List Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Ages Of Discord

Turchin has some great stories about unity vs. polarization over time. For example in the 1940s, unity became such a “problem” that concerned citizens demanded more partisanship:

Concerned about electoral torpor and meaningless political debate, the American Political Science Association in 1946 appointed a committee to examine the role of parties in the American system. Four years later, the committee published a lengthy (and alarmed) report calling for the return of ideologically distinct and powerful political parties. Parties ought to stand for distinct sets of politics, the political scientists urged. Voters should be presented with clear choices.

I have vague memories of similar demands in the early ’90s; everyone was complaining that the parties were exactly the same and the “elites” were rigging things to make sure we didn’t have any real choices.

On the other hand, partisanship during the Civil War was pretty intense:

Another indicator of growing intraelite conflict was the increasing incidence of violence and threatened violence in Congress, which reached a peak during the 1850s. The brutal caning that Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina gave to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor in 1856 is the best known such episode, but it was not the only one. In 1842, after Representative Thomas Arnold of Tennessee “reprimanded a pro-slavery member of his own party, two Southern Democrats stalked towards him, at least of one of whom was arhmed with a bowie knife…calling Arnold a ‘damned coward,’ his angry colleagues threatened to cut his throat ‘from ear to ear'” (Freeman 2011). According to Senator Hammond, “The only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife are those who have two revolvers” (quoted in Potter 1976:389). During a debate in 1850, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri (Freeman 2011).

In another bitter debate, a New York congressman inadvertently dropped a pistol (it fell out of his pocket), and this almost precipitated a general shootout on the floor of Congress (Potter 1976: 389).

Turchin places the peak of US unity and cooperation around 1820, and partly credits the need to stand together against Indians:

A particularly interesting case is eighteenth-century Pennyslvania (the following discussion follows closely the text in Turchin 2011:30-31). Initially, European settlers were divided by a number of ethnic and religious boundaries (Silver 2008). The English found it difficult to cooperate with the Germans and the Irish, and each ethnic group was further divided into feuding sectarian groups: Quakers against Anglicans, German Lutherans against Moravians and Mennonites. Yet, by the end of the eighteenth century, the European settlers had forged a common identity (“white people”) in opposition to the natives. As Nancy Shoemaker (2004) shoes, these “metaethnic” labels (Whites versus Reds) were not evoked as soon as settlers and natives came into contact. Rather, during the course of the eighteenth century Europeans and Indians gradually abandoned an initial willingness to recognize in each other a common humanity. Instead, both sides developed new stereotypes of the Other, rooted in the conviction that they were peoples fundamentally at odds, by custom and even by nature (Shoemaker 2004).

The evolution of civic organizations reflected this expanding definition of common identity. Clubs with ethnic and denominational membership criteria appeared in Pennyslvania during the 1740s. These associations represented what Putnam (2000) called “bonding” rather than “bridging” social capital. For example, the St. Andrew’s Society was narrowly focused on helping the Scots, while Deutsche Gesellschaft did the same for the Germans. However, as settler-native warfare intensified, especially during the second half of the eighteenth century, the focus of civic organizations gradually shifted to charity for any victims of Indian attacks, without regard for their ethnicity or religious denomination (Silver 2008). The social scale of coorperation took a step up. Of course, there were definite limits to this new “bridging” social capital: the Indians were most emphatically excluded; in fact, the integration of “white people” developed explicitly in opposition to the Indians.

Although the above description applies to pre-revolutionary Pennsylvania, a very similar dynamic obtained on the Northwestern frontier in Ohio after the Revolution (Griffin 2007). As Griffin notes, for white Americans “Indians existed as cultural glue, since the hatred of them was fast becoming a basis of order.”

This passage stood out to me because modern racial commentators focus on “whiteness” as an idea that evolved in opposition to (and to justify oppression of) blacks. But the Indian theory makes some sense too, especially because Northerners would have more exposure to Indians than they did to black people. But I notice I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this, and most of the history books I’ve read treat Indians as too weak to be an important enemy or have much of a place in the early American consciousness.

One factor leading to greater polarization was “elite overproduction”, here represented by more office-seekers than federal offices. This was apparently a well-known problem in early America:

Despite the increase in government posts, the supply was overwhelmed by demand for such positions. A horde of office-seekers nearly turned Jackson’s inauguration into a riot. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Were it believed that vacant places could be had at the North Pole, the road there would be lined with dead Virginians” (quoted in Potter 1976:432). And, most dramatically (although in a later period), President James Garfield was assassinated by a rejected office-seeker in 1881.

