This the Dao, the ancient Chinese symbol for the duality of nature's forces -- life and death, darkness and light, male and female.
But it also symbolizes the timeless unity of those same forces -- the yin and the yang -- locked in an endless cycle, each holding within itself the seed of the other, represented by the two smaller circles. The universe in microcosm.
The West has its own version of the Dao, although being Western it's neither as simple nor as elegant. It's called the Dialectic.
That's not a new line of cell phones. It's a metaphysical concept -- first described by Aristotle, applied to the study of history by the German philosopher Hegel, and expropriated by Karl Marx to explain his theory of proletarian revolution.
That last bit of intellectual property theft has given dialectics something of a bad name in bourgeois society -- all the worse for the fact that so many of Marx's Leninist admirers came to rely on it to "prove" the historical inevitability of their various crimes.
But, dirty commies notwithstanding, the concept still has great analytical value. Marx got that much right. Dialectics is a powerful tool for understanding history -- political history in particular.
In fact, the entire history of American politics can be seen as a complex, continuous dialectical process, stretching out over more than two centuries. It's still in progress -- and will go on as long as the Republic does. Maybe even longer than that.
So what is the Dialectic? Stripped down to the basics, it's a flow chart:
History is the struggle of two forces: a dominant "Thesis" -- which may be an idea, a political program or a culture -- and its "Antithesis" -- the idea, program or culture most diametrically opposed to the dominant one.
Eventually, out of this contradiction something new is born: the "Synthesis," a hybrid that combines elements of the thesis and the antithesis.
Which elements? It all depends. Sometimes the thesis survives the conflict almost intact; sometimes it's all but obliterated by its antithesis. Every picture tells a different story.
But that's not all. Where the Dao is timeless, eternal and unchanging, the Dialetic is linear. It's supposed to lead somewhere (that old Western hangup.) Every synthesis becomes a new thesis, which becomes the target of a new antithesis. So we now need a new flow chart:
The new antithesis forms out of elements of the original contradiction that didn't make it into the synthesis. This sets up the next contradiction. And so the process repeats itself, over and over, until all contradictions have been resolved and a final synthesis -- "the end of history" -- is attained.
Or at least, that's the theory. It's all sounds very esoteric and abstract -- the "meta" in metaphysics. But what does it have to do with the messy, grimy and sometimes bloody realities of American politics?
Simply this: The political history of the United States consists of a series of dialectical struggles between opposing factions or parties, fought mostly at the ballot box, but occasionally on the battlefield. From each of these battles, a victor eventually has emerged, creating in time a new synthesis.
But none of these victories have been final. Each has set the stage for yet another struggle, this time between the winner of the previous contest (thesis) and a new challenger (antithesis). This emerging challenger typically attracts support from both the ranks of the previously defeated force and from defecting elements of the current ruling coalition.
With that concept as our intellectual tour boat, let's take a cruise through the past 200 years of American politics:
The primal conflict of American history pitted the Patriots against the Tories -- the third or so of the colonial population that remained loyal to King George III. The Patriots stood for decentralized government and personal liberty; the Tories for submission to lawful authority and respect for the aristocratic social order.
So short a summary is almost caricature, of course. Like modern libertarians, the Patriots at times seemed more impassioned about evading taxes than defending freedom. Like their feudal ancestors, the Tories often seemed more interested in preserving class privilege than upholding lawful government.
But the ideological conflict -- liberty vs. tradition, Republicanism vs. monarchy -- was real enough, if only because it allowed diverse interests in 13 different colonies to identify common goals and form strategic alliances.
We all know the victor. But in winning, the Patriots had to adjust their ideology to reflect the consequences of their victory. Central authority couldn't be dispensed with entirely. Nor could taxation. Western lands needed to be administered. Ports had to be defended. Foreign enemies had to be watched.
Meanwhile, the defeated Tories didn't simply disappear. Some fled to Britain or Canada, but most remained and took their chances with the new regime. As the infant Republic's political economic woes mounted, many of these former Tories joined forces with conservative Patriots who feared the consequences of weak government and social unrest.
