Yesterday I suggested that while the cold conservative wind is still strong, we may be on the cusp of springtime and perhaps ready for a new progressive summer. However, that idea presupposes that such long cycles exist.

Do they, or are they a fallacy of pareidolia: our capacity for constructing familiar or comforting patterns into essentially patternless data?

Musings on Long Cycles

My apologies. Today is more “musing aloud” than “coherent thesis.” With all that’s happened lately, my sleep and work schedules are askew. For the same reason, there are no Kossascopes today. And I won’t be here to respond to comments for the first hour or so as I have to run errands first thing this morning. I will try to get back to what passes for normal soon.

Yesterday I offered a yearly weather cycle metaphor for our complex sociopolitical system, suggesting that the Bush years were the winter solstice of a conservative cooling trend that began in the late 1960s, and that we’re now in a sociopolitical February: there is more progressive energy, but we haven’t yet replaced the heat lost over the past 40 years and it’s still cold.

WineRev commented that President Bill Clinton offered a similar idea at last year’s Netroots Convention, and certainly the idea of sociopolitical long cycles has been around for many years. We can parse the historical data in ways that seem to prove these long cycles, but as we often caution: Given a sufficiently large and messy data set, one can parse the data to support almost any narrative.

That is a common theme here at Morning Feature, an application of a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia. That phenomenon is what allows us to “see” animals in clouds, or faces in the grain of wood. As we discussed last April, we humans like Big Narratives and construct patterns into data, and we’re good enough at it that we can do so even when the data don’t really fit the narrative.

For example, in 1987, George Modelski wrote Long Cycles in World Politics (cite to book review), constructing the last 500 years into four long periods – null, premodern, modern, and postmodern – and proposing conditions and feedback loops that yielded long cycles of dominance for Portugal, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom (twice), and finally the United States. Paul Kennedy offered a similar idea in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Many critics disagreed, and one referred to these and other long cycle proponents as the “Lumpers,” arguing that they imposed an artificial order on essentially patternless events.

Similarly, in 1925 economist Nikolai Kondratiev proposed a fifty-year economic cycle known as the Kondratiev Wave or K-Wave. Other economists have offered similar ideas for long economic cycles of varying periods, such as Ralph Nelson Elliot’s Grand Supercycle. While these ideas have spawned some research, most mainstream economists dismiss them as pareidolia: seeing nonexistent patterns in messy data.

Are there long cycles in the American sociopolitical system? I think there may be, but I offer that very cautiously. At the time of our founding, we find evidence of two very different visions of our nation.

The first was a more egalitarian vision, as expressed here by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The second was a clearly aristocratic vision, as expressed here by Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born; the other the mass of the people … turbulent and changing, they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the Government…. Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.

Our sociopolitical history is, at least in part, the ongoing tension between those visions. Seeking to realize Jefferson’s vision, progressives ascend and make strides that bring our nation toward more equal opportunity for more all. Seeking to realize Hamilton’s vision, conservatives then ascend, slow and stop the progress, and reverse some but not all of the gains made.

Tomorrow, if I can organize my thoughts better, I’ll try to structure that last paragraph into a more coherent thesis.

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Happy Friday!