And so on. Some of Turchin’s measures of cooperation vs. polarization are a bit odd. But I have to respect the big-picture-ness of someone who will literally just look at the occurence of the word “cooperation” in various books:

It is interesting that “culture-metric” data support Fraser’s subjective perception [of declining cooperation between business and labor]. For example, the frequency of the word “cooperation” in the corpus of American books grew rapidly during the Progressive Era and somewhat less so during the New Deal (Figure 12.3). After reaching a peak in 1940, there was a minor decline during the 1950s, followed by an increase toward the second peak of 1975. After 1975, however, the frequency of this word went into a sustained decline.

Google Ngram is an imperfect instrument with which to trace cultural shifts. One problem is that the same word (eg, “capitalism”) can be used with either positive or negative valence, and Ngram does not allow one to separate these different meanings. “Cooperation”, however, is rarely used in the negative sense. Because of its predominantly positive valence, its overall frequency should provide us with a proxy for how much a society values cooperative values. Checking different variants (cooperation, Cooperation, cooperative, etc) yields the same overall rise-fall dynamics during the twentieth century (and up to 2008, where the current Google book database stops).

Furthermore, a more specific phrase, “labor-business cooperation” again traces out the same secular cycle, although with significant differences during some decades (eg, the 1920s). Finally, “corporate greed” with its predominantly negative valence is another check on the validity of this result, and it is reassuring that during the twentieth century its frequency moved in the opposite direction from the two positive terms (to show this parallelism more clearly, Figure 12.3 plots “corporate greed” on an inverse scale).


There is an interesting parallel…between the Great Depression and the 1970s Bear Market. Both periods of economic hardship (although it goes without saying that the Great Depression was a much more severe crisis) were broadly interpreted as empirical evidence against the prevailing economic doctrine – the naked, laissez faire capitalism in the first instance, more cooperative relations between business and labor in the second. Yet it is much more likely that the primary mechanism, responsible for long-term economic decline/stagnation in each case, was the negative phase of the Kondratiev cycle, perhaps supplemented by exogenous shocks (eg, the 1973 oil embargo). Yet in each case a prolonged period of economic troubles helped to delegitimize the prevailing ideological regime (Chapter 9).

Thanks for reminding me there’s yet another cycle I need to study, one that supposedly determines the rate of technological advances. Maybe that’s my next book review.

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53 Responses to List Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Ages Of Discord

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    Benjamin Franklin’s brilliant essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (written in 1751, published in 1754) that inspired Malthus and Darwin generations later was inspired by Franklin’s opposition to German immigration:

    Franklin was the leader of one political party in Pennsylvania. The other party was paid for by “The Proprietors” — the heirs of William Penn who lived in England and had converted back to the Church of England. Most of their supporters in Pennsylvania were Quakers, so the Proprietors were recruiting German Pietists (much like Quakers) to immigrate to Pennsylvania to tip the scales in elections in favor of the Proprietors.

    But in 1754, George Washington got into a battle with the French at what’s now Pittsburgh, and nine years later, the Seven Years War (a.k.a., French and Indian War) was finally over, and Britain now owned what had been French America up to the Mississippi. Franklin largely lost interest in immigration restriction, since America now had a vast hinterland to populate.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    “This passage stood out to me because modern racial commentators focus on “whiteness” as an idea that evolved in opposition to (and to justify oppression of) blacks. But the Indian theory makes some sense too, especially because Northerners would have more exposure to Indians than they did to black people. But I notice I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this, and most of the history books I’ve read treat Indians as too weak to be an important enemy or have much of a place in the early American consciousness.”

    That’s just retconning based on who is on top now. The 250+ year struggle against American Indians was world-famous. Native Americans were glamorous up into the 1970s.

    • eric23 says:

      Possibly, but I would want a more scholarly source for that

      • Watchman says:

        Hollywood stock movie production up to about 1975? Could the modern equivalent of John Wayne really star in a film featuring Indians at least one time in three?

      • nkurz says:

        Jill Lepore’s book “The Name of War” is probably a good source to back that claim that Native Americans played a crucial role in forming the American identity. It’s for lay audiences, but by a talented and well-credentialed scholar:

        It’s mainly a history of King Philip’s War, which was a large and largely forgotten conflict between the Native Americans and English settlers on the East Coast prior to independence from England. The general thrust is that initially, many of the Native Americans were aligned with the settlers, and relations with these tribes were good. Bibles were printed in native languages, and the settlers goal was to reform the natives to join together in common humanity.

        Over time, though, relationships soured. Eventually, the goal was extermination of all natives. Those who had initially sided with the English fared the worst, because they were now considered traitors by both sides. The leader of one of these tribes was a Wampanoag named Metacomet, who went by the English name “King Philip”. In the late 1600’s, he led a rebellion which came surprisingly close to wiping out the English settlers:

        The latter part of Lepore’s book is about the resurrection of the myth of the King Philip in the 1800’s, with emphasis on the play “Metamora: Last of the Wampanoags”. It was a major hit, and although mostly forgotten, played a large role in forming the concept of the American Indian that exists today:

    • Matt M says:

      My impression is that modern historians are utterly obsessed with politics and political units, in a way that causes them to virtually ignore any people and any thing that happened that isn’t easily associated with a known political unit.

