clock menu more-arrow no yes

How do you know when you're in an exceptional moment?

People take part in a protest in Grand Central Station on July 8, 2016, in New York City.
People take part in a protest in Grand Central Station on July 8, 2016, in New York City.
Kena Betancur/Getty Images

One sign is probably that you've been thinking for a couple of weeks about writing a blog post on this theme, in the weeks before a week like last week, where lives were lost and even the most conservative politicians articulated ideas about race that would have seemed fairly radical a few years ago, even in liberal circles.

Other signs include FBI announcements about the carelessness of one presidential candidate while another draws his tweet graphics from neo-Nazis, a referendum in which more than 17 million Britons vote to leave the European Union, the nomination of a political outsider by a major party over the objection of many party elites, and the fact that some of those elites are still exploring the possibility of altering convention rules in order to nominate someone else.

There have been a lot of comparisons between 2016 and 1968 lately, and a lot of comments that suggest we're in a truly exceptional moment.

The trick is that a lot of moments in political and social events seem momentous and unique at the time but fade into history as nothing special, with little impact on later events. I remember that the Clinton impeachment, the 2000 election, the 2008 election, and even things like the Columbine shooting and the OJ Simpson verdict felt like major cultural and political events at the time, that we would remember for a long time and after which nothing would be the same.

Each one had some effect, of course, and was important, perhaps to some people more than others. But few events really change politics in a durable and fundamental way.

Can we know when one such event is happening while it's happening? Are these moments even really a thing?

There are three literatures in political science that are relevant here. One is the "creedal passions" approach, which Lee Drutman wrote about over at Polyarchy a few months ago. This phrase was offered by Samuel Huntington, who wrote some insightful stuff before he got into some seriously flawed cultural criticism. In a book called American Politics and the Promise of Disharmony, Huntington argued that a driving force in American politics is the gap between our ideals and our political practice.

As Drutman nicely summarized, moments of creedal passion have some fairly intuitive identifying features, and the overall effect is that American politics is characterized by the instability brought by imperfectly realized ideals. Gunnar Myrdal's book The American Dilemma (which predates Huntington's argument by several decades) rests on similar logic but is focused on race. Myrdal observed that American democracy fell short of its core principles of equality because of its treatment of African-American citizens.

The second tempting school of thought is the literature that draws on realignments and critical elections. The basic ideas behind this are that periodically we have elections that carry clear meaning and redraw political lines, creating new coalitions within each party.

One of the assumptions that doesn't get much attention in popular write-ups of realignment theory is the idea that American politics is set up to be unresponsive (our many veto points and split governmental control), thus leading — as with creedal passions — to moments in which feelings about politics, justice, equality, distribution, morals, and so on boil over, creating pressure that elites cannot ignore.

A third set of ideas suggests that what really defines and produces change in American politics is clashing political orders, or the underlying belief systems behind political institutions. Political orders are important throughout American political development scholarship, but this argument is clearly spelled out in a 1993 article by Rogers Smith about how the tradition of equality in American politics has long coexisted with what he calls "ascriptive hierarchy" — namely, racism, sexism, and ethnic/religious exclusion.

All three intellectual traditions offer something that can help us digest what's happening. But clashing political orders has, I think, the most effective lens for understanding how change unfolds, and for helping us identify moments that are truly exceptional and have the potential to really change how things work.

The first issue to consider is that politics develops. This is to say that there are some political changes that, once in effect, don't go away and have effects that are difficult to reverse. The expansion of the federal government is one example of this — despite efforts or at least rhetoric by Republican administrations, the main thrust of policy is to expand the bureaucracy and reach of federal power.

In terms of what we are facing now, the contemporary politics of race will not be like anything experienced in the past. The policy impact of the civil rights movement was to ban discrimination, and the cultural impact was to create the rhetoric of colorblindness that pervades our reaction to anything that offers to ameliorate racial inequity: reparations, affirmative action. This will likely make any change that comes out of the current political moment different from what happened in the 1960s in terms of its justification and approach.

Cyclical and creedal theories also neglect to fully acknowledge the work that goes into policy change. Huntington's book refers to "interest group politics" as the normal state of affairs, replaced by creedal politics at these exceptional junctures.

On both ends of the political spectrum, political activism has transformed power and meaning. The Black Lives Matter movement has been going on for several years now, and has drawn attention to its cause. On the right, the Tea Party, which involved substantial citizen action, has altered the operation and policy priorities of the Republican Party. These things didn't just happen — they required substantial effort.

Although this theoretical perspective also features some of the shortcomings of cyclical theories, updates to the political time approach delve more deeply into the idea that social movements are a key part of periods of renewal and rebuilding. The abolition movement, the progressive movement, and the conservative movement all shaped the politics that led to presidencies like Lincoln's, FDR's, and Reagan's. (For more about social movements and American political institutions, see this and this.)

The political time update, in the form of Stephen Skowronek's second edition of Presidential Leadership in Political Time, provides a cautionary tale about the difficulty of identifying the moment as you write about it: Skowronek suggests that during Obama's presidency, the main political movement had been one of the right, the Tea Party, without a comparable organization on the left.

While the left has no clear Tea Party equivalent, as the book presumably went to press, the Occupy movement happened. Many wrote off Occupy as a failure, but the prominence of economic inequality themes, the popularity of Elizabeth Warren as a national figure, and the presidential primary campaign of Bernie Sanders suggest it may have been the beginning of a new political conversation.

A few years later, the Black Lives Matter movement began, and in 2016 both Democratic candidates have tried — sometimes clumsily — to engage with this group of leaders and their concerns.

There are a couple of reasons why I think it's more useful to think of 2016 in terms of the ways in which two conflicting traditions, equality and hierarchy, are clashing in a particularly visible way than to think of it as a point in a cycle, a parallel with another year (in the case of this year, often 1968).

First, remembering that these two traditions inform American politics weighs against efforts to rewrite history in ways that downplay conflict and controversy. The multiple traditions approach, on the other hand, reminds us that at each juncture there have been resisters and stand-patters and incrementalists, and that their perspectives are often built into the foundations of new institutions.

Hierarchy, Smith reminds us, often informs how changes are implemented, even after hard-won victories for the equality tradition — this helps us understand why, for example, Jim Crow followed the end of slavery. Politics develops, but the changes are nearly always incomplete.

The multiple traditions thesis also helps us identify the role of new media and social media in our current moment. For a number of political scientists, I think the causal role of media in political conflict is deceptively hard to identify. It shapes the environment and yet is very difficult to disentangle from other factors.

But we can at least hypothesize clearly about its role in a moment like this one: It exposes the existence of multiple orders. The ability to see comments sections, to view white supremacists on Twitter, to receive instant news and watch citizens' own videos may well force us to confront these contradictions, providing a spark for institutional change.

It's the subject of institutional change that really strains the 1968 comparisons. The events of 1968 — the assassinations, the protests, the violence and volatility — preceded some institutional changes, like the McGovern-Fraser reforms and the reevaluation of presidential power. But they were also a response to a major set of institutional changes earlier in the decade — to the passage of civil rights legislation that had upset the status quo and yet failed to deliver on many of its promises.

The events of 1968 were fallout from change that was major, yet incomplete; destabilizing, yet inadequate. That year illustrated, violently, the ways in which Lyndon Johnson's presidency changed American politics. In 2016, I suspect we are still imagining — violently — the possibilities for such change.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays