The more things change, the more they stay the same—unless they change, which sometimes happens. Consider Republicans, for instance . . .
Americans, even the nonexceptionalists, tend to think that their nation is a young thing. “But the reality of our public life is very different,” writes emeritus professor Keller (History/Brandeis Univ.) “Our Constitution, only occasionally amended, is getting on to a quarter of a millennium. Our political parties are among the most venerable anywhere.” In the spirit of more fluent work by Kevin Phillips (The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America) and David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America), Keller offers a long-view approach of that quarter-millennium span, asserting that American history falls into three broad periods: the “deferential and republican,” marked by both a “mix of radical thought and moderate-to-conservative action” and a sense that the European way of doing things was likely best; the “party and democratic,” running from the 1830s to the 1930s, in which an America-first mentality collided with international realities and the growth of the big state; and the “bureaucratic and populist,” in which that big state came into its own even as conservatives denounced it. Keller’s parsing needs some fine-tuning, but the idea that history works in broad patterns is instructive. So too is his observation that once one cycle has been run, the next is likely to be very different. Thus, for instance, “today the GOP stands in opposition to most of what defined it from the 1850s to the 1930s,” more international than isolationist but also whiter and poorer. Even so, Keller observes, the old tropes are likely to last a while longer, so that the Iraq mess will likely further cleave the two parties into “war” and “peace” camps even as the electorate hold to a long-standing general ratio of more or less equal division into Democrats, Republicans and the nonaffiliated.
For students of American history, a thesis worth exploring.