For the Week of March 27, 2006
American politics runs in generational cycles. We can go back nearly 200 years and find identical patterns.
- A crisis leads to new political coalitions, new myths, new values, and a new storyline about how to address things.
- A thesis tests these new myths and values, finds them valid, then gives them power over just about everyone.
- An antithesis, a movement that seeks to lean into the wind of the thesis, in the end merely reinforces it.
- An excess, an era marked by over-dependence on the thesis, proves it is no longer relevant...
followed by another crisis.
These cycles take longer to play out as generations age more slowly. The era of Andrew Jackson lasted 32 years. That of Abraham Lincoln 36. So did the eras begun by William McKinley and FDR.
In 2008 it will be 40 years since the election of Richard Nixon, still the defining political leader of our time.
Each of the leaders mentioned came to the Presidency at a time of crisis, and then defined the politics of the succeeding generation. Whether heroes or anti-heroes, they defined myths and values for decades, and the path to power. Unfortunately their pivotal roles were often not seen until much time had passed, when it was too late to do anything about it.
Who were the thesis leaders? Easy. James K. Polk, U.S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan. Each defined a story for their age, which people internalized and accepted. Manifest Destiny. The Gilded Age. Progressivism. The New Deal. Reaganism. All these men were proclaimed heroes by their followers, winning wars, defining right and wrong for their political generation.
The antithesis leaders of American history are also easy to name. Henry Clay, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton. Each one leaned against the political winds of their time. They sought to slow down the thesis' trends and, in the end, failed. Within a decade each had become politically irrelevant. (Yes, I know Clay was never President. But he defined the Whig opposition, and the Senate was more powerful then.)
Then we come to the leaders of excess, those who sailed forward and ignored the coming storms around them. James Buchanan. Benjamin Harrison. Herbert Hoover. Lyndon Johnson. George W. Bush. Each tried to extend the thesis beyond its sell-by date. Each was overtaken by events. Each led the nation into a new crisis.
History is not a set of iron laws. It's a set of patterns that leave Clues. Harrison was elected despite losing the popular vote to Cleveland in 1888 so Cleveland was stuck in the White House when the Panic of 1893 crested. It was Harrison who "waved the bloody shirt" at a time when the politics of 1860 had become irrelevant, yet due to the peculiarities of the electoral college system it was Cleveland, and his party, who paid the price. Republicans wound up in power for two straight generations.
They are unlikely to be so lucky this time. The Nixon lesson from Vietnam was that "they" - the Democrats' coalition - were to blame. (Myths don't need truth to be powerful.) That is why we're in Iraq. The whole adventure is based on old, false premises. Just as Vietnam itself was, just as Hoover's inaction before the Great Depression was, just as the 1890s arguments about gold-backed money were, just as Buchanan's fecklessness before the Civil War was.
Presidents of excess, overtaken by events, are generally derided by history as villains when they are in fact victims, prisoners of assumptions everyone around them also holds. Including those who cover them, and those who oppose them.
It is very easy to see why the press doesn't get this. The press is stuck in the present, which means it is stuck in the past. The media, regardless of how its members got to their present positions, have internalized the assumptions of their time, in our case the Nixon assumptions of "Democrats soft on the enemy" and "Republicans dominant on values."
What makes it worse is that, at a time of excess, antithesis leaders actually run the opposition. Yet their assumptions are as old, tired and worthless as those they criticize. Hillary Clinton is a prisoner of Nixon just as Ev Dirksen was of FDR, and Al Smith was of Republican Progressives. They're like Indians before Columbus, unable to see the ships coming in because they have no mental vocabulary with which to comprehend them.
Antithesis leaders are transactional, going from issue to issue, point to point. Overcoming any crisis requires transformation, one which moves in a different direction from where you were going before.
At times like these, it is vital to study those on the outside, the mass political movements seeking a way forward, questioning not just the actions of the incumbents but their premises, angry at the antithesis leaders heading their own parties. Forty years ago this energy was on the New Right. Now it is in the Netroots. And not just on the left, either.
Whoever best crafts a narrative about our time, a myth with values which people change their minds in order to accept, is going to dominate the politics of the rest of your life.
If you want to hear the sound of real change, listen to the voices of people who are changing their minds, who are questioning long-held assumptions. Last time many made the mistake of listening to hippies for this wisdom. But hippies had no minds to change. They should have been listening to the kids' parents, fans of the Rat Pack, members of what Tom Brokaw later called The Greatest Generation. Sinatra went for Kennedy enthusiastically in 1960, then for Nixon in 1968, and few thought anything of it. It's what seems natural that is most true, not what grates against it.
Remember one other thing. Crises often come with violence. In the 1960s, in the 1930s, society seemed as though it were coming apart, even as it was being reborn, just like it was in the 1890s. Society actually did come apart in the 1860s, the violence convulsing the nation like it now does Iraq. "May you live in interesting times" is a curse.
But that is just where we live.
I have made a big decision. I have moved my main blog, formerly called Mooreslore, to danablankenhorn.com under the name Dana Blankenhorn. (Hey, that's MY name.) The blog is written in Typepad and is also available at 200billionscandal.typepad.com
I'm continuing to produce a special blog on Open Sourcefor ZDNet. I am pleased to say it has grown into a real money-maker. I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for Voic.Us, which aims to become a political "super-site" and offer mobile marketing services. Please visit that blog as well.
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Best of the Week
It is the first time in 30 years that client hardware has been the trend:
A small games company called Stardock decided it made no financial sense, and decided to offer their newest game, Galactic Civilization II, without any of it.
The time has come to demand that technology companies interested in real progress, and real freedom for competition, quit the Progress & Freedom Foundation. Quit it. Now. Leave. Loudly.
Pete Ashdown. Ashdown himself is a former ISP, founder of XMission, a Utah ISP. Ashdown knows about the Broadband Gap, the Bells' hoarding of bandwidth, and the history of the cable-Bell duopoly better than any other challenger this cycle, because he has lived it.
There is a reason the Bells have sicced their friends on the idea of open spectrum. It can kill them.
The DR guys were BIG. Not just tall, not just muscular. They were steroid-filled freaks. The Cubans? Small, slim, ordinary-looking.
The simplest answer to the nonsense of proprietary spectrum advocates is pretty simple. The bidding was rigged.
If you want to know why people really hate Hillary Clinton, The Long View is simple. She's the real New Nixon.
There is a reason I never feared John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness plan, why I don't even fear the secret NSA equivalent now being built. It won't work.
When the yield curve flattens, one of two things must happen to un-flatten it. The price of short-term loans must change. Or the price of long-term loans must change. History says the change will be higher long-term interest rates.
They are isolating. They do one thing. They're clients, like PCs, and frankly been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
Think back again to 1966. All the craziness we associate with the 1960s was still in the future. Or think back to 1930. All the worst of the Great Depression was still ahead. Or 1858. John Brown was still alive.
While my own initial forays into the World of Always-On were a bit out-there and generalized, especially on the medical front, it is gratifying to see that I wasn't crazy, and that real medical applications for Always-On are coming.
In simple words this is a settlement system for "excess" wireless bandwidth. (These bits fell off a truck.)
The more bandwidth you have, the more readily available it is, the richer you are. The less you have, the less available it is, the poorer you are. This is true for corporations, for nations, for individuals.
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in is David Isenberg. Of course no one has to tell him that.
Clueless is Esther Dyson , writing in The New York Times that a tax on e-mail "makes sense."
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