We live among cycles. Economies boom and bust, populations expand and contract, the sun rises and sets, and empires grow and decline. All of these, and the countless others I haven’t mentioned, have distinct periods of motion. Some are more predictable and regular than others””you can predict the sunrise down to the second every day with only some knowledge of the sun-Earth system and your geographic location. But the fall of an empire can last anywhere from a few decades to a few centuries and the causes of imperial growth and decline are the subject of endless debate.
There is one particular cycle that should be of great interest to us right now: The Constitutional cycle of the United States of America.
I recently remembered reading what appears to be a draft of Stirling Newberry’s ”œThe Fourth Republic.” In this work he goes into great detail about the intertwining of economic and political orders in the US and categorizes our history into three distinct periods, each with its own unique interpretation of the constitution. The dates and names given for these periods are as follows:
The Federalist Republic (1787 ”“ 1860)
The Union (1861 ”“ 1932)
The Liberal Democracy (1933 ”“ 2000).
The start date for each period marks the point at which a new political/economic order was decided upon, though not necessarily implemented””the construction of the new order always takes time. If I’ve read his work correctly, the nation enters a crisis period of generally reactionary politics and division before each of these dates (1787, 1861, and 1933), creates a new solution that solves the problems of the old order right around them, and then implements that solution after these dates. The new order then rides on until the next crisis, brought about by new problems that it cannot solve (though the ride is not smooth””a lot of stuff happens along the way. As an example: Vietnam).
According to Stirling Newberry, each of these periods was distinct in its view of just what the Constitution represented. During the Federalist Republic, it was primarily a contract between the states and between the people that created government to defend property. The Union saw it as a covenant, where the parties are bound to each other by a higher power and government is simply what the people are due. The Liberal Democracy viewed the Constitution as the foundation of a consensus of the governed””one that must be inclusive and incorporate both moral and ethical dimensions.
Interestingly, the dates above correspond reasonably well with the generational cycles of Strauss and Howe. They have gone through American history and discovered that it can be divided into cycles, each consisting of four generations, stretching all the way back to the Colonial era””and possibly back to the Late Middle Ages in England. Each of the four generations has a certain general character to it and tends to fulfill a certain role in the social hierarchy at varying times during its life. They predict that the Millennials (b. 1982-2000) are the Hero generation which will fight during the next crisis.
We are currently in a crisis period””I don’t think there’s much debate about that now. But when did this crisis start? And when is it likely to end? And when is the important constitutional date that establishes the new order likely to occur?
I’ve tried to determine, in a clumsy and perhaps naÃ¯ve way, when each crisis period in our history started and stopped. Drawing a clear line on something as blurry as history without sacrificing accuracy is difficult at best, but I’ve tried to find one major event that was responsible for pushing us into a crisis during each period. Certainly, these events were not the only cause, but I do believe that they were the major enabling events of the pre-crisis years that pushed us over the edge. I’ve also looked for an exit marker, a sign that the crisis is passed. Again, this is hazy, but I think it can be done. I’m a little worried about bias as well, because I assumed that crisis periods are on the order of 30 years long going into this (based upon the WWI to WWII timeframe””the clearest-cut of all of the crises, in my opinion).
Before plunging in, I should also note that Stirling’s analysis is much more in-depth, well-researched, and incorporates a very strong economic argument that pretty well overshadows my event-driven analysis here. But specific events are much easier to see and point to in our lives. So consider the following to be mostly a demarcation of the goal posts with some minimal justification.
Here are the crisis periods and their constitutional moments. Each crisis is named for the order which is crumbling, not the new one that emerges from it:
The Colonial Crisis: (1760-1763) ”“ 1789. Constitutional Moment: 1777 or 1787.
1763 is the official end of the French-Indian War, though 1760 marks the year that fighting in North America pretty much ceased. I’m not sure which to use. In any case, the war changed the economic relationship between England and the American colonies as the motherland started taxing and restricting trade in various ways in order to make the colonies pay for the cost of the war. This led directly to ”œNo taxation without representation,” the Boston Tea Party, and the outbreak of open revolt. As I’ve said above, a lot more was going on at the time, but the fiscal squeezing was administered largely as a result of this war. 1789 is the date of official implementation of the US Constitution, a date which I believe is a pretty uncontroversial end-point.
As for the Constitutional Moment, I’m a bit divided. 1777 was the ratification of the Articles of Confederation and 1787 was the ratification of the US Constitution. In my view, the Articles and the original interpretation of the US Constitution are actually rather similar in their regard for the relationship between the government and the people. The former was really just an alliance between states while the latter altered that to create a loosely associated nation with a little more central power””but they both were seen as contractual documents by their originators. I’m not as sure on this argument and will have to claim ignorance of the exact differences, so I’m leaving it as either 1777 or 1787 for now.
(*Note: Stirling places the end of constitution building at 1805, so the crisis would then be from about 1776 until 1805 with the Constitutional Moment in 1787. The impact of these different dates is explored at the end of this post).
The Federalist Republic Crisis: (1846-1848) ”“ (1873-1877). Constitutional Moment: 1861.
1846-1848 was the Mexican-American War. 1845, which saw the annexation of Texas, would be an equally good year to use. The result of this war was the acquisition of enormous amounts of land from Mexico””Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, and much of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. All this new land blew open the uneasy relationship between slave-holding states and free states that had been an important cornerstone of the Federalist Republic order. The political and economic equation changed dramatically and the US entered a crisis period that eventually led to the Civil War.