      And the vast majority of white/indian interactions in the early Americas don’t fit in this framework. The vast majority of the Indians were from small tribes, typically not coordinating with any other tribes at all, operating occasional raids outside of anything approaching something that could be formally understood as a “war.” And the same thing with the white settlers. Mostly, they weren’t large campaigns centrally managed by either the British or American governments.

    • Randy M says:

      This sentence of Scott’s definitely surprised me too. Maybe it’s forgotten because there was no dramatic end to the conflict, but a series of small battles and surrenders tribe by tribe, but my impression is that anyone in a frontier state, as well has various presidents, generals, and other federal officials, were very concerned with violence from natives–and of course what they could take from the natives–up through the cowboy times settling the west in the late 1800s.
      Whether it was responsible for conceptions of whiteness or not, I don’t know, but white versus red was definitely an important conflict to many for a long time.

    • jml says:

      There’s a piece that I believe is well known in scholarly circles called “Whiteness as Property” by Harris which I was actually originally referred to by a comment on this blog, which focuses on exactly the idea that whiteness evolved in opposition to Native Americans and blacks.


      It’s been a while since I read it but one notable bit I recall:
      – court cases established the state’s ability to determine race (discussed around pg 56 of the pdf), and early on this was a way to deny Native Americans land (e.g. if you can’t prove you were part of this tribe at this time, then you have no right to land based on group identity).

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Hypothesis: if you actually take aside a scholar of American race relations who says something like “the concept ‘whiteness’ is defined in opposition to ‘blackness’ and historically grew out of a desire by Anglo-American colonists to separate and distinguish themselves from African slaves and importantly from black freemen,” and ask them the following question:

      “So, do you think ‘whiteness’ as Americans understand it was also defined in opposition to the Native Americans, or was this irrelevant to the development of the American concept of ‘whiteness?’ ”

      I think most of the race relations scholars would say “oh yeah, that too, white was totally seen in opposition to both ‘black’ and ‘red’ and tended to define itself as a ‘pure’ absence of either of the above, but with a different relationship to the ‘reds’ than to the ‘blacks’ for various reasons.

      It’s not so much that the role of conflict with, and then extermination of, the Native Americans is ignored by “modern racial commentators.” If they’re not talking about it much, it’s because modern concepts of whiteness aren’t defined in terms of “we’re not a bunch of Injuns,” because Native Americans haven’t been a relevant demographic any meaningful number of Americans felt any fear of since the 1890s.

  3. eric23 says:

    Does high use of the word “cooperation” mean that people are cooperating? Or that they aren’t cooperating and so people have to encourage cooperation?

    • bassicallyboss says:

      Presumably the former, since “corporate greed” follows an inverse pattern, and it seems unlikely that people would want to encourage that, or use the phrase to reflect on the good old days during time of trouble.

      • eric23 says:

        I assume you mean “corporate greed” is more used when there is lots of corporate greed?

        Cooperation is different though. Corporate greed is considered bad while cooperation is considered good. When corporate greed is high, people are likely to complain about it. When cooperation is high, people are not likely to complain about the lack of cooperation, nor (I think) are they going to praise themselves over the great amount of cooperation.

  4. Markus Ramikin says:

    As Nancy Shoemaker (2004) shoes


  5. Michael Handy says:

    But I notice I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this, and most of the history books I’ve read treat Indians as too weak to be an important enemy or have much of a place in the early American consciousness.

    William Hogeland’s Autumn of the black snake as well as his previous works The Whiskey Rebellion and Founding Finance spend a good amount of time focusing on Indian-Colonial-British relations and the expansion west as a tension point driving the American Revolution and subsequent developments in US institutions.

  6. Erusian says:

    I think you’re somewhat misunderstanding the calls for more partisanship. Rather than calls for more division, I think it was a call to have more viable multi-faction democracy. The United States has (generally) teetered between periods of domination and competition. For example, the Patriots dominated the early US government. Then there was competition. Then the Jeffersonian Democrats won and dominated. Then there was competition. Then the Republicans won. Then there was competition. Then the Democrats won but overreached to the point many of FDR’s own Democrats opposed his expansion of presidential power. This led to a reaction and eventually a period of competition again, followed by modern politics which I will fail to comment on.

