cyclical theory

The cyclical theory refers to a model used by historians Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to explain the fluctuations in politics throughout American history.[1][2] In this theory, the United States’s national mood alternates between liberalism and conservatism. Each phase has characteristic features, and each phase is self-limiting, generating the other phase. This alternation has repeated itself several times over the history of the United States.

A similar theory for American foreign policy was proposed by historian Frank J. Klingberg.[3] He proposed that the United States has repeatedly alternated between foreign-policy extroversion and introversion, willingness to go on international adventures and unwillingness to do so.

Several other cycles of American history have been proposed, with varying degrees of support.

Schlesinger’s liberal-conservative cycle

Schlesinger phases of American history[1][2][5]
From To Duration Type Name
1776 1788 12 Lib Liberal Movement to Create Constitution
1788 1800 12 Con Hamiltonian Federalism
1800 1812 12 Lib Liberal Period of Jeffersonianism
1812 1829 17 Con Conservative Retreat After War of 1812
1829 1841 12 Lib Jacksonian Democracy
1841 1861 20 Con Domination of National Government by Slaveowners
1861 1869 8 Lib Abolition of Slavery and Reconstruction
1869 1901 32 Con The Gilded Age
1901 1919 18 Lib Progressive Era
1919 1931 12 Con Republican Restoration
1931 1947 16 Lib The New Deal
1947 1962 15 Con
1962 1978 16 Lib
1978 Con
  • Lib: Liberal
  • Con: Conservative

The features of each phase in the cycle can be summarized with a table.[1][2][6]

Liberal Conservative
Wrongs of the Many Rights of the Few
Increase Democracy Contain Democracy
Public Purpose Private Interest
Human Rights Property Rights

The Schlesingers proposed that their cycles are “self-generating”, meaning that each kind of phase generates the other kind of phase. This process then repeats, causing cycles. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. speculated on possible reasons for these transitions.[2] He speculated that since liberal phases involve bursts of reform effort, such bursts can be exhausting, and the body politic thus needs the rest of a conservative phase. He also speculates that conservative phases accumulate unsolved social problems, problems that require the efforts of a liberal phase. He also speculated on generational effects, since most of the liberal-conservative phase pairs are roughly 30 years long, roughly the length of a human generation.

The Schlesingers’ identified phases end in a conservative period, and in a foreword written in 1999, Schlesinger Jr. speculated about why it has lasted unusually long, instead of ending in the early 1990s. One of his speculations was the continuing Computer Revolution, as disruptive as the earlier Industrial Revolution had been. Another of them was wanting a long rest after major national traumas. The 1860s Civil War and Reconstruction preceded the unusually-long Gilded Age, and the strife of the 1960s likewise preceded the recent unusually-long conservative period.

An alternative identification is due to Andrew S. McFarland.[7] He identifies the liberal phases as reform ones and conservative phases as business ones, and he additionally identifies transitions from the reform ones to the business ones. From his Figure 1,

Reform Trans. Business
1901-14 1915-18 1919-33
1933-39 1940-48 1949-61
1961-74 1974-80 1980- ?

Roughly agreeing with Schlesinger’s identifications.

Huntington’s periods of creedal passion

Historian Samuel P. Huntington has proposed that American history has had several bursts of “creedal passion”.[4][7][8][9] Huntington described the “American Creed” of government in these terms: “In terms of American beliefs, government is supposed to be egalitarian, participatory, open, noncoercive, and responsive to the demands of individuals and groups. Yet no government can be all these things and still remain a government.” This contradiction produces an unavoidable gap between ideals and institutions, an “IvI” gap. This gap is normally tolerable, but it is a gap that sometimes leads to bursts of “creedal passion” against existing systems and institutions, bursts that typically last around 15 years. He identified four of them:

  • 1770s: Revolutionary era
  • 1830s: Jacksonian era
  • 1900s: Progressive era
  • 1960s: S&S: Sixties and Seventies (Huntington’s name)

Huntington described 14 features of creedal-passion eras.[9] Nine of them describe the general mood:

  1. “Discontent was widespread; authority, hierarchy, specialization, and expertise were widely questioned or rejected.”
  2. “Political ideas were taken seriously and played an important role in the controversies of the time.”
  3. “Traditional American values of liberty, individualism, equality, popular control of government, and the openness of government were stressed in public discussion.”
  4. “Moral indignation over the IvI gap was widespread.”
  5. “Politics was characterized by agitation, excitement, commotion, even upheaval — far beyond the usual routine of interest-group conflict.”
  6. “Hostility toward power (the antipower ethic) was intense, with the central issue of politics often being defined as ‘liberty versus power.'”
  7. “The exposure or muckraking of the IvI gap was a central feature of politics.”
  8. “Movements flourished devoted to specific reforms or ’causes’ (women, minorities, criminal justice, temperance, peace).”
  9. “New media forms appeared, significantly increasing the influence of the media in politics.”

