by Sara Robinson
February 20th, 2008 - 6:01pm ET
"Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable."
There's one thing for sure: 2008 isn't anything like politics as usual.
The corporate media (with their unerring eye for the obvious point) is fixated on the narrative that, for the first time ever, Americans will likely end this year with either a woman or a black man headed for the White House. Bloggers are telling stories from the front lines of primaries and caucuses that look like something from the early 60s — people lining up before dawn to vote in Manoa, Hawaii yesterday; a thousand black college students in Prairie View, Texas marching 10 miles to cast their early votes in the face of a county that tried to disenfranchise them. In recent months, we've also been gobstopped by the sheer passion of the insurgent campaigns of both Barack Obama and Ron Paul, both of whom brought millions of new voters into the conversation — and with them, a sharp critique of the status quo and a new energy that's agitating toward deep structural change.
There's something implacable, earnest, and righteously angry in the air. And it raises all kinds of questions for burned-out Boomers and jaded Gen Xers who've been ground down to the stump by the mostly losing battles of the past 30 years. Can it be — at long last — that Americans have, simply, had enough? Are we, finally, stepping out to take back our government — and with it, control of our own future? Is this simply a shifting political season — the kind we get every 20 to 30 years — or is there something deeper going on here? Do we dare to raise our hopes that this time, we're going to finally win a few? Just how ready is this country for big, serious, forward-looking change?
Recently, I came across a pocket of sociological research that suggested a tantalizing answer to these questions — and also that America may be far more ready for far more change than anyone really believes is possible at this moment. In fact, according to some sociologists, we've already lined up all the preconditions that have historically set the stage for full-fledged violent revolution.
It turns out that the energy of this moment is not about Hillary or Ron or Barack. It's about who we are, and where we are, and what happens to people's minds when they're left hanging just a little too far past the moment when they're ready for transformative change.
Way back in 1962, Caltech sociologist James C. Davies published an article in the American Sociological Review that summarized the conditions that determine how and when modern political revolutions occur. Intriguingly, Davies cited another scholar, Crane Brinton, who laid out seven "tentative uniformities" that he argued were the common precursors that set the stage for the Puritan, American, French, and Russian revolutions. As I read Davies' argument, it struck me that the same seven stars Brinton named are now precisely lined up at midheaven over America in 2008. Taken together, it's a convergence that creates the perfect social, economic, and political conditions for the biggest revolution since the shot heard 'round the world.
And even more interestingly: in every case, we got here as a direct result of either intended or unintended consequences of the conservatives' war against liberal government, and their attempt to take over our democracy and replace it with a one-party plutocracy. It turns out that, historically, liberal nations make very poor grounds for revolution — but deeply conservative ones very reliably create the conditions that eventually make violent overthrow necessary. And our own Republicans, it turns out, have done a hell of a job.
Here are the seven criteria, along with the reasons why we're fulfilling each of them now, and how conservative policies conspired to put us on the road to possible revolution.
1. Soaring, Then Crashing
2. They Call It A Class War
3. Deserted Intellectuals
4. Incompetent Government
5. Gutless Wonders in the Ruling Class
6. Fiscal Irresponsibility
7. Inept and Inconsistent Use of Force(be sure to read the original article for analysis of each point.)
"A revolutionary state of mind requires the continued, even habitual but dynamic expectation of greater opportunity to satisfy basic needs...but the necessary additional ingredient is a persistent, unrelenting threat to the satisfaction of those needs: not a threat which actually returns people to a state of sheer survival but which put them in the mental state where they believe they will not be able to satisfy one or more basic needs....The crucial factor is the vague or specific fear that ground gained over a long period of time will be quickly lost... [This fear] generates when the existing government suppresses or is blamed for suppressing such opportunity."
When Davies wrote that paragraph in 1962, he probably couldn't have imagined how closely it would describe America in 2008. Thirty years of Republican corporatist government have failed us in ways that are not just inept or corrupt, but also have brought us to the same dangerous brink where so many other empires have erupted into violent revolution. The ground we have gained steadily over the course of the entire 20th Century is eroding under our feet. Movement conservatism has destroyed our economic base, declared open war on the middle and working classes, thwarted the aspirations of the intellectual and professional elites, dismantled the basic processes and functions of democracy, failed to prepare us for the future, overseen the collapse of our economy, and misused police and military force so inconsistently that Americans are losing respect for government.
It's not always the case that revolution inevitably emerges wherever these seven conditions occur together, just as not everybody infected with a virus gets sick. But over the past 350 years, almost every major revolution in a modern industrialized country has been preceded by this pattern of seven preconditions. It's fair to say that all those who get sick start out by being exposed to this virus.
Hillary Clinton is failing because this is a revolutionary moment — and she, regrettably, has the misfortune to be too closely identified with the mounting failures of the past that we're now seeking to move beyond. On the other hand, Ron Paul's otherwise inexplicable success has been built on his pointed and very specific critique of the kinds of government leadership failures I've described.
And Barack Obama is walking away with the moment because he talks of "hope" — which, as Davies makes clear, is the very first thing any would-be revolutionary needs. And then he talks of "change," which many of his followers are clearly hearing as a soft word for "revolution." And then he describes — not in too much detail — a different future, and what it means to be a transformative president, and in doing so answers our deep frustration at 30 years of leaders who faced the looming future by turning their heads instead of facing it.
Will [Obama] deliver on this promise of change? That remains to be seen. But the success of his presidency, if there is to be one, will likely be measured on how well his policies confront and deal with these seven criteria for revolution. If those preconditions are all still in place in 2012, the fury will have had another four years to rise. And at that point, if history rhymes, mere talk of hope and change will no longer be enough.