    But I don’t see it as a call for partisanship. I see it as a call for political competition. The thing that Eisenhower and his Republican majority would kick-off. FDR, with his four terms and Supreme Court packing and subversion of the legislature and political machines tried to create a system where there was a dominant, unified political party. One that could control and rationalize the economy, one that explicitly abided by corporatist/communist ideas about how dissent and economic competition was wasteful (though without the full scale attendant murdering of ethnic groups, the worst they did was things like Indian Removal and Japanese Internment). It seems the scholars are supporting the move Eisenhower would eventually make. Eisenhower was not especially political but he chose to run as a Republican for a variety of reasons. One was that he was afraid the Republicans would no longer be a viable political party in the aftermath of the new party system and that he thought that was bad for democracy.

    (This is not, by the way, an anti-Democrat position. If this is the story I tell, modern Democrats, insofar as they are the descendants of JFK and Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, are heroes who bravely resisted the absolutist tendencies of New Deal corporatist Democrats. They insisted progressive ideology be based not on ideas of absolutist top-down control and an unopposed state but on an egalitarian society with no place for the racism of FDR’s coalition or the abuses of power he used to suppress his opponents. In particular, while I think Democrats should be ashamed of many people praising Communism and Fascism in the 1930s, they also get to claim credit for many people advancing good and humane positions from the 1920s about immigrants, race, and relief to the poor and huddled masses. They were a minority, but they were there.)

  7. Watchman says:

    I promised myself I wouldn’t criticise Turchin’s methodology any more on reading the post title, but sometimes I can’t see a way out…

    Google Ngram is an imperfect instrument with which to trace cultural shifts.

    Well yes. And if you actually engaged with context-focussed historians we’d point you to the far more powerful analytical tools used in the field of corpus linguistics to analyse language change. These should suit Turchin as they produce measurable and mappable data. The University of Connecticut even has an applied linguistics department who likely have suitable software available.

    I don’t mean to be critical of everything Turchin does, but if you want to convince people your theory of why the world follows cyclical patterns is accurate, doing so with tools you yourself know are insufficient is not going to cut it. To have a radical idea accepted it needs to be convincing and not something I can poke holes in in passing.

  8. Watchman says:

    On the definition of whiteness, why would anyone think the modern discourse on this is at all historically reliable? Most people trying to define whiteness are creating an ideological construction with limited ties to reality anyway, with the oppressive white (man) as a key plank. They’re going to manipulate history to support this view, just as any ideological movement does.

    It also allows me to say something positive about Turchin. Whilst he is firmly in a aub-Marxist mindset of trying to use history to anticipate future crises, he is at least doing this without an obvious ideological filter. I think his methodology is wrong and his prior assumptions are likely invalid, but at least Turchin is not trying to change the data points he uses to make a modern political point.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      On the definition of whiteness, why would anyone think the modern discourse on this is at all historically reliable? Most people trying to define whiteness are creating an ideological construction with limited ties to reality anyway, with the oppressive white (man) as a key plank. They’re going to manipulate history to support this view, just as any ideological movement does.

      Should I be interpreting this passage to say that historically, American society in particular and Western society haven’t been dominated by individuals who happened to, as a collective body, be male and white?

      • Aapje says:


        There is a big difference between a group having more power than their numbers would suggest is fair and only them having power. I see a lot of explicit and implicit claims that it is solely white men who have or had power, which is false.

        Secondly, power is contextual and multi-faceted. I see a strong tendency by those who believe in the ideology under discussion to ignore the contexts and facets where white men are or were not so powerful.

        Thirdly, I often see power in a certain context be conflated with using that power selfishly. This ignores the existence of altruism, as well as ways in which those who seem (very) powerful are actually restrained and/or directed in how they use that power. It’s a lot less obvious that having disproportionate power equals oppression in general or oppression to the extent that the power is disproportionate, when those who are ‘in power’ are severely constrained, including, for example, being forced into making sacrifices.

        Then we haven’t even addressed the issue that these groups that are identified are not exactly homogeneous, including in their (access to) power. The jobless Appalachian white man doesn’t have the same power as the white men or black women who are in congress, nor do his interests naturally align with the latter. Or at least, that is what I believe. Those who strongly believe in ‘whiteness’ seem to believe that Bubba has immense white male privilege and that his interests align more with Bill Clinton than Bill Clinton’s interests align with Barack Obama.

  9. notpeerreviewed says:

    Here’s the report that complained about insufficient polarization, “Toward A More Responsible Two-Party System”:

    The subtext might not be obvious to modern readers: When they call for clearer distinctions between the parties, they’re specifically complaining about the Democratic Party coalition that forced voters to decide on Jim Crow and the New Deal as a package. Voting for pro-labor Democrats in the North empowered segregationist committee chairs from the South, who would block any attempt to pass a national civil rights act.