The result, in 1787, was something like a coup: a runaway convention that went far beyond its original instructions and drafted a wholly new Constitution creating a more powerful, centralized federal government. This set the stage for the next great conflict:
Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist
So far, our American dialetic looks like this:
As heirs to the revolutionary Patriots, the Anti-Federalists defended the existing thesis: a loose confederation with limited taxing powers, too weak to threaten the various states, but also too weak to finance the national debt and promote economic recovery.
The Federalists, on the other hand, stood for a new antithesis: a strong, but republican, central government, beneficial to the interests of the wealthy elite, but not totally controlled by it.
The Federalists won, their constitution was ratified. But again, victory was not complete. Compromises were forced -- in Philadelphia and during the ratification process. The Constitution picked up a Bill of Rights and a Senate with equal representation for the smaller states. More ominously, Southern slave owners were granted special protections, like the notorious 3/5th clause, which defined a slave as 3/5th of a person for the purposes of allocating electoral votes among the states.
Federalists vs. Republicans
But like the revolutionary Tories, the anti-Federalists didn't vanish. They gradually regrouped, and increasingly looked to Thomas Jefferson -- an ambivalent skeptic during the ratification debate -- as their champion.
New issues emerged -- the French Revolution, western settlement, British incursions along the Great Lakes. Federalist moderates, such as James Madison, were alienated by the authoritarian excesses of the Adams administration, and split with their former allies.
Gradually, a new political movement formed: the Republicans, an alliance of small farmers, Southern slave owners and northern tradesmen, small merchants and laborers. The new party became the antithesis to the Federalist thesis. And with the election of 1800, it triumphed. The Federalists fell into a gradual, but terminal decline.
National Republicans vs. Jacksonian Democrats
In his first inaugural address, Jefferson signaled that he understood the limits of his victory when he said: "We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans."
As president, Jefferson didn't even try to roll back all the centralizing tendencies of the Federalist era. He made his peace with such bastions of Federalist influence as the Supreme Court and the Bank of the United States. Indeed, in authorizing the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson expanded federal power more dramatically than anything ever dreamed up by the Federalists.
The result was a period of consensus politics -- the Era of Good Feelings -- that reached its height in the years following the War of 1812. The Missouri Compromise, which seemed to put paid to the ugly squabbling over slavery, was the symbol of the era. By 1825, with John Quincy Adams -- son of ultra-Federalist John Adams -- in the White House, the taming of the Republican movement seemed complete.
Adams represented a faction loosely identified as the "National Republicans." Its ranks included many former Federalists, as well as eastern manufacturers and tradesmen who favored higher tariffs on imported goods, and western politicians who wanted federally subsidized roads and canals.
The dialectical challenge to this coalition didn't come from the old Federalists. They had either been absorbed into the National Republicans or had faded away. Rather, the new antithesis emerged from more radical elements in the original Republican movement who felt Jefferson's 1800 revolution hadn't gone far enough.
Economic growth, the gradual erosion of property requirements for voting (by 1828, most white males in most states could vote) and the steady flow of settlers west had created new social realities. Resentment of government control by a wealthy East Coast elite was rising. Not all Westerners wanted federally subsidized roads and canals. Many, especially in the South, preferred easy credit and low tariffs. The only thing they wanted the federal government to do was to clear the Native American tribes out of their way.
In the election of 1828, they got their wish. Andrew Jackson, the people's general, was elected in a landslide. The Nationalist Republicans were demolished as an effective political movement.
Democrats vs. Whigs
Jackson dominated the political landscape in a way Jefferson never had, turning the Democrats into America's first modern political machine to serve as an instrument of his will. He destroyed the old Bank of the United States, replaced the last of the Federalist justices on the Supreme Court, and packed the Five Civilized Tribes off to Oklahoma.
Yet, even Jackson couldn't undo everything his predecessors had done. Tariffs remained high -- higher than many Southerners would have liked. When South Carolina fire eaters threatened to "nullify" those tariffs, or even secede from the union, Jackson threatened to hang them. "Disunion by armed force," he wrote, "is treason."
