A Century and Two Great Ages of Consensus: Politics and History Repeating

People are weird. And contradictory. And emotional. Etc. Etc. Politics make people even more passionate. Historical perspectives, however, are important because we see how little things change, from one perspective, and from another how today’s hopes and fears and everyday events are one small part of many much larger discourses and historical moments.

In particular, people say that political polarization and alienation in the twenty-first century and especially since Barack Obama’s election and reelection, is worse than it has ever been, that people both don’t care and are so divided nothing can happen without angering many. That the common person does not have legitimate representation is also a popular and important observation.

As many problems as there are with politics, one thing stays the same: politics stay pretty much the same. One cliché voices part of the problem: If voting made any difference, they would have outlawed it by now.

Beginning with the Great Depression and New Deal, political parties and ideologies in the United States completely reorganized. Political parties and ideologies pre-Great Depression Era and post-Civil Rights Act of 1965/Voting Rights Act of 1965 are completely different institutions. Given the collective experiences of people in the United States and in the world through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, not to mention all of the thoughts of related events with important rippling effects, a political consensus emerged–certainly not the first in the nation’s history.

From the 1930s to 1968-1972, a Liberal Consensus dominated political life in the United States. (Not to be confused with the political ideology of Modern Liberalism in the United States or Classical Liberalism.) Politicians and political parties shared basic sets of ideas that can be summed up in three points: 1) the United States is a prosperous, middle class, Christian society, 2) communism is bad, capitalism is good, and winning the Cold War is essential for all lovers of freedom, 3) the government must and will use its political and economic power to ensure basic survival and civil rights for all citizens, especially minorities. Focus is on the collective. (See Godfrey Hodgson, “The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus” in America in Our Time [1976].) 

Similar to today, the (White) silent majority and the (White) moral majority felt alienated and left out and thought society was full of more divisions than ever before, and that immorality reigned.

Today, we have what I would call a “Conservative Consensus.” This consensus began in the mid-1970s and, regardless of whether a person is Democratic or Republican or another party, it is almost 100% agreed upon, in practice, if not fully in rhetoric, and includes four components: 1) un/low-regulated and taxed big business represents the highest form of democracy and these people deserve to be rewarded, 2) to be a moral, well-rounded person, a person must be an active Christian, 3) education, if not carefully regulated and tested, will corrupt children, 4) the United States is exceptional and should defeat terrorism for the world. Focus is on the individual. 

Sadly, I am not being sarcastic! We live in a world where survival of the fittest philosophies rule the day. Where “I am right,” and “you are wrong,” is always right. While these core values are very different than those of a half-century ago, these are still shared by politicians with very few exceptions and most people, especially non-Whites, feel left out and alienated. More and more White people feel the same way, especially those whose intersectionality makes them a minority in some way or another.   

Ideally, of course, the rich should pay more taxes, and businesses would be regulated or just simply behave. People would recognize that a religion (or lack of) does not make one a moral person or not. Things are changing. Recent polls show this is changing. Education is best when critical thinking is emphasized, teachers are highly-qualified and compensated. The United States is clearly not exceptional–certainly not in positive ways as “exceptional” connotes.  

Why do such “great” ages of political consensus occur? Why do we have a Liberal Consensus and then a Conservative Consensus? Partly, societies are naturally largely homogenous – that’s what makes them a society. Partly too because regardless of hopes and fears elsewhere in society, the big money has almost identical, self-serving interests, and big money has controlled politics since the beginning of the United States. Politics in the Untied States was created by big money, for big money. Have you ever considered that Capitalism – not the feared communism or loved democracy – is our actual form of government. 

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