Magic is the politics of the excluded. It’s also, in an inversion of a kind typical in such situations, the politics of the excluders. We’ll get to the latter point later in this essay; for now, let’s explore the way that magic becomes the default option for those denied access to the political process.
When most people have at least a little influence on day to day politics, and have some chance of getting their needs heard and their grievances addressed, they tend to neglect magic. This is true even if their influence is limited and others have a great deal more than they do. For example, the golden age of African-American folk magic was between 1900 and 1945—the period when Jim Crow laws were most savagely enforced across the American South, and various devices were used to deny African-Americans the civil rights they had theoretically been granted after the Civil War—and built on magical traditions developed by African-Americans during the era of slavery. In those eras when African-Americans had some access to political power—between 1865 and 1900, in the wake of Reconstruction, and from 1945 on, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement—their interest in magic waned.
This makes perfect sense if you understand magic the way that operative mages do. (Operative mages? Those are people who actually practice magic, as opposed to speculative mages, who just theorize about it.) In the words of the great twentieth century mage Dion Fortune, magic is the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. If you are denied access to any other source of power, you can still exercise power over your own consciousness; what’s more, if you do that and get good at it, you’ll find that some of the techniques you use to shape your own thoughts and feelings will also shape the thoughts and feelings of others, with our without their consent or knowledge. Magic thus becomes the logical fallback option for those who are denied any other way of pursuing their goals or seeking redress for their grievances.
Periods in which magic becomes popular, then, are periods when more people than usual are excluded from whatever mechanisms their societies provide for seeking redress of grievances. It’s important to realize that this isn’t a way of talking about familiar dichotomies such as democracy vs. autocracy. Competent dictators make sure that the people they rule have a variety of channels for making their needs and wants known, and quite often go out of their way to see to it that needs and wants that don’t threaten the regime are promptly met.