It was vintage Old Hickory. In the old Scotch-Irish warrior tradition, Jackson regarded political opponents as mortal enemies to be crushed, if possible. But this kind of attitude carries risks -- it can also unite your enemies against you. Growing resentment of "King Andrew" gradually fueled the emergence of a new opposition party, dubbed the "Whigs," which combined old National Republicans with disaffected Democrats alienated by Jackson's strong-arm tactics.
The Whigs were never strong enough to defeat Jackson directly. By 1840, however, they had absorbed a few lessons about the art of popular politics. They found their own frontier hero -- William Henry Harrison -- and created their own myth of the plain spoken, cider-drinkin' general who would look out for the little guy.
Harrison and his running mate, Virginian John Tyler (Tippicanoe and Tyler, too) trounced Jackson's handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, temporarily leaving the Democrats in disarray. Harrison died shortly after taking office, but the early 1840s still emerged as the brief Whig summer.
Whigs vs. War Democrats
As it turned out, the Whig's summer was also their Indian summer. They were a weak force, held together by little more than their hatred for Jackson and Van Buren. Tyler quickly alienated Northerners his own party by admitting Texas as a slave state. Many Southern Whigs, in turn, defected to the Jacksonians. In 1844, the Democrats swept back into power on a program of aggressive Westward expansion -- "Manifest Destiny."
The ensuing Mexican War undid the Missouri Compromise, bringing slavery (and secession) back to the forefront of American politics. The Whigs returned to the White House in 1848 (by re-running the cider-drinkin' general ploy.) But raging hostility between Northern and Southern wings quickly did the party in. The Whigs collapsed in the early 1850s. This set the stage for the next big dialectical struggle:
Secession Democrats vs. Republicans
It took longer, but the same sectional passions that had killed the Whig Party finally destroyed the Democratic coalition as well. The alliance of South and West -- Georgia planters and Illinois sodbusters -- that had dominated American politics since Jefferson's day splintered, then collapsed.
Western farmers wanted free government land and a railroad to the West Coast. Southern planters wanted Kansas and New Mexico admitted to the Union as slave states, and armed expansion into the Caribbean to create more slave states. Increasingly, Southerners looked for allies in the urban centers of the North, now filled with Irish immigrants hostile to native Yankees and African Americans alike.
Meanwhile, political refugees from the shattered Whig Party made common cause with disaffected Jacksonians to create first the Free Soil Party and then the Republican Party, committed (at a minimum) to containing the "slave power" within its existing realm. Anti-Irish nativism brought many Northern workers into the emerging Republican coalition.
At this point, the Southern Democrats did something political factions only do when they believe they're invincible. They deliberately engineered a split within their own party, ensuring Abraham Lincoln's plurality victory in the 1860 election. Secession followed, then Civil War.
Republicans vs. Populists
The Civil War brought an avowedly Northern, centralizing party to power for the first time since the Jacksonian revolution of 1828. Western farmers got the Homestead Act -- and a transcontinental railroad. Northern industrialists got high tariffs -- and a transcontinental railroad. Wall Street bankers got a return to the prewar gold standard -- and a transcontinental railroad. Southern blacks got the vote (for a while) -- and a transcontinental railroad.
They probably would have rather had the 40 acres and a mule the abolitionists had promised them.
But as the GOP consolidated its control of the ship of state, the more radical items on its agenda were quickly shoved overboard. Reconstruction was abandoned in the backroom deal that settled the contested presidential election of 1876. The Democrats regained their Southern base.
They posed little threat to Republican power, however. A comfortable synthesis emerged, in which barely reconstructed Southerners were left to govern their own affairs -- including racial affairs -- while Republicans dominated the federal government. From Appomattox until the end of the century, exactly one Democrat -- Grover Cleveland -- would be elected president, on a platform that could have been written by the GOP.
The real challenge to Republican hegemony came from the Populists, a loose alliance of farmers, workers and small businessmen who felt they were being crushed by the hard money and high tariff policies of the GOP Robber Barons.
Drawing support from ex-Confederates as well as farm and mining state Republicans, the Populists temporarily grabbed control of the Democratic Party. Their champion, William Jennings Bryant, took on Mark Hanna's GOP machine in the two climactic presidential elections of 1896 and 1900.
