- 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. Crisis leaders define their eras. 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 generations.
The antithesis leaders of American history are also easy to name. Henry Clay, (never elected, but was the Whig party for 25 years), 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.
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. For instance, Harrison lost to Cleveland in the 1888 popular vote, then lost the White House back to him in 1892, 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. The past imprisons the present until the future is forced out.
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 these are the Nixon assumptions of “Democrats are soft on the enemy” and “Republicans are 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 real 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. Frank 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.