1873-1877 are the approximate dates given for the end of Reconstruction (they are referred to as the Redemption, when the South reasserted control of its territory within the context of the new Union). This period marks the end of major work done to forge the new order.
The Constitutional Moment was arrived at around 1861, when it was decided that states could not leave ”œthe Union” and that the US was to be a single, unified nation. The old order, which viewed the US Constitution as more of a contract, was no more.
The Union Crisis: (1914-1916) ”“ 1945. Constitutional Moment: 1933.
1914 and 1916 are, respectively, the beginning of WWI and the entry of America into that war. 1945 is the well-known end of WWII. I don’t think there’s too much dispute about these dates, though I’m more familiar with the global aspects of the wars rather than the precise social and economic problems in the US that lead up to 1916.
The Constitutional Moment was around 1933 (the ”œFirst New Deal”), when the Union was replaced by the Liberal Democracy. The years from 1933 to 1945 saw the consolidation and growth of the New Deal and the new order””government came to be perceived as a consensus rather than a covenant.
Let’s now look at the spacing in time between Constitutional Moments, the length of time of each crisis period, and the location of Moments within their crises.
Time Between Constitutional Moments:
From Federal Republic to Union: 74-84 years (varies based on Articles vs. Constitution)
From Union to Liberal Democracy: 72 years
Average Length: 73-78 years
Safe Assumption for Time Between Moments: 70-80 years
Length of Crises:
Colonial Crisis: 26-29 years
Federal Republic Crisis: 25-31 years
Union Crisis: 29-31 years
Average Length: 26.6-30.3 years
Safe Assumption for Crisis Length: 25-32 years
Location of Constitutional Moment, from Start of Crisis:
Colonial Crisis: 14-17 years for AofC, 24-27 years for Constitution.
Federal Republic Crisis: 13-15 years.
Union Crisis: 17-19 years.
Average Time of Moment from Start: 14.6-17 years (AofC). 18-20.3 years (Constitution).
Safe Assumption for Location of Moment: 15-19 years.
The time from one Constitutional Order to the next is between 70 and 80 years. The length of the average crisis is between 25 and 32 years. The new Constitutional Moment is around 15 to 19 years into the crisis. Where does this leave us today? Unfortunately, due to the uncertainty above and my unwillingness to do some basic variance calculations, the ranges get pretty large here:
The Liberal Democracy Crisis: (1984-1998) ”“ (2018-2032). Constitutional Moment: (2003-2013).
My personal pick is 2006-2010 as the most likely range for the Constitutional Moment. This puts the beginning of the crisis roughly around 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The crisis would then end sometime around 2021-2025.
But we also can’t rule out 2004 as the Moment either. Change may come in 2008 or shortly thereafter, but if it does not then I think we may well be looking back at 2004 as the year the reactionaries won and the new order was established (or, more accurately, the old was put on life support). I have no idea exactly what happens when the old order is made to continue in the face of change. I also have no idea what the added effects of being the largest economic and military power on Earth during this crisis would be””many other nations are coupled to us and are very interested in either keeping us going or tearing us down. And perhaps some thought should be given to the increased interconnectivity of world trade in this era versus previous ones. Communications and transportation technologies have never been faster, though it’s arguable if these are the best metrics for measuring economic and societal dependencies.
Once again, I don’t know how accurate my numbers are. This is not a scientific investigation. Any calculations are back-of-the-envelope with a liberal dose of estimation added on top. I have used Stirling’s work as a starting point for Constitutional Moments and then extrapolated from there. If 1991 was the beginning of the current crisis, then we are finishing up year 16. Odds are good that we’re due for something pretty soon. Holes are appearing in the mainstream’s economic picture, and they appear to be getting larger every week. Commodity prices are on the rise, with the energy basis of the dying order (oil) shooting up and the value of the dollar rapidly declining. The government is passing laws that are either unprecedented or only have precedents in previous crises. We are currently fighting two wars against two nations and there is talk of starting a third. We’re debating whether or not torture is actually torture on the evening news.
Things are getting strange and we are living in ”œinteresting times.” We are approaching a singularity of sorts””you can define its boundaries and certain properties of it, but you can’t really know exactly what the trajectory of life will be when we come out on the other side. Personally, I can’t decide whether to be optimistic or not. I really don’t like the dying order and the deception, hate, and waste associated with it””and it is increasingly a caricature of real life. But I’m also afraid of (1) what the dying order might do to continue on and (2) what the new order might look like. As Ian has said, last time around Germany got Hitler and we got Roosevelt. But there are no guarantees.
*Alternative Colonial Crisis: 1776-1805. Length: 29 years. Moment (from Start): 11 years. Reformulating the ranges with these new numbers makes the following changes:
Average Crisis Length: 27.6-30.3 years
Average Time Between Moments: 73 years
Average Time of Moment from Start: 13.6-15 years.
Safe Assumption for Crisis Length: 27-31 years
Safe Assumption for Time Between Moments: 70-75 years
Safe Assumption for Time of Moment from Start: 13-16 years
Then our current crisis looks like:
The Liberal Democracy Crisis: (1987-1995) ”“ (2016-2024). Constitutional Moment: (2003 ”“ 2008).