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October 04, 2008


Otis Jefferson Brown

“Reform in the United States tends to come in bursts. The model is the Hundred Days of Franklin Roosevelt... Finally the rush of innovation begins to choke the body politic, which demands time for digestion. Sustained public action, moreover, is emotionally exhausting... Nature insists on a respite. People can no longer gird themselves for heroic effort. They yearn to immerse themselves in the privacies of life...

“So public action, passion, idealism and reform recede. Public problems are turned over to the invisible hand of the market. ‘Everything was slack-water,’ Henry Adams said of the 1890s. The pursuit of private interest is seen as the means of social salvation. These are times of ‘privatization’... of materialism, hedonism, and the overriding quest for personal gratification. Class and interest politics subside; cultural politics – ethnicity, religion, social status, morality – come to the fore. These are also often times of consolidation, in which innovations of the previous period are absorbed and legitimized.

“And they are times of preparation. Epochs of private interest breed contradictions, too. Such periods are characterized by undercurrents of dissatisfaction, criticism, ferment, protest. Segments of the population fall behind in the acquisitive race. Intellectuals are estranged. Problems neglected become acute, threaten to become unmanageable and demand remedy. People grow bored with selfish motives and vistas, weary of materialism as the ultimate goal. The vacation from public responsibility replenishes the national energies and recharges the national batteries. People begin to seek meaning in life beyond themselves... They are ready for the trumpet to sound. A detonating issue – some problem growing in magnitude and menace and beyond the capacity of the market’s invisible hand to solve – at last leads to a breakthrough into a new political epoch.”

Arthur Schlesinger, 1986
“The Cycles of American Politics”

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