06 November 2008

Obama and Schlesinger

Emotionally distant, analytically engaged.

Though it all leaves me emotionally cold, this week's election results do have some appeal as an object of analysis. And in intellectualizing about Obama's victory, I find myself torn between two cyclical theories. According to one view, the subprime crisis that began last year will be a transformational event, akin to the stock market crash of 1929 or John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. On such a reading, Obama is necessarily cast as Lincoln or Roosevelt.

According to another possible view, though, he isn't the beginning of anything. He is the end of something. I'll devote the remainder of this blog entry to that possibility, which depends upon a grasp of the 30-year cycles in American political history identified by Arthur Schlesinger.

Of course, the number 30 isn't divisible into 4. So in presidential election terms, on which the mind is focused today, a cycle must be either 28 or 32 years long. Let's look at the recent ones.

1. There's a reform election, in which a party (in recent cycles, always the Democratic Party) takes office -- executive and legislative -- promising sweeping change, generally leftward.

1932 was the classic reform election.

1960 (28 years later) was another.

1992 (32 years later) yet another.

2. Then there is a confirming landslide. Four years after electing the reforming Dems, the public says, "you're doing a good job," and the Republicans lose in a really big way. Consider in this light: 1936, 1964, 1996.

3. But the initial liberal-reform impetus has lost its strength by another four years out. The Republicans make a comeback to some degree, perhaps in alliance with discontented Dems who think the reformists have 'gone too far.'

1940 (preparedness issues had replaced domestic Reform on the Roosevelt agenda by this time, and Wilkie did much better than his two GOP predecessors had).

1968 (Eight years into the New Frontier/Great Society era, Nixon -- who had lost the election that began that era, deals it a blow, because Humphrey is unable to keep the George Wallace voters in the Great Society fold).

2000 (eight years after the Man from Hope, the advent of the man from Kennebunkport by way of Crawford).

Call these the loss-of-impetus elections.

4. Eight years after that loss-of-impetus election, the Democrats win in a quite distinctive way, with a relatively obscure figure who seems to many to have come from nowhere. A haberdasher from Missouri. A peanut farmer from Georgia. A community organizer from Hawaii by way of Chicago.

1948, 1976, 2008. Call this the guy-from-nowhere phase of the election cycle if you like.

One crucial thing to remember: the guy-from-nowhere election isn't the start for something. It is the end of something. It is the last win for the liberals/reformers/leftists/whatever within that cycle.

After the reformers of this cycle have had their say, there is usually a period in which the desire for "normalcy" and stability governs. After Truman's one term in his own right -- the final New Deal victory -- came Eisenhower. After Carter's single term -- the final New Frontier victory -- came Reagan. Then, eight or twelve years later, the cycle kicks up again with another reform election. But that's waaay ahead of us. For now, we face a guy-from-nowhere Presidency, with quite likely the usual issues and dissatisfactions of such a Presidency. Then Huckabee (or whomever) will pick up the pieces.

On this view, Obama's win is simply the final victory for the reformists who first won in 1992.

So: which is it? Is he more fittingly seen as the start, or as an ending? I don't know, since I've long managed to hold both of these cyclical views in my head simultaneously. Eventually, I'm gonna have to choose between them.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.