“I want my country back!” a woman shouted in July 2009 at a town meeting hosted by Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE).
If American politics run in long cycles, those two exclamations may express the forces that push the seasons. And it suggests some key themes of a season-changing progressive message.
Changing the Season (Non-Cynical Saturday)
This week Morning Feature has considered whether shifts between progressive and conservative movements in American politics can be likened to the changing of seasons. Thursday we explored whether we may be in a political February, past the conservative winter solstice of the Bush years and with more progressive heat entering the system, yet seeing little progress because so many sociopolitical institutions are still cold. But that assumes such shifts are cyclical, and yesterday we discussed the dangers of pareidolia – our human tendency to construct patterns into chaotic data – in long cycle theories. Today I’ll offer a long cycle theory of political seasons that may be useful, at least in recognizing how both our sociopolitical institutions and our weather are very complex systems. And I think that’s important.
Why weather and not a pendulum?
Most of us have heard and used the pendulum metaphor for the shift between progressive and conservative movements. That model says the nation swings to one side until it loses momentum or “goes too far,” then swings back to the other side, like a weight at the end of a pendulum. The metaphor is attractive in its simplicity, but for me that is also its weakness. A pendulum is too simple an image for the complexity of our political system. It begs questions like what force started the swing, and suggests that there should be a stable equilibrium at the bottom of the arc, neither left nor right.
Weather and the changing of seasons is, I think, a better metaphor because it also expresses a complex system. As progressives we need frames that correspond usefully to the problems we try to address, but cognitive science also shows that people respond best to simple messages that resonate intuitively, without need for complex analysis. That is a difficult balancing act, and I think the seasonal metaphor helps.
Even if we’re not climatologists or meteorologists, we’re familiar with the basic causes, patterns, and exceptions in the change of seasons. We know it’s still cold in February, even though we’re past the winter solstice and the days are getting longer. For the converse reason, we know it’s still hot in August even though we’re past the summer solstice. We also don’t expect each day to follow the seasonal pattern. We may be surprised by a bitter day in March, but most of us don’t ask if that day means summer won’t happen after all. Finally, we don’t expect the weather to settle at some midpoint equilibrium.
Hope in change: the “sun” of American politics.
We know the weather cycle is driven by the earth’s tilt and our orbit around the sun. In the northern hemisphere, longer days and the sun’s higher angle in the sky mean more solar energy after we pass the winter solstice. Once we reach the summer solstice, the days get shorter and the sun’s angle more oblique, so we get less solar energy. The weather lags behind that, because it takes several weeks for the oceans and atmosphere to begin warming or cooling.
Similarly, I think our political cycle is driven by varying levels of hope in change. When enough voters believe change will make things better – if only because they have little left to lose – they demand change and usher in a progressive spring. The changes often start slowly because of institutional inertia. The institutions thaw as success builds on success and over the course of the summer we often see big strides that draw us a bit closer to the progressive-Jeffersonian vision of “all men are created equal.”
But change is also confusing and even frightening. We may wonder how we’re supposed to interact with each other under The New Rules. Some of us may miss what we’ve lost more than we appreciate what we’ve gained. At some point we begin to long for stability, and “We want change!” shifts to “I want my country back!” or at least “Whoa, let me catch my breath!” That ushers in a conservative autumn. The changes slow, and some may even be reversed. But not all. Most of The New Rules become simply The Rules, and then….
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
There is a consistent characteristic of conservative winters: wealth and power concentrate in the wealthy and powerful. In part that happens as some of The New Rules are undone during conservative autumns, but I think in larger part it’s simply that we humans are a very intelligent species.
It’s hard to develop effective strategies when The Rules keep changing, but once The New Rules become simply The Rules, we figure out effective strategies very quickly. Even assuming everyone adopts equally effective strategies – and not all of us can – the inherent risks of life mean those with more resources can better profit from their successes and survive their failures. The rich get richer while the rest hover ever closer to the edge of ruin.
As more and more of us slip over that edge, “I want my country back!” or “Whoa, let me catch my breath!” give way to “We want change!”
Even if that’s true, so what?
I think this may explain what seems like a roughly 80-year cycle in our sociopolitical climate. Of course, the “may” and “seems like” are weasel words. It’s easy to parse the historical data to support this kind of theory. It’s also easy to find exceptions. Do the exceptions prove this is a case of seeing a pattern that isn’t there, or are they like a bitter day in March or an Indian summer in November: predictable exceptions in a complex system? I can’t say.
The more important question for me is, “So what?” If this were true, what would it mean for we progressives? I’ll offer three thoughts:
- Hope in change is not an external “sun,” so these cycles are not automatic. We can never take for granted that a progressive spring and summer will follow a conservative autumn and winter.
- We progressives need to foster hope in change. That is, our messages must paint a picture of a better future. That future must seem possible, and moving toward it must seem less risky than leaving The Rules as they are.
- We must expect uneven progress. There will be chilly days, even in the height of a progressive summer. And no matter how well we message and how successful our changes are, sooner or later The Rules will have changed enough that people will begin to say: “Whoa, let me catch my breath!”
That doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It means we’ve brought in the harvest for that season. Then we try to keep each other warm until the next spring.