The remaining five describe the resulting changes:

  1. “Political participation expanded, often assuming new forms and often expressed through hitherto unusual channels.”
  2. “The principal political cleavages of the period tended to cut across economic class lines, with some combination of middle- and working-class groups promoting change.”
  3. “Major reforms were attempted in political institutions in order to limit power and reshape institutions in terms of American ideals (some of which were successful and some of which were lasting).”
  4. “A basic realignment occurred in the relations between social forces and political institutions, often including but not limited to the political party system.”
  5. “The prevailing ethos promoting reform in the name of traditional ideals was, in a sense, both forward-looking and backward-looking, progressive and conservative.”

Party systems and realignment elections

The United States has gone through several party systems, where in each system, the two main parties have characteristic platforms and constituencies. Likewise, the United States has had several realigning elections, elections that bring fast and large-scale changes. These events are mentioned here because their repeated occurrence may be interpreted as a kind of cycle.

Party systems
Begin End System
1792 1824 First Party System
1828 1854 Second Party System
1856 1894 Third Party System
1896 1930 Fourth Party System
1932 1974 Fifth Party System
1980 ? Sixth Party System

Opinions differ on the timing of the transition from the fifth to the sixth systems, opinions ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s. Some political scientists argue that it was a gradual transition, one without any well-defined date.

Realigning elections
Date President
1800 Thomas Jefferson
1828 Andrew Jackson
1860 Abraham Lincoln
1896 William McKinley
1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt

Other dates sometimes cited are 1874, 1964, 1968, 1980, 1992, 1994, 2008, and 2016.

Skowronek’s Presidency Types

Political scientist Stephen Skowronek has proposed four main types of presidencies, and these types of presidencies also fit into a cycle.[4][10][11][12][13][14][15][16] He proposes that the United States has had several political regimes over its history, regimes with a characteristic cycle of presidency types. Each political regime has had a dominant party and an opposition party, and presidents can be in either the dominant party or the opposition party.

Dominant Party President’s Party Type
Vulnerable Opposition Reconstruction
Vulnerable Dominant Disjunction
Resilient Opposition Preemption
Resilient Dominant Articulation

The cycle begins with a reconstructive president, one who typically serves more than one term. He establishes a new regime, and his party becomes the dominant one for that regime. He is usually succeeded by his vice president, his successor is usually an articulation one, and that president usually serves only one term. This president is usually followed by a preemptive president, and articulating and preemptive presidents may continue to alternate. The cycle ends with one or more disjunctive presidents. Such presidents are typically loners, detached from their parties, considered ineffective, and serving only one term.

  • (Rec): Washington
  • Dis: Adams, J.
  • Rec: Jefferson
  • Art: Madison
  • Art: Monroe
  • Dis: Adams, J.Q.
  • Rec: Jackson
  • Art: Van Buren
  • Pre: Harrison, W.H.
  • Pre: Tyler
  • Art: Polk
  • Pre: Taylor
  • Pre: Fillmore
  • Dis: Pierce
  • Dis: Buchanan
  • Rec: Lincoln
  • Pre: Johnson, A.
  • Art: Grant
  • Art: Hayes
  • Art: Garfield
  • Art: Arthur
  • Pre: Cleveland
  • Art: Harrison, B.
  • Art: McKinley
  • Art: Roosevelt, T.
  • Art: Taft
  • Pre: Wilson
  • Art: Harding
  • Art: Coolidge
  • Dis: Hoover
  • Rec: Roosevelt, F.D.
  • Art: Truman
  • Pre: Eisenhower
  • Art: Kennedy
  • Art: Johnson, L.B.
  • Pre: Nixon
  • Pre: Ford
  • Dis: Carter
  • Rec: Reagan
  • Art: Bush, G.H.W.
  • Pre: Clinton
  • Art: Bush, G.W.
  • Pre: Obama
  • Dis?: Trump

Some of the articulating and preemptive presidents’ types have been inferred from their party affiliations, and George Washington has been classified as a reconstructing president because he was the first one.

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