The main idea is that America throughout its history periodically undergoing a significant change via religious-political movements – Great Awakenings. These movements are based on interplay of two egalitarian principles that are foundation of American Culture – Equality of Condition and Equality of Opportunity. Robert Fogel identifies 4 such Great awakenings when one of these two principals was moving upfront pushing away another one only after achieving significant improvement in lives of Americans and then to be pushed aside by the next Great Awakening, which moves upfront another egalitarian principle.
Here are these four Great Awakenings:
The First Great Awakening religious phase started in late 1730s with theological movement to undermine position of church leaders by accusing them in corruption and calling on people to trust their own judgment and experience. The political ascendancy phase run from 1760s through 1790 and included revolutionary movement against British monarchy resulting in formation of new United States of America. The political coalition of evangelicals, deists, farmers, artisans, and slaveholders that brought in this development lasted until 1820 when it broke apart due to difference in economic and ideological interest of these diverse groups.
The Second Great Awakening began in 1800 overlapping the late part of the First Awakening and bringing new religious fever to mainly secular country. It featured new religious leaders who were seeking to achieve God’s kingdom on earth, defining it as the America’s mission. By 1840 it morphed into anti-slavery and anti-alcohol movements. The political phase that started in this period lasted until 1870 and included struggle for union and Civil war that lead to abolition of slavery. It ran out of steam by 1880s so Southern states partially reconstruct prewar political structure in form of segregation. However it established formal equality of all people of all races and at the far end it even won political war against alcohol by establishing prohibition, even if it was a pyrrhic victory.
The Third Awakening began in 1890 and featured labor conflict and struggle between traditional American culture of equal opportunity and religiosity against modernist, mainly secular, somewhat socialistic movement for equal outcomes. This movement pretty much won in 1930s when big government policies they advocated brought economy to great depression on the watch of progressive republicans which progressive democrats successfully used to decidedly win ideological war, at least for the next 50 years successfully establishing welfare state. This victory, as it always happens in America due to the culture of democracy, could not possibly be final and planted seeds of its own demise by consistently decreasing quality of life for majority of Americans.
The Fourth Great Awakening started in 1980s and initially included significant religious movement of evangelicals. However main thrust of the movement moved to reestablishment of American creed of self-reliance and opportunity at the expense of diminishing size of government and welfare state.
The book was written in 1990s so RF did not deal with counterattack of big government progressives which again successfully used failure of big government republicans to deal with crises caused by big government policies, but at least for now it look like this counterattack, by allowing massive expansion of big government among population that does not like big government, will end up in dramatic defeat for progressives. This defeat will open a huge opportunity for expansion of American free civil society at the expense of contraction of big bureaucratic government.
Overall despite of aging process inevitable for any politico-philosophical work Robert Fogel’s book is still very interesting and provides significant insights into American history and culture.