Cyclical theory

Theory of large scale historical or political change.

Events, economies, and political systems move through cycles similar to the natural life-cycles of living beings.

These cycles can be observed, but there is no obvious explanation for them.

The most familiar Cyclical theoryversion is Spengler’s decline of the west.

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.

The Klingberg foreign-policy cycle

Historian Frank J. Klingberg described what he called “the historical alternation of moods in American foreign policy,” an alternation between “extroversion”, willingness to confront other nations and to expand American influence and territory, and “introversion”, unwillingness to do so. He examined Presidents’ speeches, party platforms, naval expenditures, wars, and annexations, identifying in 1952 seven alternations since 1776. He and others have extended this work into more recent years, finding more alternations.[2][3][17][18][19]

Klingberg phases of American foreign policy
From To Duration Type Events
1776 1798 22 Int Revolution, establishment of government
1798 1824 26 Ext French naval war, Louisiana Purchase, War of 1812
1824 1844 20 Int Nullification Crisis, Texas question
1844 1871 27 Ext Texas and Oregon annexations, Mexican War, Civil War
1871 1891 20 Int
1891 1919 18 Ext Spanish-American War, World War I
1919 1940 21 Int League of Nations rejections, Neutrality Acts
1940 1967 27 Ext World War II, Cold War, Korean and Vietnam Wars
1967 1987 20 Int Vietnamization, détente, dissolution of Soviet Union
1987 Ext Post-Cold-War assertion, Gulf War, War on Terror
  • Ext: Extroversion
  • Int: Introversion

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. concluded that this cycle is not synchronized with the liberal-conservative cycle, and for that reason, he concluded that these two cycles have separate causes

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