  10. notpeerreviewed says:

    “Whiteness” originally came from the Spanish colonies, where it was defined in opposition to both blacks and Indians. It was codified in the North American colonies at least as early as the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705:

    The more traditional way for the European colonists to define themselves was as “Christians.” Problem was, many African slaves were happy to convert to Christianity if that increased their chances of freedom, so slavery wasn’t going to work out in the long run unless people started to see things in terms of race.

    I would be surprised if that distinction was nearly so important when it came to conflicts between western settlers and Indians. The European ethnic groups all had in common that they were Christians and the Indians were “heathens”; there was no additional need for race as a common bond.

    • bullseye says:

      Didn’t some of the Indians convert too?

      • Majuscule says:

        A Cherokee friend of mine introduced me to the phrase “born Indian, died white”, meaning that lots of Native Americans assimilated, whether intentionally, by force, or just sort of casually (or all of the above in different ways at different times) to the point that when they died, no one made note of their heritage. If no one said anything, “white” might end up on their death certificates, especially if they were mixed race. I can’t imagine this phenomenon is as widespread for other races, and that feels significant but I’m not sure where to go with that.

  11. Steve says:

    The speaker of the House of Representatives and another long-time member fought a formal duel in 1826, just a few years after that peak of unity … which was the same year of unity that the country nearly split apart over the slavery question … which was one year after a severe financial panic led to things like state governments not even knowing which judiciary was the correct one because partisans insisted that *their* court system was the legitimate government … which was four years after much of New England was grumbling about succession over the War of 1812.

    The idea of the Monroe government circa 1820 was an Era of Good Feelings is a cute label (like Gilded Age, etc.) for AP History class and works if you just look at the electoral vote returns, but it’s not consistent with what was actually going on and is mostly used tongue-in-cheek today.

  12. Aftagley says:

    One factor leading to greater polarization was “elite overproduction”, here represented by more office-seekers than federal offices. This was apparently a well-known problem in early America:

    I’ve been skeptical of his elite-overproduction theory, and this paragraph makes me convinced Turchin is blowing smoke.

    Office-seeking in early american history was a byproduct of cronyism. You’d motivate your most ardent supporters to campaign on your behalf because they knew they’d get (comparatively) cushy federal jobs if you won. Think about today’s ambassadorships being given to major donors but throughout the entirety of the federal government.

    Jackson and his ilk used and abused this practice beyond its former bounds. He was explicitly populist and made countless promises to local organizers that he’d get them jobs if they got him in office. Notably, it wasn’t elites he was promising positions to, these were locals out in the sticks. The people rioted at his inauguration, because he’d promised them all jobs, and they now wanted him to deliver. When he ended up taking office, around 10% of the federal workforce was kicked out and replaced by his cronies. This wasn’t an overproduction of elites, it was a populist electorate coming for what was promised.

    Moving to what Turchin says about Lincoln, he’s providing that quote way out of context. This sentence was Lincoln talking about why he thought the civil war was unlikely: he believed that the South was too well integrated into the federal government and wouldn’t be willing to give up their positions just on the chance for rebellion. Here’s the full quote (emphasis mine):

    They wont give up the offices. Were it believed that vacant places could be had at the North Pole, the road there would be lined with dead Virginians.”

    This quote has to do specifically with Lincoln’s opinion on how attached southerners were to their federal positions, not his assessment of how many people there were applying for said positions.

    Moving to Garfield: this point actively undermines Turchin’s thesis. Garfield was planning on moving away from a patronage system and towards a merit-based one, a change that would arguably expandi opportunities for elites, who would likely compete better in a system where education and prior history was a factor. This change to spoils is what prompted Gaiteau (well, this and psychosis) to shoot the President. Again, in context this event has nothing to do with there being too many elites.

    So in summary, in one paragraph Turchin: show’d he didn’t understand the Jacksonian spoil system, misquoted Lincoln and pretty much misstated how Garfield’s assassination attempt went down. I haven’t read the book, but if this passage is indicative of the overall level of scholarship that Turchin brings, I’d be highly, highly skeptical of any of his conclusions.

    • Steve says:

      It’s also overwhelmingly weird to frame people from the sticks lobbying for post office jobs as a sign of “elite overproduction.” These weren’t elites in any reasonable definition of the term, beyond that they were overwhelmingly white males and not usually the absolute poorest of the poor.

    • Rob K says:

      Yeah this was pretty damning. Especially given that from the earlier review Turchin seems to place a lot of importance on the progresive era reforms, which to the extent that they mattered largely did because of their attacks on patronage-based machine politics.

      If you’re trying to convince me you’ve actually looked at the history you’re interpreting rather than just grabbing stuff to fit your theory, this kind of oversight ain’t the way to do it.

    • mtl1882 says:

      Yeah this was pretty damning.

