30 December 2011

Cycles of American Politics

The presidential election circus upon which we are well launched strikes me -- solipsistically -- as a contest not among individuals, not between parties, but between two theories I've long carried about in my head about how US politics works.

I've written of these theories before.  Here is one example. What I think of as the "short cycle" theory postulates cycles that are roughly 30 years long -- so either 32 or 28 years, since 30 itself is not divisible by 4. Obama's election in 2008 can be compared to the election of other relatively obscure figures who carried on the impetus of a reform movement past its prime. A haberdasher in 1948 elected as a last hurrah for the New Deal. Four years later he bowed out, letting Adlai Stevenson take the fall for Eisenhower's victory. Twenty-eight years after 1948 brings us to 1976, when a peanut farner was elected as a final upsurge of New Frontier/Great Society sentiment. Four years later he was mugged by a Kennedy on the way to a re-nomination that proved worthless.

But there is also a "long cycle" theory. According to this, there have been three great periods of constitutional equilibria in US history, separated by chaotic periods of tumult. (There were also two distinct imperial periods in American colonial history, separated by a period of tumult in the 1680s.)

It certainly appears as if the Third Republic ran aground in 2007-08 in much the same way that the Second Republic ran aground in 1929. If that is so, then we are in the midst of a period of turmoil or chaos, and when the dust settles we shall find ourselves with a new equilibrium, a Fourth Republic. If this cyclical theory is right, then Obama is a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt, and 2012 is not 1952 or 1980 all over again.  It is 1936.

I enjoy the contemplation of both theories, and I have carried them both around in my head. Now I find that they are in stark conflict, and that one of them seems about to receive its falsification.  My only regret is that I have but two theories to give for my country.


Henry said...


Assuming for the sake of argument that the similarities that you observe between the periods of roughly 30 years, and I guess of roughly 70 to 80 years, are genuine, is there any reason to view them as cycles, in the sense that these similarities result from some larger process that will cause them to repeat in the future? Or are they merely coincidental similarities?

Christopher said...


The short cycle can be understood as each generation's voyage. There is a reform impetus representing an upsurge of youthful exuberance. For a time that carries all before it, but by the time a decade has passed the impetus has slowed. Aging reformers develop/mature in different directions, unity gives way to confusion, and the conservatives get their innings. Until a later generation feels its own adrenaline rising and the process repeats.

The long cycle involves more fundamental changes than the short one. The New Frontier/Great Society reforms for example were well within the Third Republic's playbook, so although they count as a turn of the generational cycle they didn't disturb the continuity of the existing Republic.

So in what sense is the long cycle a true cycle? That is more difficult to say in a short compass. I'll try to put together my thoughts on this subject early in the new year.

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.