From Standard Bearer to Overreach: A Look at Presidential Cycles


(Graphic credit: Mario Loundermon)
Gary Sick of Columbia University sent me today this fascinating and thoughtful essay, “The Coming Liberal Cycle,” written by Matthew Kohut.
Read the whole thing — particularly the comparison of Howard Dean to Barry Goldwater who took nearly two decades to see his views bubble up as mainstream conservatism — but here’s the start:

Barack Obama says he’s running for president because “we find ourselves in a moment…that comes along once in a generation.” Hillary is running because “we need a fundamentally new direction.” John Edwards is running “to end the corrupt system in Washington, and return the power of this government back to the hard-working people of America.” All three know one thing for certain: most Americans feel the country is on the wrong track. Each of them has spent the past year or longer making the case that he or she is uniquely qualified to reverse that trend.
Consider the 2008 presidential front-runners from both parties. Beyond the many possible demographic “firsts” (woman / African-American / Italian-American / Mormon), think about a deeper question: could one of the current crop have the potential to set in motion a lasting transformation of the political landscape? Fifty years from now, will the name of one of today’s candidates be used to describe an entire political age?
History strongly suggests that is the right time to ask. As twilight sets on the Bush administration, we are witnessing the end of the second of two great ideological cycles that have dominated American politics over the past 75 years. For the sake of simplicity, call them the Liberal Era (1932-1968) and the Conservative Era (1980-2008). If the pattern holds, a third cycle may be right around the corner.

Fascinating article. Greetings from Pittsburgh — where it’s snowing big flakes.
— Steve Clemons


5 comments on “From Standard Bearer to Overreach: A Look at Presidential Cycles

  1. JohnH says:

    Who ends up holding the bag? Well, it certainly won’t be the rich and powerful as long as there is no opposition organized to counter them. So who does that leave? We, the people.
    A perfect example is Social Security. The Baby Boomers are the first generation to be taxed to help pay for their own retirement (in previous generations the working population simply transferred money to the retired.) Well, the politicians decided to squander the social security surplus on war. Any attempt to raise taxes to meet the government’s indebtedness to the Social Security Trust Fund will be met with fierce resistance from the rich and powerful. They got caught napping by Clinton in 1993 and are not about to allow taxes to be raised on them again.


  2. Matthew says:

    JohnH: In “The Shock Doctrine,” Naomi Klein hinted at but never expressly addressed the limits of “Disaster Capitalism”: Someone has to pay for it. The current cycle in the US has severely degraded our currency and massively run up the National Debt, i.e., raised it by one-third during Bush’s 7 years. It doesn’t matter if the Conservatives want more Disaster Capitalism; someone has to pay the bill…and who is that going to be? A bankrupt America cannot fund this extemely wasteful economic activity.


  3. JohnH says:

    The central question here is “Do the seeds of a new liberalism already live somewhere?” Yes, there is a lot of dissatisfaction out there. But where is it organized?
    Much of what FDR did was in reaction to the threat that the poor, hungry, and unemployed would become increasingly radicalized and end up as communists. The political establishment had seen what happened in Russia. I don’t believe that poverty and unemployment alone would have been sufficient to move the political establishment to change during the Depression.
    Likewise, much of the liberalism of the 1960s stemmed from the organization of blacks and the specter of cities burning. Johnson was faced with the prospect of a war on two fronts. Without an organized, threatening opposition from the civil rights movement, it’s not clear that Johnson would have been able to accomplish much domestically.
    So, again, where is the liberal movement? Bush wants to take us back to the 1890s, Hillary to the 1990s. Who is agitating for real justice?
    We do know from Naomi Klein’s book “Disaster Capitalism” that the right wing is eagerly awaiting the next disaster. And they have plenty of experience capitalizing on disasters (pun intended). Where is the push-back from ordinary, disaffected people?
    Instead of a coming “liberal” cycle, we may well be in for some nasty surprises.


  4. Mike says:

    It’s Skowronek all over again!


  5. Seth Davis says:

    Interesting, but not truly incisive. Political behavioral scientists observed long ago that presidents are elected at the apex of a movement, and the moment they are elected the public begins to shift to the opposite pole.
    If you look at the mood of the public when Reagan was elected, the public vastly favored more conservative policies, but slid the opposite direction 12 years later when Clinton was elected. By 2000, the country favored more conservative economic policies and Bush was elected. That’s why the presidency shifts between the two parties roughly every 8 years. The country keeps trying to find an equilibrium, they tack left and elect a Democrat, then tack right and elect a Republican.
    There is a middle, we just don’t really know where it is, but we’ll keep looking for it.


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