Monday, February 1, 2016

Decoherence and Disharmony

In October, I mused on an essay by Brookings scholar Philip A. Wallach on the subject of "decoherence", the notion that American governance is coming apart at the seams. Some evidence on the left is in President Obama's use of executive orders to get anything done in the face of an obstructionist Congress. And on the right it's in the curious admiration many Republicans express for Russian President Putin for his defiance of international law to further Russian interests.

Today's musing is on a related article that connects today's mood in America with a recurring phenomenon in American politics identified by Samuel Huntington in a 1981 book, "American Politics: Promise of Disharmony." Again, Lee Drutman of Vox Media reviews it.

Most of the time, the tension between the anti-power ethos of American political ideals and the necessarily pro-power functioning of American political institutions exists below the surface, suppressed through a predictable cycle of cynicism, then complacency, then hypocrisy. But every six decades or so, it erupts into the open in a paroxysm of "creedal passion" that looks a lot like the current political environment.

Huntington's calendar places the first period of American creedal passion in the 1770s, the time of the American Revolution and the revolt against "the crown." The next period came in the 1830s, when Jacksonian Democracy led a revolt against "the bank." Then again in the 1900s, when Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives led a revolt against "the interests and the system." Then again in the 1960s, when activists revolted against the military-industrial complex. This calendar anticipates another period of creedal passion in the 2020s — which we are rapidly approaching.
Source: Lee Drutman.
It's been said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. There's no doubt that the periods of "creedal passion" Huntington identifies in American history do rhyme. They all are times in which a political revolt against established power reshaped American politics. Today, there's no doubt that many on the right are revolting against established power -- against "Washington" and against the GOP establishment for not sufficiently resisting "Washington". Drutman says that Huntington sees the mood during these periods as one of discontent, agitation, excitement, commotion, hostility, "with the central issue of politics often being defined as 'liberty versus power'." This seems to capture the angry mood on the right today.

What's striking is not that Huntington identified a cycle in American history (humans seem hard-wired to see patterns) but that the book was published in 1981, and today, right on schedule, here comes another period of "creedal passion" just when Huntingdon predicted it would thirty five years ago (not that that proves his thesis, only that the coincidence is striking). Time will tell whether American politics is in line for another reshaping on the order of these earlier periods. Drutman suggests that the next decade will be "an exciting time in American politics."

Go ahead and read Drutman's complete article. It will be the most provocative thinking you will do all day.

No comments: