We'll start with an overview of long-term political cycles, and come back to the current climate of midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.
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Political cycles take place over all sorts of time scales -- from the daily news cycle, the annual legislative cycle, the midterm and presidential electoral cycle, and the regime or paradigm cycle.
The last one tends to get left out because it lasts over multiple elections, lasting decades, making it hard for people to personally remember the previous stage of the cycle. (Who remembers when Democrats had a lock on the voters of "the Solid South"?)
We're currently in a paradigm set by the Reagan revolution of 1980, which overturned the FDR paradigm of 1932, which supplanted the McKinley paradigm of 1896, which modified the Lincoln paradigm of 1860, which overturned the Jackson paradigm of 1828, which supplanted the Jefferson paradigm of 1800.
Going back so quickly to our nation's founding is possible because we're not bogged down in the dozens of individual elections, let alone the hundreds of annual snapshots. There is a structure above the level of elections that groups them into paradigms spanning several decades, allowing us to take steps backward 40 years at a time.
Within each paradigm, the elections play out in stages described by political scientist Stephen Skowronek. The trailblazer radically alters the paradigm that came before, and his party enjoys at least three consecutive terms to change as much of society as they can. Then there is some pushback from the opposition party, although generally staying within the overall paradigm set by the dominant party. Then control returns to the dominant party, who extends their original paradigm.
As the paradigm runs out of gains to make, a would-be reformer from within the dominant party rises to substantially alter the paradigm from within his own dominant party. Thwarted by all the institutions and factions of the dominant party, who have no interest in radically altering the paradigm that has brought them such seemingly everlasting success, the would-be reformer falls from grace, earning a reputation as a do-nothing, and leaving a sour taste in the mouths of anyone looking back on his administration.
Then a new trailblazer comes along from the opposition party, who therefore faces none of the institutional constraints of the internal reformer, and succeeds in implementing a new paradigm where his do-nothing predecessor had failed. And the cycle repeats.
Why doesn't this paradigm shift happen with earlier presidents from the opposition party? Because voters must first be of the mind that they're giving the dominant party One Last Chance to substantially reform itself, before they lose all confidence in the old dominant party and choose to give a broad mandate to the old opposition party to blaze a new trail.
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These themes were explored in this post and comment discussion, looking at the striking parallels between the presidencies of Trump and Jimmy Carter, as well as the parallels between rising Bernie and rising Reagan of the late '70s.
Skowronek refers to these attempts to reform from within the dominant party as "disjunctive," and as time goes on, we see more and more of the pattern filling in with the Trump admin. Every time he tries to cut against the Reaganite orthodoxy -- most notably on industrial policy (trade, tariffs) -- he notches a small symbolic win or is wrestled back into the old way of doing things by the Establishment of the party (the entire party).
Still, the Reagan party cannot tolerate these small departures from orthodoxy, since they are intended as a slippery slope that will undo the entire edifice built by their party over the past 40 years.
And they are even more threatened by Trump's more substantial change in rhetoric and values compared to standard Republicans -- trade deficits are killing our workers, we've wasted seven trillion dollars in the Middle East, we're going to build a wall on the border, I don't want people dying in the streets just because they can't afford health insurance, and so on and so forth.
While these pronouncements do not result in sweeping policy changes, they nevertheless take voters out of the old mindset, and open them up to supporting radical change by somebody who actually can deliver the goods. The GOP knows that Trump cannot be that change agent, shackled and neutered as he is by the GOP itself, but they also know that they sure as hell aren't going to make radical changes either.
In the back of their minds, the Establishment realizes that Trump is paving the way not only for the destruction of the GOP, but for the election of an unshackled reformer from the opposition party -- Bernie Sanders, or someone like him.
Bernie's party is not beholden to the Chamber of Commerce or National Association of Manufacturers (Dems voted against NAFTA in both houses of Congress). So he can slam heavy tariffs on off-shored manufacturing or foreign steel and not suffer a loss of support from his elite factions. Ditto for winding down our failed military occupations and expansions all over the world -- his party is not beholden to the Pentagon for elite support.
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Returning to the midterm elections, what does the "stages of the paradigm" theory predict?
An earlier post looked at the record number of Congressional retirements from the dominant party, which also showed up in the last midterm election of a disjunctive president, in 1978. That disjunctive president began his term with his party controlling both the House and the Senate, as does our disjunctive president.
As part of the loss of confidence in the dominant party, they lost seats in both chambers of Congress, although they still remained above 50% and held control of all government for the second half of Carter's term. After Carter's failures, the Reagan revolution of 1980 also took control of the Senate, though not the House.
What about earlier disjunctive administrations and their midterms? See this history of party strength in Congress, with both charts and tables.
The last disjunctive president before Carter was Hoover, elected in 1928 at the end of the pro-industrialist paradigm of the Progressive Era GOP, before the labor-oriented paradigm of the New Deal that was chosen in '32. Hoover began with his party controlling both chambers of Congress, but during the 1930 midterms -- after the Great Depression began to discredit the pro-business party -- they lost seats in both houses, yet still barely held onto full control of government.
The next presidential election in 1932, Hoover's party lost all three elected bodies to the trailblazing Democrats under FDR's leadership.
Before Hoover, the last end-of-an-era president was Cleveland during his second (non-consecutive) term. Elected in 1892, he began with his Democrat party controlling both chambers of Congress. During the midterms, they lost both houses to the Republicans in the wake of the Panic of 1893, which discredited the laissez-faire Bourbon Democrats who Cleveland represented, and paved the way for trailblazing populist Republicans, who kept all three bodies for decades after McKinley's victory in 1896.
Before Cleveland, the last disjunctive president was Buchanan, elected in 1856 as the last of the Jacksonian Democrats before the Civil War shifted control to the trailblazing Republicans under Lincoln. He began with his party controlling both chambers of Congress. In the 1858 midterms, they lost seats in both chambers, losing the House outright while still holding onto the Senate. No progress was being made to avert secession by Southern states -- the pro-slavery Dred Scott decision from the Supreme Court was delivered since Buchanan's inauguration -- so voters lost confidence in the dominant Democrats to solve the problems of sectional tensions over slavery.
The next presidential election, the trailblazing Republicans under Lincoln won the White House, kept the House, and picked up the Senate for total control.
Before Buchanan, the last disjunctive president was John Quincy Adams, elected in 1824 as the last of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, as the Era of Good Feelings would give way to the sectional tensions of the Jacksonian era. Adams was the only disjunctive president to not begin with his party controlling both chambers of Congress -- they had the House but not the Senate. During the 1826 midterms, the dominant party lost seats in both chambers, enough to lose the House on top of already not having the Senate.
The next presidential election, the trailblazing Democrats under Jackson won the White House in addition to keeping control over both chambers of Congress.
Before John Quincy Adams, the last -- and first -- disjunctive president was his father, John Adams, elected in 1796 to continue Washington's largely Federalist program. His party began with control of both chambers of Congress, and unique among disjunctive presidencies, did not lose seats during the midterms (1798). They neither gained nor lost seats in the Senate, and picked up a few in the House.
This lack of lost seats during a disjunctive midterm could be due to the largely uneventful nature of Adams' first two years, at least regarding intra-party relations that could reveal the party to be a fragmented do-nothing party. The major split within the Federalists came after his response to the XYZ Affair (pursuing peace rather than war against France), which fell during the second half of his term. The unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts were signed during the summer right before the 1798 midterms, so any anger they generated must not have caught on fast enough to throw his party out of either chamber of Congress that autumn.
The next presidential election, the trailblazing Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson won the White House and swung both chambers of Congress for full control of the government.
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Wrapping up, it seems certain that the midterms during the current disjunctive presidency will see the dominant party lose seats in the House, although not necessarily enough to fall under 50% and lose control of the chamber. They ought to lose seats in the Senate while still retaining control, but the map this year just happens to work to their advantage -- mostly breaking even.
Voters are growing anxious and moving into getting sick of the do-nothing GOP that is not delivering on the president's promise of radically altering the party away from Reaganism -- especially on trade, immigration, and war.
The next presidential election, the trailblazing Bernie Democrats will win the White House, gain even more seats in the House (flipping it if they haven't already in the midterms), and flip the Senate for total control. Republicans cannot gloat about the '18 Senate map without looking at how much they stand to get clobbered in the '20 Senate map, which will piggy-back on a wave of populist discontent with the elitist globalist GOP during a high-turnout presidential year.
Below the federal level, the map of governors' races in the '18 midterms looks to upset a lot of Republicans in the Great Lakes and New England, as their populist voters are sick of the GOP being a one-trick pony of cutting taxes to boost corporate profits, and as the Dems re-align away from trying to push social-cultural liberalism on a moderate electorate, while emphasizing quasi-populist economic issues.
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Disillusioned populists who voted for Trump would do well to cut their losses and abandon the sinking ship of the Reagan party. The more Trumpian populists that invade the rising Democrat party, and the earlier that they do so, the more that the new Bernie-style party will be shaped away from the flaming social liberalism of the dinosaur Dems and toward a truce in the culture war, as populist material issues become paramount.
That includes getting the Democrats to pursue immigration restriction -- not as a culture war issue, but as a populist issue. The GOP will not deliver on that issue even when it controls all three elected bodies of the federal government -- let alone when it gets shut out of influence during the upcoming re-alignment favoring the Bernie Democrats.
If the Bernie people don't take up the issue during their initial stage of three consecutive terms, it will be because suicidally partisan Republicans didn't want to pollute their tribal purity by forging a winning alliance with populists from the other party. Younger Trump populists who are not dyed-in-the-wool GOP-ers will be the influential group in that regard, not the hidebound Boomer-publicans.