      Yeah, yikes. “Elite” is definitely not an adjective that comes to mind when reading about the patronage positions/system of that time, which is a topic I enjoy. I’ve begun writing about history, but I’m always terrified of misinterpreting something that seems minor in a major way. A casual, side reference can go really wrong. I do it as a hobby, but I see experienced scholars do it all the time. Something that seem so basic can be wildly wrong, and it can be hard to know where there have been corrections. Total immersion over time is needed, and a book like this is just too big in scope. The dynamics of some periods are so different that categories similar on the surface are terrible comparisons.

      ETA: Weird thing I came across. The New York City Customs House and other patronage positions there during the Civil War epitomized the worst of the system. The members were competitively vicious. After the war, a number of the members gravitated into the newly formed ASPCA, which was a total craze. While parental rights were considered inviolable and abused kids could be out of luck, there was this brief surge in animal rights activism–including legislation. I don’t know if they were atoning somehow for their brutal behavior towards fellow humans or what…I just think it is really odd. It seems to have coincided with Reconstruction, and begun to fade around the same time the latter was abandoned.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Lincoln spent much of his first six weeks as President not trying to head off the coming Civil War but instead interviewing a long line of Republicans who wanted Post Office jobs.

      Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward was so aghast at Lincoln’s priorities in this national crisis that he put forward a plan to re-unite the nation by emphasizing how Spain and France were violating the Monroe Doctrine by intervening in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, respectively, and that he would take on the burdens of the executive position. Lincoln instantly saw the latter as a giant diss and smacked down Seward like Donald Trump piledriving Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania.

      Seward’s interesting strategy has been forgotten.

    • bassicallyboss says:

      It seems to me that the major facets of “elite overproduction” today are things like competition over college admissions and employment in a positions of intellectual respect (university professorships, government agencies, think tanks, journalism, etc). I haven’t read Turchin, so I’m not exactly sure how key this sort of competition is. However, if status competitions like this are the conflict we’re supposed to worry about from elite overproduction, or they’re causally related to the conflicts that cause real problems, then I think Turchin’s pretty in the clear here as a theorist (leaving aside your more damning criticisms of him as a scholar) in counting anyone who was competing for an office job as “elite”.

      Basically, if “elite overproduction” is relevant because of some functional role that is being oversupplied by elites, then it doesn’t really matter what kind of people those “elites” were. If relevant elites today are people with college degrees and relevant elites in the middle ages are landed hereditary aristocracy, then it seems perfectly reasonable that political cronies could be the relevant “elites” of Jacksonian America. Promising positions to too many populists would then just be the means of overproduction.

      • Aftagley says:

        If my city holds applications for dog catcher tomorrow and 10 people show up for that one position, are we suffering an oversupply of elites?

      • mtl1882 says:

        There were a few positions for which you could make this argument, but office-seekers were not necessarily seeking “office” jobs with a certain amount of “intellectual respect” or that type of social status. I’m not sure if I understand you correctly, but I think that is what you are arguing—that these held a similar function to today’s administrative government jobs in keeping the kids of the upper middle class respectably and comfortably employed.

        There was some of that, but I don’t think that was most of it. Maybe for clerkships in DC and that sort of thing–and people gave their older upper middle class friend who had fallen on hard times an office to make sure they could recover, etc. But this was face saving, not the kind of position they’d aimed for. Social, economic and technological changes had made it hard for some elites to retain position, and some office positions propped them up for a while. But they had not grown up preparing for that type of position–a lot of elite communities had overproduced more on a notion of aristocracy, only to be undermined by the growth of a competitive professional and merchant class. It was inherently unsustainable. New England aristocrats educated their kids to be social leaders, not government workers. But they lost the social leadership. A lot of those young people joined abolitionist and reform organizations.

        The parties had to take care of satisfying people of all social classes in their party and the process was often not very respectable or secure. A certain type of bureaucracy was very necessary then due to the need to organize a society that wasn’t centralized. It wasn’t mainly meritocratic–the cronyism of keeping people in solidarity was the point. Being postmaster was a big deal, but it was a very necessary position and its power came from things beyond status. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think people were being educated in that direction. The jobs were popular, but there was not a specific type of job they were being geared for. Not sure if that makes sense.

      • Watchman says:

        I can’t see how Turchin’s use of data can mean he is “in the clear as a theorist”. His theory is not some blue-sky theorising but an actual claimed historical cycle, and if the evidence does not support him then his theory does not work. We can’t just take away the nice idea of elite overproduction without addressing the issue that its theoretical framework is challenged.

      • angularangel says:

        Honestly I think the “elite” part may be inaccurate – it’s more about having too much supply vs demand in an employment market. This might mean second and third sons of wealthy farmers (or plantation owners) who won’t inherit the farm but are still looking for a position with decent status, or second and third (and fourth, and bastards) nobles sons, or today’s college graduates, or even working class people who feel they’re being forced into a bad economic bargain, or really any large enough segment of the population that feels they’re getting the short end of the stick and is upset enough about it to rock the boat.

