The meaning of "America"
According to Fourth Turning, the previous six crises in American, and pre-American, history are:
- War of the Roses (1459-1487)
- Spanish Armada Crisis (1569-1594)
- Glorious Revolution (1675-1704)
- American Revolution (1773-1794)
- Civil War (1860-1865)
- Great Depression and World War II (1929-1946)
Concerning patterns of similarity among these crises, Strauss & Howe had this to say about the last three:
[E]ach of the past three Crises resolved aggravating value struggles that had been building up over the prior saeculum [100 year cycle]. The American Revolution resolved the eighteenth-century struggle between commerce and citizenship. The Civil War resolved the early-nineteenth century struggle between liberty and equality. The New Deal resolved the industrial-era struggle between capitalism and socialism. [page 300]
Note that, in these previous three crises, citizenship gained on commerce, equality gained on liberty, and socialism gained on capitalism. In other words, in every case, distributed power gained on concentrated power.
“Distributed” and “concentrated” here refers to the arrangement of power among people. The most concentrated sort of arrangement places one person on top, with the supreme and arbitrary power of life or death over everyone else. This is known as “totalitarianism”. At the other extreme is “populism”. In that structure, every person is of equal power and authority vis a vis everyone else. Obviously, there are many middle structures between pure totalitarianism and pure populism. But this gives the flavor.
Actually, this battle between distributed power and concentrated power describes not only the nature of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the New Deal, as Strauss & Howe explained. It also seems to describe the nature of every other major crisis identified in the Fourth Turning:
- World War II was fought between the Allies (Americans, British, and Russians, plus local resistance) against the collection of totalitarian regimes known as the “Axis” powers (under the supreme and arbitrary rule of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito). So this was a war between distributed power and concentrated power. Distributed power prevailed.
- The Glorious Revolution (1675-1704) was a “pre-quel” to the American Revolution. In that revolution, the English colonists rebelled against their imperial overseers. The rebellion didn’t result in a Declaration of Independence. But as Strauss & Howe explain: “English-speaking America entered the Crisis a fanatical colonial backwater; it emerged a stable provincial society whose learning and affluence rivaled the splendor of its European home.” [page 45] Again, the side of distributed power prevailed.
- The Spanish Armada Crisis (1569-1594) was a war between Spain and England. Spain was the most powerful nation of the day and the main defender of the Catholic faith, while England was a Protestant nation of moderate power. At the time, Protestantism was in its early, tentative, and precarious days. In the Armada, Spain was attempting to return England to the Catholic fold. Since Protestantism was a revolution against the concentrated power of the Catholic Pope, and since England relied heavily on privateers like Francis Drake to defeat Spain, we can conclude that in the Spanish Armada Crisis, distributed power prevailed over concentrated power.
- The War of the Roses (1459-1487) is a tougher case. That war was actually a series of two or three (depending on how ones counts) English civil wars. These wars were about claims to the British throne. First, the House of York rebelled against the ruling House of Lancaster. Later, the House of Tudor rebelled against the ruling House of York. Henry VII was the Tudor king who ultimately secured the British throne for the Tudors. Reading the BBC’s take on these wars, the most I can say is that the underdog challengers won their wars. Strauss & Howe say that: “England entered the Crisis a tradition bound medieval kingdom; it emerged a modern monarchical nation state.”  Also, the son of Henry VII was Henry VIII, who brought Protestantism to England. From these facts, I tentatively conclude that the War of the Roses can be characterized as relatively distributed power consistently defeating more concentrated power.
Stepping back and looking at this 500+ year pattern of major wars, the notion known as “America” emerges. “America” is the inexorable force of history chipping away at concentrated power, breaking it up into smaller pieces, and distributing those pieces among the People. True, the forces of history in between the crises exhibit the opposite dynamic at play. During these times of “peace”, distributed power is collected from the many and concentrated in the hands of the few. This counter-dynamic reaches its apex just before the next crisis. But then the next crisis comes along and busts up the concentrated power once more.
What an interesting dance. Are we at the entrance to the dancehall today?[posted: 12/13/03]