Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Gary Hart and the Cycles of History


For The Hill’s Pundit’s Blog – 7/2/2008

Gary Hart made the point in a New York Times op-ed last week that we enter a true new cycle in American history with the rise of Barack Obama. He cites Emerson. He cites Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. on the cycles of history. Henry Adams, he says, believed that “a period of about 12 years measured the beat of the pendulum.” Given the visceral level of political ping-pong going on these days it is surprising that in the week since, there has been no countervailing refutation of this thought.

“If we somewhat arbitrarily fix the age of Franklin D. Roosevelt as 1932 to 1968 and the era of Ronald Reagan as 1968 to 2008, a new cycle of American political history — a cycle of reform — is due,” writes Hart.

Historical cycles have gates and gatekeepers. If Hart is right, George W. Bush will be remembered as a Gatekeeper, but Gatekeepers close as well as open gates and Bush’s fate is to close the gate which Ronald Reagan opened. But big historical and cultural cycles contain smaller cycles and countervailing cycles which interweave together like the ceilings of the mosque at Cordoba. In a greater time cycle we have been rising from Wilson to Eisenhower and Kennedy to a true globalism in American consciousness that is no longer shackled to the European tradition and its lore and burdens, but feels a comfortable visitor today in Africa or Laos as well.

The cycles of history theme is most accurately explained and followed today by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their recent books The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy and Millennials Rising : The Next Great Generation. The authors re-animated a theory of Roman historians which describes autonomous four-generation post-war periods called saecula. The culture breaks and turns at the beginning of the fourth post-war generation, which is now.

An example of cycles of history can be seen when W.J. Cash, from Shelby, NC, wrote a book called The Mind of the South in 1941, a criticism of the Confederate mentality which lingered in the segregated South. He fully expected to be denounced from every quarter. But he wasn't. His book was favorably reviewed by 50 newspaper editors in the South and became a turning point in Southern history writing, opening the gate for C. Vann Woodward and other great Southern historians. The South had largely gotten past the Confederacy by 1941 and was ready to move on.

We are at that point right now with WW II history and its afterglow, Cold War. The country is ready to move away from seeing Russia as our enemy and Rome as our Father and viewing our trials and responsibilities as all across the Atlantic. The third generation, of which John McCain is political avatar, looks back to the valor of the first generation, described by Tom Brokaw, who is knowledgeable about the Strauss-Howe theory, as the greatest generation. But the four-generational sectors are archetypal variants; that is, they have different meanings and motivations. The third gen takes its character by honoring the past – it is a feeling thing; an imitation of the original. The first generation did not do that: Theirs was original feeling of striving to survive and that is how they won they war. The fourth-generation simply doesn't understand; as with the greater South in 1941, it is ready to move on from the Confederacy.

Today, China is rising. India is rising. They present a world ahead and cannot be viewed as enemies. In this world McCain brings the dangerous nostalgico condition of gratuitous militarism and royalist ancestor worship that Spain suffered with Franco. It is an attempt to stop the cycles of time and the generations and it is the classic end-cry of a historical period. (See Kafka’s In the Penal Colony – and the plight of the forlorn and forgotten Executioner, left behind when the season changes and the People have lost their taste for Fascism, so he executes himself). Every generation attempts to prevent the new generation from awakening.

It is good that Hart cites Emerson, New England’s celestial bard, who saw us Americans born free in nature and urged us to leave the Euro-past behind and find ourselves again here, free and independent; going alone, refusing even the good models, and “ . . . even those which are sacred in the imagination of men,” - perched and united in a central meeting place between East and West. The “center of the world” to the world’s Four Corners; West, East, South and the Great White North.

“Once elected, Barack Obama would have a rare opportunity to define a new Democratic Party,” writes Hart. “He could preside over the beginning of a new political cycle that, if relevant to the times, would dominate American politics for three or four decades to come.”

The new gate, the new century and the new generation opens now with Obama. Interesting that Obama is the political avatar who comes here from the East (Hawaii) to the center rather than from the West (New York, New England, Virginia). As we enter the new century we not only leave behind the sense of ourselves today as a pseudo-European/Roman set of sub-states. We also leave behind the internal North/South paradigm which has determined our fate these past two hundred years, and open to the burgeoning East/West political dynamic, which finds its center in Obama's Chicago rather than Washington, D.C.

Note to Obama: The cycles of history quite often end in what some in TQM management culture call the Merlin/Arthur Syndrome; the combination of a visionary politician and a master manager who executes and completes the visionary’s purpose. Merlin, the visionary, sees the world inside to its center but needs an agent to bring this vision to the outside world and that is Arthur. Arthur, has the ability to execute a historic master plan but requires the inner vision of the sage to find the plan; he cannot go there by himself. In real life, the executor, Arthur, is usually a military General and that is how the last three historical saecula in America have ended and begun again: Jefferson/Washington, Lincoln/Grant, Roosevelt/Eisenhower.