And lost both of them. The Hanna machine emerged triumphant. The Populists splintered, as their Southern branch degenerated into little more than segregationist demagoguery. The iron rule of Capital -- in the form of Standard Oil, U.S. Steel and the other great industrial trusts -- seemed unbreakable.
But in victory, the Republicans also were changed. More progressive forces within the party, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Wisconsin Governor Robert LaFollette, asserted themselves. When Hanna's puppet, William McKinley, was assassinated in the summer of 1901, putting Roosevelt in the White House, the stage was set for the next great dialetic:
The Old Guard vs. the Progressives.
This struggle did not play out along clear partisan lines. Progressives battled conservatives in both parties, as reform Democrats tried to check the worst abuses of the corrupt big city machines while the Roosevelt Republicans fought the trusts and their GOP allies.
The Progressives were not radicals. In fact, much of their agenda -- civil service reform, improved public health and a moderate degree of business regulation -- was completely consistent with the new "scientific" management style emerging in the big corporations.
The rise of the progressives, however, coincided with the great turn-of-the-century waves of immigration that remade American society. This influx of newcomers, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, fueled a more radical brand of labor-based politics -- overtly socialist or even anarchist. They became, in effect, the left wing of the progressive movement, challenging the conservative American Federation of Labor just as the reform Democrats were challenging the big city bosses.
Politically, the struggle reached its climax in 1912, the year Theodore Roosevelt came out of retirement to challenge Republican incumbent Robert Taft. Roosevelt split the GOP base, handing the election to a reform Democrat, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson picked up the progressive agenda that Roosevelt had launched, creating the Federal Reserve, restricting child labor, tightening the antitrust laws and establishing a graduated federal income tax. But, as with Roosevelt's brand of progressivism, there was sometimes less to these reforms than met the eye. The Fed was structured as a private cartel controlled by the New York banks. The new Federal Trade Commission was quickly captured by the interests it was supposed to regulate.
In other words, the familiar dialectical pattern was repeated: conflict led to compromise, producing a new synthesis that reflected elements within both camps -- pro-business as well as pro-reform, Old Guard as well as Progressive. The cycle was about to start again.
Internationalists vs. Isolationists
Wilson's decision to take America into World War I shattered the progressive coalition. Midwestern anti-imperalists -- many of them first or second generation German immigrants -- were horrified. Left-wing opinion was irreconcilably opposed to the war. Some opponents, like Socialist leader Eugene Debs, were hauled off to prison.
The end of the war, and Wilson's ambitious design for a new global order, generated a powerful backlash. Old Guard Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, organized to defeat Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations it had created.
Disillusioned progressives, who saw Wilson's diplomacy as merely a variation on Great Power politics, went over to the isolationist camp in droves. Reactionaries also leaped at the opportunity to turn isolationist prejudice against foreign-born radicals and labor leaders. The resulting "Red Scare" was a dress rehearsal for the more sustained hysteria of the McCarthy era.
Wilson suffered a series of strokes, dooming the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty's defeat doomed the internationalists. Republican Warren Harding swept to victory in the 1920 presidential election on an avowedly isolationist platform. The Roaring Twenties were underway.
Once again, however, the historical continuities would prove as striking as the contrasts. While Washington stayed out of the League of Nations, it hardly ignored the outside world. Military interventions in Central America, a series of naval treaties and complex international negotiations over the German war debt all belied the GOP's isolationist rhetoric.
Progressive reforms, meanwhile, were halted -- not rolled back. Despite fierce repression, the labor movement expanded rapidly during the '20s. Industrial unions -- particularly the United Steelworkers and the United Mineworkers -- fought ferocious organizing battles, laying the foundations for future success.
But beneath the decade's credit-fueled veneer of prosperity, the American economy was heading for the worse crisis in its history. The 1929 crash revealed how deeply Republican crony capitalism had eaten away the load bearing walls of the nation's financial system.
The stock market collapse -- and bumbling response of the Hoover Administration and the Federal Reserve -- triggered the most dramatic political realignment since the end of the Civil War.
