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International relations, domestic politics change

December 14, 2017

Relationships among nations and on our own national political scene are rarely calm, constant or certain.

Extreme political divides represent America’s current governing bodies. Yet, it’s comforting, at least to me, to note how international and internal governmental relationships are not permanent, but rather are changeable.

I was reminded of the malleable nature of American international relationships when I recently found my parents’ old passports. My father’s 1956 passport showed that travel to Albania, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia (now two countries), Hungary, Poland, Romania and the USSR (Russia) was not permitted. Today, tourist and business relations between the United States and these nations are ongoing and productive.

The 1965 passport restricted travel to Albania, China, Cuba, Korea and Vietnam. With the exception of North Korea, and to some degree, Cuba, these countries are our commercial and tourism partners.

Our nation’s domestic political relationships also are fluid over time. Currently, we are in a highly conservative phase. While some Americans are thrilled at the Trump mode of functioning, others worry that the political, social and legal stances that he and his administration are pushing will last indefinitely. That’s not how our country has functioned.

American historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. described a spiral model of political changes in our country. Starting in 1776 and continuing through 1947, he suggested that liberal and conservative periods alternated about every 16 years. Many of these changes were dramatic and radical. Schlesinger suggested that our country developed a “national mood,” which then determined how people would vote.

Schlesinger theorized that the fluctuations between liberal and conservative viewpoints reflected the conflicts of public needs and private interests. Democrats and liberals gained control and influence when the needs of the poor, minorities and those with little power became important to much of the nation. Republicans dominated when big business and retaining personal wealth was paramount.

The only time the 16-year switch between philosophies did not occur was right after the Civil War. Schlesinger’s explanation was that the extreme stresses from 1861-1869, particularly trauma from the war and outlawing slavery, were so radical that the conservative forces were highly energized until 1901.

Following that period, the expected back and forth transitions between liberals and conservatives proceeded at the predicted pace through the end of World War II.

Each side pushes its goals and values, and some of them become part of the nation’s psyche. When the opposing group comes to power, they usually remove some, but not every, accomplishment of the previous administration.

Starting with President Eisenhower, liberal-conservative cycles seem to have shortened to eight years. Presidents Reagan-Bush (41)’s 12 years and President Carter’s four years were exceptions. Democratic President Obama’s eight years represented not only a significant shift from that of Republican President George W. Bush’s policies, but it also brought a major civil and social rights activism.

Schlesinger might not have been surprised that some of our nation’s segments of our nation reacted negatively to and felt threatened by these changes. Pushing further to the right, conservatives also decided that ordinary Republicans who understood Washington’s functioning could not undo the Obama-era changes. They needed a fire-breathing dragon without scruples. We have him.

History is usually a good guide. It reminds us that international relationships will see foes become friends and vice versa and that the liberal-conservative pendulum will eventually swing to the out-of-power side.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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