BOOKS

Politics on the seesaw

THOMAS S. AXWORTHY April 6 1987
BOOKS

Politics on the seesaw

THOMAS S. AXWORTHY April 6 1987

Politics on the seesaw

THE CYCLES OF AMERICAN HISTORY By Arthur M. Schlesinger

BOOKS

(Thomas Allen & Sons, b.98 pages, $39.95)

The pen of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. may be American liberalism’s single most potent weapon. Biographer, speech writer, special assistant

to President John F. Kennedy, Schlesinger—like the title of one of his early works—has been at the vital centre of his nation’s life. The Cycles of American History brings together essays ranging from the Cold War’s origins to the future of the party system. And unlike other such compilations, his

is animated by a coherent philosophy.

Schlesinger begins with the notion that to respond to the modern world’s velocity of change, society shifts between buoyant exhilaration and yearning for stability. “Everyone,” writes Schlesinger, “becomes his own Landmarks Preservation Commission.” The author builds on the ideas of his father, Harvard University history professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who developed a spiral theory, according to which the United States alternated between liberalism and conservatism about every 16% years. Writing in 1939, Schlesinger Sr. forecast that liberalism would run its course by 1947. He updated the argument in 1949, predicting that conservatism would rule until the early 1960s, and the cycle would turn again to a new conservative epoch in 1978—a remarkably prophetic analysis.

Refining that hypothesis, Schlesinger Jr. sees the cycle as a shift between public purpose and private interest. To problems caused by accelerating change, society reacts with government intervention to further the goals of equality. At first, citizens focus on grand objectives of national policy. But soon, Schlesinger writes, “People can no longer gird themselves for heroic effort. They yearn to immerse themselves in the privacies of life.” Public problems are turned over to the invisible hand of the market, while personal gratification becomes the norm. Then society is again “ready for a trumpet to sound.” Still, accidents and miscalculations—and new leaders—can shorten the cycle, as Schlesinger clearly hopes will happen to Ronald Reagan’s era of private interest.

Schlesinger’s thesis will be disputed by many. But as an eloquent restatement of the liberal faith, his book is not likely to be soon surpassed. He still believes that “affirmative government offers the best chance in this horrid world of strengthening our democracy, preserving our institutions and enlarging the liberties of our people.” Although Cycles deals only with the United States, it applies to Canada too: after 16 years of Pierre Trudeau’s challenges, confrontations and crusades, Canadians clearly wanted a rest. Brian Mulroney played effectively to that mood.

Now, if Schlesinger is right and the cycle is again swinging toward reform, progressives in both Canada and the United States would be wise to pay heed. But it is not yet clear whether they will have the wit—or the leaders able—to grasp the opportunity.

THOMAS S. AXWORTHY

Thomas S. Axworthy, vice-president of the Montreal-based CRB Foundation, was principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1981 to 198K.