The Generational Cycle

With President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sotomayor and the close of the Supreme Court’s term coming soon, this is a good time to assess where we are from a broader constitutional perspective.  I’ll divide this analysis into two posts, as I think one might be too long.

Two years ago, I wrote a book called Andrew Jackson and the Constitution:  The Rise and Fall of Generational Regimes, which argued that constitutional change is partly driven by a “generational cycle.” The idea is that every thirty years or so there is a realignment of the party system that ushers in major constitutional reform.  Moreover, the way in which this change occurs follows a similar pattern for each generation.   The Obama Administration marks the most recent turn of this cycle, and there is a lot that this theory can tell us about where things are heading.

Take a look at the major constitutional or party upheavals in our history:  The American Revolution (1770s), Jefferson’s Revolution of 1800, Jacksonian Democracy (1830s), Reconstruction (1860s), the Bryan/McKinley campaign of 1896 (which is the subject of my next book), The New Deal (1930s), The Civil Rights Movement (1960s), The Reagan Revolution (1980s), Barack Obama’s election (2008).  Notice anything?  These massive mobilizations of the American people are spaced about thirty years apart (the only time this doesn’t quite work is from the 1960s to the 1980s).  What accounts for this pattern?

The answer comes from social science research on “generational cohorts.”  Basically, the idea is that people of a similar age tend to vote in a similar way because they go through a common set of searing experiences when they are young.  That group then keeps voting that way until they die or until an equivalent trauma causes them to switch their party identity.  Thirty years is a rough yardstick for how long it takes one of these defined voting groups to move through the system.  Then there is a “realignment” when the new generation supplants the old.  Examples include the way Republicans dominated elections after the Civil War by “waving the bloody shirt” to remind voters that Democrats supported secession or the way Democrats beat Republicans for years by invoking Herbert Hoover. 

As I was putting together the book on Jackson (which covered the cycle from 1819 to 1870), I realized that this theory was sending a strong signal that the Reagan coalition was nearing its end. It was pretty simple — more than 25 years had passed since he won in 1980.  The events of the 1970s that fueled that victory and pointed up the weaknesses of state intervention were being supplanted by images of market failure.  The situation was ripe for a realignment, and it happened.  (Now I know what you’re saying — how do I know Obama won’t fall on his face and get beaten in 2012?  Well, my theory says that won’t happen.  If I’m wrong, my books will still make for useful kindling.)

Tomorrow I’ll talk about what the generational cycle says about the early stages of a new movement and its inevitable collision with the holdovers from the prior era — in this case on the Supreme Court.

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1 Response

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    I’m a little skeptical of the selection of events, which creates the appearance of a pattern. I think it may be underinclusive and overinclusive. E.g., why just party realignments and constitutional upheavals? Why not major political movements of any sort? Adding those in would get you the Progressive movement, among other things. I’m also not sure McKinley/Bryan is on a par with the others, but I suppose that’s what your book is going to address. Also, there are some constitutional and party upheavals not on the list. There’s the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 — both significant debates over the power of Congress over slavery that nearly shut down the government in those two years. There’s also the collapse of the Whigs in the 1850s and the birth of the Republican party. The Reagan Revolution was the tail end of a party realignment for the Republicans that began with Nixon’s election in 1968, right on the heels of the Civil Rights movement (not coincidentally). It may be falling apart now, which is probably the most significant event, party-upheaval-wise, of the 2008 election.

    If you throw all that in, the timeline starts to get pretty crowded, particularly in the 20th century.