New Dealers vs. Economic Royalists
The New Deal made the Democrats the dominant American party for more than two generations. It brought Progressives and Populists together under the same banner, along with poor Southern whites and poorer Southern blacks. It marked the political arrival of the ethnic immigrants who had poured into the United States around the turn of the century. It made organized labor a power in the land. It regulated Wall Street, brought electricity to the farmers, and created Social Security.
It also failed. Failed to end the Great Depression. Failed to break -- or even challenge -- Jim Crow. Worst of all, it failed to complete the restructuring of American capitalism along social democratic or even populist lines. Later, this would allow the corporations and their allies to undo much of what had been accomplished.
But these failures were inevitable. Militant New Dealers may have railed against entrenched wealth (the diehard GOP elite that Roosevelt dubbed "the economic royalists") but a radical assault on corporate power was never in the cards. The Democratic Party was too compromised by its own business ties -- as well as by its conservative "Dixiecrat" wing.
As a result, the New Deal coalition began to splinter almost as soon as the crisis atmosphere of Roosevelt's First Hundred Days had passed. Corporate interests quickly figured out how to game the new regulatory agencies. A growth industry was born: Washington lobbying. Crony capitalism had survived its greatest test.
World War II finished the New Deal as a radical reform movement. It also lifted America to world power. The military-industrial complex was born, and promptly began sucking at the federal nipple. The new "mixed" economy boomed along with the war effort.
Victory brought not demobilization, but confrontation with the Soviets. This may have been inevitable, given Stalin's paranoia and America's imperial inexperience. But it didn't seem that way at the end of World War II. The Yalta Conference, the creation of the United Nations, and the initial allied plan to demilitarize Germany -- these had suggested limited cooperation between the two superpowers might be possible.
But Roosevelt's death and the Stalinization of Eastern Europe ended those hopes, pushing U.S. foreign policy sharply to the right. The new Democratic team -- Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson and a young George Keenan -- developed the "containment" doctrine, a strategy designed to restrain the Soviet Union without war. NATO was made a permanent pillar of the transatlantic alliance.
The challenge to the containment doctrine came from the right, as GOP politicians realized they could use the Cold War to regain political competitiveness. Instead of containment, they called for a "roll back" of communism on all fronts. They also smeared the New Dealers as soft on communism -- if not outright communists themselves.
A series of disasters proceeded to cut the legs out from under the Democrats. The Rosenbergs were exposed as atomic spies. Alger Hiss was exposed (or smeared) as a diplomatic spy. China fell to the Communists. Finally, the Cold War turned hot in Korea. Truman's handpicked successor was defeated by Republican Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 election.
But even if the Democrats lost, the containment policy didn't. The Korean armistice, and the Hungarian crisis of 1956 (when the US watched helplessly as the Soviets crushed an anti-communist uprising) showed the hollowness of the "roll back" doctrine. Instead, Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, devoted himself to creating new anti-communist alliances in places like the Middle East (CENTO) and in Southeast Asia (SEATO), where a nasty guerilla insurgency was festering in the obscure French colony of Vietnam.
By the late 1950s, a new synthesis -- massive military spending coupled with a more aggressive version of the containment doctrine -- had been established. Domestically, the Democrats were forced to the right, while the Republicans were forced to the left. Much to the disgust of GOP conservatives, Eisenhower made it clear he wouldn't even try to roll back the New Deal. The mixed economy boomed, bringing unprecedented prosperity to the middle and working classes. It was the golden age of the "Cold War consensus."
But the same forces that had swept America into world power -- economic prosperity and military might -- were also destabilizing the country. The fault lines would appear first in the South, where an insurgency against home-fried Apartheid had been simmering since the end of World War II. Now the stove caught on fire. The civil rights era had arrived.
The New Left vs. the Cold Warriors
Dismantling the American version of apartheid was unfinished business -- not just from the New Deal, but from every previous struggle since the Civil War.
Amid the Cold War consensus, race stood out as an issue that still inspired bloody hatred. It created deep divisions within both parties, embarrassed the United States abroad, and fueled paranoid fears of communist subversion. So when the civil rights movement caught fire, a ferocious battle erupted between those who wanted to turn the flame down, and those who wanted to crank it up even higher.
