The Coming Liberal Cycle

We are witnessing the end of the second of two great ideological cycles that have dominated American politics over the past 75 years.
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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.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Attempts to characterize the nation's political history in terms of ideological cycles are nearly as old as American historiography itself. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. examined this propensity in The Cycles of American History, beginning with Henry Adams and Schlesinger's father, Arthur Sr. He went on to define a cycle "as a continuing shift in national involvement between public purpose and private interest," and concluded from Ortega y Gasset that a cycle is the same length as a generation's political life, or about 30 years.

Schlesinger's definition and timeframe offer a good starting point for interpreting the Liberal and Conservative Eras. Looked at through the lens of the presidency, however, each follows an even more clearly defined pattern characterized by five distinct stages.

Crisis of Confidence

Each cycle was precipitated by a crisis of public confidence. In the case of the Liberal Era, the Great Depression represented the most profound failure of government in American history besides the Civil War. The late 1970s, while nowhere near as dire, still rank as the hardest times of the last half-century. At home, Americans faced double-digit inflation and interest rates and waited hours in line for gasoline. New York City teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, while the Rust Belt rotted. In foreign affairs, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served as harsh evidence that the world saw the U.S. as a paper tiger.

Standard Bearer

The crisis set the stage for the emergence of a standard bearer with a new vision and a mandate for change. By 1932, the country was ready for anything that was not more of Hoover. FDR arrived with a plan to put the country back to work, one that would give a much bigger role to the federal government. At the dawn of the 1980's, Ronald Reagan brought the mirror opposite vision to Washington: government was not a solution to the problem -- government was the problem. He also espoused a staunch anti-Communism that manifested itself in a military build-up and a renewed emphasis on American strength. While in one sense FDR and Reagan were ideological opposites, both restored a fresh sense of optimism to a weary public.

By the time the standard bearers each left office, they had succeeded in getting the country back on track, and in doing so won the love of the majority. In a democracy, of course, love is never unanimous. Some always suspected that the cult of personality surrounding them was evidence of a fraud (Reagan) or demagogue (FDR). In the rear-view mirror, though, it was clear that each understood the public's mood in its moment of need, and consequently each was able to shift the political landscape in a way that cast a very long shadow for his successors.

Heir Apparent

Each standard bearer was followed by an heir apparent who continued in more or less the same ideological direction as his predecessor. The heir, of course, had the misfortune of playing after the main act left the stage. (Think of John Adams following Washington.) Faced with the impossible task of filling the void left by the standard bearer, the heir, lacking the same charisma, brought a more down-to-earth presence to the office. Disappointment was almost inevitable.

Harry Truman was virtually unknown outside Missouri when he was plucked from the Senate for the Vice Presidency. Eighty-two days later, he found himself succeeding the only four-term president the nation would ever have. By 1948, with his favorability ratings in the mid-30s, he was widely expected to lose his bid for re-election. Though he went on to confound the pollsters with a dramatic come-from-behind victory, his resurgence was short-lived. Four years later, with the nation stalemated in the Korean War, he chose not to seek another term rather than go down to almost certain defeat.

George H. W. Bush faced a different dilemma. He scored a dramatic foreign policy victory with the success of the Persian Gulf War, and his approval ratings briefly shot up to the highest ever recorded. Even so, the glow of the war receded nearly as quickly as it had emerged, and the public turned its mind from foreign affairs to the recession at home.


(Graphic credit: Mario Loundermon)

Midcourse Correction

The failure of the heir apparent to sustain the standard bearer's legacy led in each case to a midcourse correction. To a certain extent, the correction can be explained as a matter of status quo fatigue as much as anything. It is important to note that the corrections did not lead to a fundamental change in the ideological direction of the country; in many respects, both Eisenhower and Clinton spent their entire administrations fighting on their opponents' turf. Midcourse presidents had to be pragmatists.

Consider how each fared on tax policy. When Ike left office, marginal rates for the highest tax bracket were ninety percent, hardly the legacy of a two-term conservative Republican. Clinton raised taxes for the highest bracket to 39.6 percent from 31 percent, an increase to be sure, but not exactly a wild-eyed liberal approach designed to soak the rich. In short, neither proposed a radical change of the rules of the game. Clinton's "triangulation" tactic, for which he was (and still is) roundly criticized on the left, was perhaps the most savvy survival skill that he could employ as midcourse president. He wasn't just battling a conservative Republican Congress; he was flying into the prevailing conservative winds for his entire presidency.

Return to Glory and Overreach

After each midcourse correction, the ground stood essentially even. The Nixon-Kennedy and Gore-Bush races were the two closest in modern history, and the sitting Vice Presidents from the midcourse administrations (Nixon and Gore) both nearly succeeded. In the end, though, the winners for the history books represented a return to glory for the party of the standard bearer. Though elected by narrow margins, these presidents governed as though they possessed broad mandates for bold leadership.

