American politics has come into one of its quiet passages. The people who live in this turbulent and loosely knit country have been getting along pretty well with each other. That is true in this unusually serene August, in which the chief national concern seems to be the vacation schedule, and it is also true of the past decade. A time of great tension ended with the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 and President Nixon's resignation the following year. Since then pubic life has trotted along at a sedate pace that most people consider normal -- "normalcy," President Harding called it -- although it is actually rather rare.
There have been other times like it in the past century -- the 1880s, and the 1920s. Like the years since 1974, they were decades in which politics was mostly rather unremarkabnd both parties moved to the right. They were also times of high prosperity for most Americans, with some important exceptions such as the farmers.
But if politics was dull, the 1880s and the 1920s were both periods of tremendously rapid social change. In the years after Reconstruction the foundations of American heavy industry were being laid with awesome speed. In the 1920s a long list of inventions, previously the luxuries of the well-heeled, became the standard conveniences of the average household; the most important were electric lighting, indoor plumbing and the automobile.
It's hard to think of anything on the same scale that's happening now. Surely no recent invention has changed the rhythym of daily life as radically as the electric light did.
It could be an examination question in the sophomore American history course in the year 2025: What were the significant changes that took place in American life in the years from 1975 to 1985?
My guess is that people then -- the sophomores, and their professors as well -- will think of these years as a time when the process of change slowed, and people instead tried to get accustomed to the truly jolting and drastic departures that had overtaken them in the preceding 15 years.
The years of social upheaval were Kennedy through Nixon, not Ford through Reagan. Most of that change was in the direction of greater equality and personal freedom; most of it was welcome. But, as the phrase goes, it took a lot of getting used to. That's what the country has mostly been doing since the early 1970s.
And that's what it is still doing. There's nothing in the recent elections, certainly, to suggest any widespread impulse to strike off in new directions. How long will the present period of consolidation and accommodation continue? Until some unpleasant event comes along to change the atmosphere.
The previous two periods like this one both ended in serious economic trouble, but history is not predictive. The financial threats represented by the various deficits have a remote and abstract quality. No new menace is visibly arising abroad. There are no widely shared moral causes that divide the country as the civil rights movement or the resistance to the Vietnam war did.
This quiet patch in American history is like the present placid and somnolent summer -- a respite that is, for a while, deeply welcome.