"Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." -- John F. Kennedy
There's one thing for sure: 2008 isn't anything like politics as usual.
The corporate media (with their unerring eye for the obvious point) is fixated on the narrative that, for the first time ever, Americans will likely end this year with either a woman or a black man headed for the White House. Bloggers are telling stories from the front lines of primaries and caucuses that look like something from the early 60s -- people lining up before dawn to vote in Manoa, Hawaii yesterday; a thousand black college students in Prairie View, Texas marching 10 miles to cast their early votes in the face of a county that tried to disenfranchise them. In recent months, we've also been gobstopped by the sheer passion of the insurgent campaigns of both Barack Obama and Ron Paul, both of whom brought millions of new voters into the conversation - and with them, a sharp critique of the status quo and a new energy that's agitating toward deep structural change.
There's something implacable, earnest, and righteously angry in the air. And it raises all kinds of questions for burned-out Boomers and jaded Gen Xers who've been ground down to the stump by the mostly losing battles of the past 30 years. Can it be - at long last - that Americans have, simply, had enough? Are we, finally, stepping out to take back our government - and with it, control of our own future? Is this simply a shifting political season - the kind we get every 20 to 30 years - or is there something deeper going on here? Do we dare to raise our hopes that this time, we're going to finally win a few? Just how ready is this country for big, serious, forward-looking change?
Recently, I came across a pocket of sociological research that suggested a tantalizing answer to these questions - and also that America may be far more ready for far more change than anyone really believes is possible at this moment. In fact, according to some sociologists, we've already lined up all the preconditions that have historically set the stage for full-fledged violent revolution.
It turns out that the energy of this moment is not about Hillary or Ron or Barack. It's about who we are, and where we are, and what happens to people's minds when they're left hanging just a little too far past the moment when they're ready for transformative change.
Way back in 1962, Caltech sociologist James C. Davies published an article in the American Sociological Review that summarized the conditions that determine how and when modern political revolutions occur. Intriguingly, Davies cited another scholar, Crane Brinton, who laid out seven "tentative uniformities" that he argued were the common precursors that set the stage for the Puritan, American, French, and Russian revolutions. As I read Davies' argument, it struck me that the same seven stars Brinton named are now precisely lined up at midheaven over America in 2008. Taken together, it's a convergence that creates the perfect social, economic, and political conditions for the biggest revolution since the shot heard 'round the world.
And even more interestingly: in every case, we got here as a direct result of either intended or unintended consequences of the conservatives' war against liberal government, and their attempt to take over our democracy and replace it with a one-party plutocracy. It turns out that, historically, liberal nations make very poor grounds for revolution - but deeply conservative ones very reliably create the conditions that eventually make violent overthrow necessary. And our own Republicans, it turns out, have done a hell of a job.
Here are the seven criteria, along with the reasons why we're fulfilling each of them now, and how conservative policies conspired to put us on the road to possible revolution.
1. Soaring, Then Crashing Davies notes that revolutions don't happen in traditional societies that are stable and static - where people have their place, things are as they've always been, and nobody expects any of that to change. Rather, modern revolutions - particularly the progressive-minded ones in which people emerge from the fray with greater rights and equality - happen in economically advancing societies, always at the point where a long period of rising living standards and high, hopeful expectations comes to a crashing end, leaving the citizens in an ugly and disgruntled mood. As Davies put it:
"Revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal. The all-important effect on the minds of people in a particular society is to produce, during the former period, an expectation of continued ability to satisfy needs - which continue to rise - and, during the latter, a mental state of anxiety and frustration when manifest reality breaks away from anticipated reality....
"Political stability and instability are ultimately dependent on a state of mind, a mood, in society...it is the dissatisfied state of mind rather than the tangible provision of 'adequate' or 'inadequate' supplies of food, equality, or liberty which produces the revolution."
The American middle class was built on New Deal investments in education, housing, infrastructure, and health care, which produced a very "prolonged period of objective economic and social development." People were optimistic; generations of growing prosperity raised their expectations that their children would do even better. That era instilled in Americans exactly the kind of hopeful belief in their own agency that primes them to become likely revolutionaries in an era of decline.
And now, thanks to 28 years of conservative misrule, we are now at the point where "manifest reality breaks away from anticipated reality;" and the breach is creating political turbulence. The average American has seen his or her standard of living contract by fits and starts since about 1972. This fall-off that was relieved somewhat by the transition to two-earner households and the economic sunshine of the Clinton years - but then accelerated with the dot-com crash, followed by seven years of Bush's overt hostility toward the lower 98 percent of Americans who aren't part of his base. Working-class America is reeling from the mass exodus of manufacturing jobs and the scourge of predatory lending; middle-class America is being hollowed out by health-care bankruptcies, higher college costs, and a tax load far heavier than that of the richest 2 percent. These people expected to do better than their parents. Now, they're screwed every direction they turn.
In the face of this reversal, Davies tells us, it's not at all surprising that the national mood is turning ominous, from one end of the political spectrum to the other. However, he warns us: this may not be just a passing political storm. In other times and places, this kind of quick decline in a prosperous nation has been a reliable sign of a full-on revolution brewing just ahead.
2. They Call It A Class War Marx called this one true, says Davies. Progressive modern democracies run on mutual trust between classes and a shared vision of the common good that binds widely disparate groups together. Now, we're also about to re-learn the historical lesson that liberals like flat hierarchies, racial and religious tolerance, and easy class mobility not because we're soft-headed and soft-hearted - but because, unlike short-sighted conservatives, we understand that tight social cohesion is our most reliable and powerful bulwark against the kinds of revolutions that bring down great economies, nations and cultures.