  13. andrewswift says:

    If you think that the indians were weak, remember that 80% of the Federal budget under Washington went to fighting them.

    Much more information here.

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      Furthermore, prior to the 20th century, with the exceptions of the Mexican and Civil Wars, virtually all the military experience any Americans had was in fighting Indians.

      Andrew Jackson’s most famous victory of course is New Orleans, but his reputation was largely built as an Indian-fighter in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

      Being the victor of the battle of Tippecanoe was enough to carry William Henry Harrison to the Presidency 3 decades later.

      Lincoln’s ONLY military experience was leading a company of militia in the Black Hawk War.

      In the midst of the Civil War, disgraced Northern generals could find themselves in Minnesota fighting Sioux, and many tribes fought alongside the Confederacy in the Transmississippi theater.

      It seems like today, apart from Little Bighorn, virtually all of these Indian wars that flared up every decade or so along the frontier are totally forgotten.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        In contrast to 250+ years of Indian wars, white Americans almost never needed to fight black Americans in any kind of sizable battle: just a handful of local slave revolts, a few Civil War battles with substantial black participation on the Northern side, and a certain number of two-sided race riots like Chicago in 1919.

        American Indians were a subject of worldwide fascination for the ferocity of their resistance, while American blacks were not. This has led to much retconning in recent decades, such as the New York Times’ current campaign.

        • eric23 says:

          This is not surprising, Indians had cohesive nations they wanted to preserve. Blacks in the Americas were individuals.

          • Simon_Jester says:


            The antebellum South actually put a huge amount of effort into making it impossible for blacks- enslaved or free- to organize into any kind of political machinery that might upset the system. Widespread censorship, bans on teaching slaves to read, serious pushes to make it [i]federal law[/i] that slaves be run down and recaptured…

            The Native Americans started their time of colonization from outside the immediate reach of their oppressors, and so had a lot more time and chances to put together a defnese.

  14. keaswaran says:

    It’s odd that the examples you give of “partisanship” during the pre-Civil War period include an anti-slavery Whig (Thomas Arnold) reprimanding a pro-slavery Whig, and a pro-slavery Democrat (Henry Foote) pulling a pistol on an anti-slavery Democrat (Thomas Hart Benton). These are intra-party feuds, not in any way examples of partisanship! The APSA was worried in the 1940’s that the country had returned to this non-partisan time, when you couldn’t count on party affiliation to tell you anything about the opinions politicians had on the most important issues. The 1850s and 1940s were times of relatively low partisanship precisely because the biggest conflicts were about race, rather than about the issues that divided the parties.

    And the discussion of elite overproduction in 19th century America also sounded strange. Andrew Jackson was precisely an anti-elitist who decided that government jobs should go to friends and cronies, and James Garfield was assassinated by a non-elite because he threatened to pass a law ensuring that they should go to elites. If anything, these are examples that show the opposite of the elite overproduction theory!

    • mtl1882 says:

      Yeah—-the beating of Charles Sumner was not a partisan issue. While there was of course a lot of partisan fighting, geography/slavery were in the driver’s seat throughout that whole period. Charles Sumner was the embodiment of Massachusetts.

      The US History SAT Subject Test asks which of the options given was Lincoln’s greatest strength as president. The answer is reconciling the various factions of his party.

      People were very aggressive in general, and loudly partisan, but it just cannot be correctly characterized as a partisan issue–the parties fell apart under very concrete conflicts. And there was a panorama of beliefs to choose from on a more abstract, partisan level—it was a time of very interesting coalition-building.

      • angularangel says:

        I mean, I’d say that if people are sorting themselves into sides and picking fights on the floor of congress, then things are getting pretty partisan, regardless of whether or not those sides correlate with existing political parties? This seems ultimately like an exercise in semantics. Maybe it would have been better to use the term “divisive” or something instead, but honestly that doesn’t seem like a huge difference.

        • mtl1882 says:

          I think “divisive” or even just “polarizing” works, but i do think there is a big difference between polarization and partisan polarization. Partisan means divided along party lines, which I tend to think of as a little abstract/ideological.

          North/South (or slave/free) are geographic areas, not parties, and it became almost impossible for parties to straddle them. The conflict between these areas (and the west, but putting that aside for simplicity) resulted from very concrete issues and didn’t need parties to arise to organize the tension. Partisan arguments fanned the flames, and I’m not dismissing all that machinations that went on there, but the conflict was more fundamental and obvious. During this period, parties fell apart, died altogether, and rearranged. New ones rose and took off.