This boldness made big initiatives possible but also carried the seeds of recklessness and hubris. Kennedy called for the United States to put a man on the moon within a decade, but he also stumbled in the Bay of Pigs and laid the groundwork for Johnson to expand the war in Vietnam. Johnson's boldness in domestic affairs manifested itself in the Great Society, a direct descendant of the New Deal, and the expansion of civil rights. In Bush's case, some recognized his boldness as evidence that he was the true "Son of Reagan," rather than a more moderate conservative as his father had been.

In both cases, though, the return to glory led to an overreach featuring both a war of choice and a domestic agenda that exceeded the public's appetite for change. Johnson was well aware that his courageous leadership on civil rights would cost his party dearly in the South. Bush's attempts to remake the domestic landscape in his own image, most notably his attempt to reform Social Security, proved dead on arrival. The political fallout from the overreach made each administration toxic within its own party during its last years in office, and marked the end of the ideological cycle that began with the standard bearer.

Mind the Gap

So how to explain the 12-year gap between cycles? The answer lies in the three conditions that enabled the standard bearers to emerge: they arrived on the scene at a crisis point, articulated a new vision of the role of government, and possessed enough personal charisma to make the sale. All three -- crisis, vision, and charisma -- had to come together at the same point in time.

Consider 1968. Nixon assumed the presidency at a crisis point in public confidence, but that's about it. He brought a midcourse president's approach to the office, rather than a new narrative -- remember, this is the Republican who founded the EPA and set wage and price controls. And as for his lack of charisma, think of the famous televised debate with JFK in 1960. The man was no Jack Kennedy.

As a member of the same party as LBJ and FDR, Carter was an even less likely standard bearer in 1976 than Nixon had been. On the heels of Watergate and Vietnam, the country sought honest, competent government, not radical change. (The only major candidate who signaled a departure from the status quo for either party was Reagan, who would have to wait in the wings another four years.) Carter was mocked for being a micro-manager who ran the schedule for the White House tennis court, and his megawatt smile and folksy manner proved a thin veneer when the going got tough. By the end of his term, he was the malaise president who had teed up the crisis in public confidence that kicked off the current conservative cycle.

The Coming Cycle

If the notion that we have reached the end of the conservative era proves correct, the question still remains what will replace it. Has the public reached a crisis of confidence where it is ready to embrace a new standard bearer? While polls show great public dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, Congress, and the direction of the country, the current predicament bears little resemblance to 1932 or 1980. The issue this year is not the economy, stupid. Ours is a time of insecurity, not mass deprivation.

Assuming the public is ready, can one of these candidates articulate a coherent vision to lead the country into a new era? All of them come armed with plans: plans for health care, plans for troop withdrawal from Iraq, plans for restoring the middle class. But standard bearers bring more than an armful of three-ring binders to the Oval Office: they bring an overarching concept of the role government should play to address the challenges of the day. One defining characteristic of the age of insecurity is our interdependence on others. We are tied to a relentlessly competitive global economy that creates winners and losers among us. We face global threats like terrorism, pandemics, and environmental catastrophes. We are at the mercy of increasingly tight global markets for oil and gas. Our insecurities are also home grown, of course, as health care and the subprime mortgage meltdown spell disaster for increasing numbers of Americans. The politician who can synthesize these problems within a big picture and offer a positive way forward is the one who may become the next standard bearer.

Finally, he or she must have the personal magnetism to inspire the American people to follow. Charisma alone is not enough to make a standard bearer -- Bill Clinton and Jack Kennedy both had plenty -- but it's hard to imagine FDR or Reagan pushing through their sweeping agendas without it.

Much as liberals would like to believe that the next cycle will begin in November 2008, they should note that it took 16 years from Goldwater's emergence as the national firebrand of the new conservatism in 1964 to Reagan's election in 1980. Will Howard Dean one day assume Goldwater-like stature as the cranky godfather of a Second Liberal Era? (Before you laugh, contrast Goldwater's standing in 1968 with more recent reappraisals of his importance to the conservative movement.) Do the seeds of a new liberalism already live somewhere among the "netroots" movement, or the Truman progressives who seek to reclaim the mantle of vigorous liberal internationalism? Is the time just not right?

Think back to what the leading Democrats say about why they're running. Of the three, only Obama clearly acknowledges the present opportunity in visionary terms: "We find ourselves in a moment that comes along once in a generation." It sounds like the rhetoric of an aspiring standard bearer. If he overcomes the current odds and wins the presidency, he will get his chance to make the most of this moment.

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