Tag Archives: highlights

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.