          The coalitions constantly shifted. There were more than two parties, and they were in constant disagreement with each other. I think that is very different than partisan polarization in which you are on one side or the other and those sides are the only realistic ones, or are the only two poles between which moderates can string themselves. And the issues dividing people are more contrived and given as a package deal, with little tolerance for dissent. The dynamics are different in ways that matter a lot in doing comparisons.

          • Matt M says:

            Partisan means divided along party lines

            Yes, absolutely.

            If Rand Paul and Tom Cotton got into a brawl on the Senate floor over whether or not we should pull troops from Afghanistan, approximately nobody would describe it as a “partisan conflict.”

          • angularangel says:

            Eh, I’m not entirely convinced*? But alright, I’ll move to adopt “polarized” instead of partisan. Seems reasonable enough.

            *Actually, this seems like an interesting thing to read an article or a blog post on. I might go looking for one of those later. If I do, and find one, I’ll post it here.

          • mtl1882 says:


            If you have questions about anything that you find unconvincing, feel free to ask–I enjoy the discussion. But if you’re burned out on the topic, I’m not trying to lecture you on terminology or anything. I just think it is an interesting subject. There is literature about this, but I don’t know what the best recs are–here are two I do know about:


            This one deals with the polarization of the Civil War Era v. now:


            Even when the parties agree on what to do about a particular national problem, they view each other suspiciously and put winning as a group over all else…

            That is what I think is key–you can’t settle anything with partisan polarization. You can settle things under other types–with ruthless finality, often with violence. I think partisan polarization arises naturally from certain large social and technological changes, and that is what has happened here. A change in the level of abstraction results, and a realignment occurs around it. I see it as driven by material conditions that cause predictable behavioral changes. I read a lot of newspapers from the 1860s-1880s, as part of a research project. It is odd to see in real time how the partisanship so easily reasserted dominance after the war in terms of rhetoric and political definition, if not in yet in practice. A shallow, broad, universal vagueness. I’m done now, I promise!

  15. This passage stood out to me because modern racial commentators focus on “whiteness” as an idea that evolved in opposition to (and to justify oppression of) blacks. But the Indian theory makes some sense too, especially because Northerners would have more exposure to Indians than they did to black people. But I notice I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this, and most of the history books I’ve read treat Indians as too weak to be an important enemy or have much of a place in the early American consciousness.

    Wikipedia gave me the impression that the Reconquista was the birth of “whiteness” (Limpieza de sangre), so it’s possible that the idea was already swimming about the European mind by this point, and although different kinds of Europeans may have hated each other initially, the pre-existing rallying point became something that was propagandized to assist co-operation.

  16. notpeerreviewed says:

    “Partisanship” is obviously being used as a shorthand for political division in general, whether or not it falls along party lines.

    • mtl1882 says:

      Yes. Above, @Matt M replied to me by saying:

      If Rand Paul and Tom Cotton got into a brawl on the Senate floor over whether or not we should pull troops from Afghanistan, approximately nobody would describe it as a “partisan conflict.”

      The problem is, probably most people would describe it that way. It does not make any sense, which was his main point, but it would happen. But this “shortcut” is a huge problem, as partisan polarization results from and responds to different conditions than others. Most people don’t care about nuance, but I’m sure there are people who are pushing this definition. If we don’t blame it all on partisanship, the conversation gets more awkward. There are real disagreements that can’t be solved by bipartisan politeness.

    • Watchman says:

      Remember the measure used is disagreement between the two major parties, not disagreement between politicians. So however it is being used, the measure is of partisanship between parties.

      Arguably therefore increased modern partisanship reflects the availability of more perfect information, whereby it is easier to coordinate punishment of dissenters, and where party adherence is not filtered through local issues but is rather a broad statement of political position, reducing intra-party conflict by ensuring more shared views.

      • mtl1882 says:

        Arguably therefore increased modern partisanship reflects the availability of more perfect information, whereby it is easier to coordinate punishment of dissenters, and where party adherence is not filtered through local issues but is rather a broad statement of political position, reducing intra-party conflict by ensuring more shared views.

        I agree with this assessment of the dynamic. I don’t think they succeed in harmonizing the dissenters so much as crushing them, though. The lack of filtering through local issues, broad appeal, and organized information used in opposition to dissenters makes politics more abstract. That is what causes the unhealthiness of high partisanship (all conditions have unhealthiness, I’m not saying it is inherently bad, but I think that is what defines it–people begin sounding really irrational in specific ways). You can’t actually make some of the local conflicts unimportant and thus harmonize everyone—you just crush dissent. Things are unrealistically simple and continually purified.

        Where information and coordination is lower, there are many more options among party members and strict partisan lines don’t set the whole playing field. Things can be just as divisive, or more so, but the conflicts are less broad and stream-lined. It is probably somewhat more rational but chaotic and selfish. I think it is a pendulum. Low partisanship often goes with unrest, because pressing, volatile, concrete issues have transcended party.