The latter camp included the more leftist elements within the old New Deal coalition, who saw the struggle as a way to escape the box the Cold War consensus had left them in. When it came to civil rights, communists, former communists, and non-Communist radicals like labor leader Walter Ruether once again could find common ground with religious activists and liberals such as Hubert Humphrey.
But this wasn't the New Deal recreated. Important elements of Roosevelt's coalition now were on the other side. This included the Dixiecrats, of course. But many anti-communist liberals, such as the Kennedy brothers, and Republican moderates, such as Eisenhower, also had grave misgivings about the fledgling civil rights movement.
Racism certainly played a role. But the Cold Warriors also feared communist influence -- not as silly then as it sounds now. During the '20s and '30s, the Communist Party USA had been a champion of civil rights when most white Americans were either indifferent or hostile. This had earned the party lasting support among some African Americans. By the mid-'50s, the party was crumbling -- splintered both by its mindless pro-Soviet line and the relentless assault of the FBI. But with the Cold War raging, and McCarthyism a recent memory, it became easy for anti-communist liberals to justify a "go slow" (read: "go nowhere") approach to civil rights.
The conservative wing of the Republican Party -- regaining strength as depression memories faded -- made that choice even easier. The conservatives endorsed the segregationists' civil rights = communist conspiracy equation, as well as their neo-Confederate doctrine of states' rights. They understood that Eisenhower Republicans and liberal Democrats were both vulnerable on racial issues, since both needed white Southern votes to win and hold national power. And they exploited that vulnerability. The outlines of a future Reaganite majority were starting to appear.
The civil rights movement was pressure enough. But the cracks in the Cold War consensus widened into gaping fissures once the United States stumbled into the Vietnam War. As the civil rights movement morphed into the anti-war movement, and became progressively radicalized, some liberals, like Hubert Humphrey, moved to the right, while others, like Robert Kennedy, moved left.
At a time of extreme political confusion within the traditional parties, "movement" ideologues, such as Tom Hayden, began to identify themselves as the "New Left" -- radical but not communist, committed to social as well as economic and political change. As more and more "movements" -- feminism, gay rights, environmentalism -- fused into the original, the New Left became the vehicle for an American version of the Great Cultural Revolution. Race, gender, sexuality, religion -- all went into the blender.
The Cold War Consensus wasn't so much defeated as overwhelmed in the late 1960s -- as evidenced by the columns of smoke rising over burning American cities, the breakdown of military discipline in Vietnam, and the explosion of a popular culture hated and feared by Cold War intellectuals and white Southern preachers alike. In the end, the New Left accomplished the unprecedented feat of winning a major American dialectical struggle without ever coming close to winning a political victory at the polls.
As always, though, victory not complete. New Left activism faded as the civil rights conflict and Vietnam War wound down. The Democratic Party was institutionally weakened and jerked sharply leftward, with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society becoming a testing ground for both New Left and traditional liberal ideas. The result was a new synthesis, a kind of "interest group" liberalism, in which various causes -- racial, ethnic, social and economic -- staked out their claims on the Democratic Party (never the other way around.)
The election of Richard Nixon in 1968, and the crushing failure of the New Left's last offensive (the 1972 McGovern campaign) did not threaten this new synthesis. Nixon himself had little interest in domestic politics, famously declaring at one point that "we are all Keynesians now." He accepted the parts of the Cultural Revolution he didn't feel strong enough to challenge, and tried to use covert means to subvert the rest.
Nixon's impotence was easy to explain. The White House was not the stronghold of the new dominant coalition. That was in Congress, particularly the House -- the Democratic citadel. It was there the party establishment tried to broker the demands of the interest groups that now surrounded it. So when the hidden side of Nixon's presidency blew up, and the famously left-wing Watergate Babies swept into Congress in the '74 off-year election, the victory of interest group liberalism seemed complete.
But the chaos of the '60s had badly damaged American prestige and the American economy. Inflation, unemployment, and soaring oil prices became the '70s answer to the drugs, sex and rock and roll of the '60s. A burning anger was also spreading through the Silent Majority that had never bought into the Cultural Revolution in the first place. As voters fled the Democratic Party and its dependent interest groups, the stage was set for the conservative wing of the GOP to take power for the time since the New Deal.
To be continued . . .