the still unresolved Constitutional Convention issues of slavery and states’ rights. The threats of division came true in the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the subsequent Reconstruction Era over the defeated South. Reconstruction, and this historical Period, “ended” as a result of the deal-making of the 1876 presidential election. As it turned out, ending Reconstruction reinstituted the pre-war South, who now fought a rear-guard resistance of continued division lasting through to this day, with laws replacing bullets and legislatures replacing battlefields.
1877 – 1929 was our Capitalist and Labor Period. An economic division of America. If you were part of the mega-rich Capitalist sector – the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Fords, etc. – it was the “Gilded Age” of absolute monopolies, boardroom collusion, and rigging the marketplace to obtain spectacular wealth. If you were in the worker sector, it was about poverty, oppressive work, employment conditions without recourse or protection – ultimately giving rise to the organized labor movement. Money dominated this period, and money equated to power. Theodore Roosevelt’s attacks on “financial trusts” served as a speed bump along the road to wealth, but it only slowed, not stopped, the Pullman luxury trains. Even World War I, which changed the map of Europe and the Middle East, was only a short diversion for America. The “Roaring Twenties” brought all of America into the frenzied chase for wealth.
1930-1976 began our Middle-Class and Government Expansion Period, when the economic frenzy of the previous Period abruptly ended in 1929 with America’s Great Depression. The family fortunes from the Gilded Age remained fairly intact through the Depression. It was the common Joe and Josephine who lost everything, the ones who were the last to arrive at the get-rich party before the bubble burst. Big-money’s power over the government was checked – though not eliminated – as the federal government’s attention, programs and funding were redirected to the needs and suffering of Middle Americans trying to survive the Depression. Millions of middle-class Americans fought and won WWII at home and abroad. Upon the war’s end, new opportunities from government programs created the largest middle-class, consumer-based, sustained economy in our history, redefining government and the face of American society. It was a redefinition that came to include a redressing of civil and economic rights across a spectrum of previously hidden constituencies: e.g. African-Americans, women, the gay/lesbian movement, Native-Americans, the poor. Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to create a “Great Society” blew up in the 1960s/1970s wake of Viet Nam, the youth movement, and ultimately, Watergate. Gerald Ford promised us that “our long national nightmare [of Watergate] is over.” But so also was America’s Middle-Class and Government Expansion Period.
1976 began our current 50 year cycle of a simultaneous Retrenchment and Advancement Period. Similar to the previous Expansion and Division Period, it is a time when a deep and contradictory schism has split the citizenry. It has been a return to times past governmentally and economically, yet concurrently a leap forward in the social order and measures of equality. Since the Reagan years, we have been on a steady return to the Gilded Age of 100 years ago. Extreme wealth has returned into the hands of the few, leaving the great Middle Class stagnant economically – if not going backwards from its post-WWII gains. We neutered the financial controls instituted in the 1930s, and in 2008 unsurprisingly had our worst Recession since that Depression. (Apparently learning nothing, we are now dismantling the new controls that arose out of that Recession.) Since the mid-1990s, division has been our overriding theme of (non-) governance. The disappearance of bipartisanship has resulted in a virtual end of functioning government and a handover of power to wealthy businesspeople. “Conservative” politicians ascended and pushed for shrinking government’s size while practicing “fiscal responsibility,” but these have proven to be more idealized myths than actuality. Meanwhile, “Liberal” social themes from the prior cycle – civil rights, protected environment, racial integration, economic parity, and gay and gender issues – continued to expand. However, a backlash from social conservatives to this expansion has grown steadily out of a belief that their traditional family lifestyles, and their role in America, is under attack and being lost. The citizenry today is as polarized and paralyzed by two competing views of what America means as much as any time since our Civil War.
If our pattern of 50-year cycles holds true, then our next cycle is due roughly in 2026, 250 years after our founding. What will this next cycle bring to us? Like all others, it will unfold gradually, requiring time for us to identify the themes that are emerging. Will the next phase cement the Retrenchment we currently find ourselves in? Or will it push the Advancement forward and begin a new period of social, economic and political movement? Will America achieve greater heights over the next decade, or start our gradual descent as a leader in world civilization – a descent that happens to all civilizations at some point?
When changes have occurred within our historical cycle, they have usually been forecasted by a rising tension between “the old that is” and “the new that is to be.” The end of the Founding Period saw a disputed 1824 presidential election and the political shock waves of Jackson’s presidency. The end of the Expansion and Division Period came with our American Civil War – our most deadly war – and the utter destruction of the Old South society. The end of the Capitalist and Labor Period was America’s twelve year Depression with its 25% unemployment. The end of the Middle Class Period was Viet Nam, Watergate, and the youth revolution which tore apart America’s cohesion and trust. In each instance, a drastic upheaval was needed to move our “current” into “past” in order to open the door to our “future.”
Today, we see governmental paralysis, the Trump dismantling of the institutional Presidency, the reversal of government’s role in America, and the abdication of international moral and political leadership. The result is a country in an angry divide not seen since the turmoil of 1968 and the immediate years beyond; the parallels between 1968 and 2018 – another 50 year cycle – are unmistakable. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964 77% of Americans trusted their government all or most of the time. In December 2017, that number had fallen to just 18% (TIME, 6/11/2018). Donald Trump’s presidency is clearly the beginning of our next transition. What is unclear is whether his time will be the blueprint, the model for America’s next Period. Or, whether his excesses ultimately cross a fault line and become the final hurrah of Retrenchment, thereby giving rise to a new period of government and societal Advancement.
I hope to live to see the beginnings of this next American cycle, at least sufficiently to see the direction it will be heading. It would be nice to have some sense of what kind of country my generation is bequeathing to our children and grandchildren. I certainly will not be around to see the end of this next cycle. Perhaps the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections will give us some preview of what to expect; the 2024 election will most certainly commence the opening step. We should look forward to this next cycle with great interest and anticipation, but also caution. It will be the next crossroad in America’s journey.
© 2018 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com