Transfer of Power in America – A violent tradition


They tell us that one of the marvels of the American system is that every few years power is peacefully transferred from one group to another. And that we should look at this in awe, and be impressed.

This is a lie.

There have been two transfers of power in American history, and we are living through the third. The first two were violent. My fear is that the third will be as well.

But first – some context.

The first transfer of power was the American Revolution. It was violent. It set up an incredible system – the US Constitution. This transfer of power was from a colonial system where the rules were set by someone else to a federal system (eventually) where the states (with the federal government as tie breaker) set the rules themselves.

Every four to eight years, the US Constitution supports a transfer of power from one group to another. This transfer of power that they tell us about in school is specifically the transfer of government leadership. This feels like a big deal because historically it would have been. That is because, historically, this has been one-to-one tied with economic power. But the magic of the system in the US is that we separated government leadership from economic power.

Oh sure, the only people who could be government leaders at first were the rich white men who had economic power. But within 75 years, Andrew Jackson fixed that for us (even though he was a massive racist). Shortly thereafter though there started to be a fork in the road for wealth generation.

The previously agrarian economy was slowly being replaced by an industrial revolution. Where before the only way to generate more wealth (in the agrarian society) was more land at a near zero labor cost (slavery), there was now an ability to generate wealth by building a factory, and then even more wealth by making it more efficient, opening more factories, or expanding into other opportunities (either horizontally across new industries or vertically into a single industry). And with this new found industrial revolution came a new found desire to change the old models. Because this new model transferred economic wealth from the old model into the new, there was blood. A lot of it.

And with the end of the Civil War, the second transfer of power – as expressed in economic force – in American history was complete. The old agrarian system was neutered. The new industrial system was firmly in place.

It took another 150 years or so – and the foundations were laid 50 years ago with the Civil Rights movement, 40 years ago with the Stonewall Riots, 30 years ago with the launch of DARPANet, 20 years ago with the rise of China’s manufacturing juggernaut, and so it goes – for the next transfer of power to start. As we move from an industrial economy to a service economy, we are again seeing a true transfer of power.

Where before one had to own the means of production – land, access to resources, access to cheap capital – we’re transitioning to a system where the cost of production is dropping rapidly, the need to own the production no longer exists, and capital is so cheap everywhere that everyone has access to lots of it (well, not really, and that’s where the problem is going to come, but let’s go with it for a second).

The interesting thing is to really play in the service economy all you really need is the knowledge that it exists, and an understanding of the rules for how to play it. And it turns out that that makes wealth more meritocratic, but also makes lots of existing professions indefensible. It means more people can be part of the pie, but not everyone is seeing their share of the pie grow.

And if you came from the professions that are disappearing or if you don’t like that wealth is now meritocratic to individuals who were previously marginalized, then you’re really not excited about this latest transfer of power.

So when Trump says “Let’s Make America Great Again” what he really means is, “Let’s preserve the current status quo, and not transfer power to a new economy, a new culture, and a new America”.

Given all of that – I’m left wondering two things:

(1) Can this transfer of power be bloodless?

(2) Assuming not, are we willing to fight the fights necessary to make sure it happens?