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The Wheel of Political Fortune Keeps Spinning

• July 28, 2008 • 9:55 PM

Democrats may be ascendant now, but don’t expect permanence. One recent study gives them about 13 years in power.

It was not so long ago that GOP strategist Karl Rove talked boldly of creating a “permanent Republican majority.” As it turned out, it was an elusive dream.

Of course, had he paid attention to American political history, he should have known better. No party ever holds power forever. It’s just a matter of how long.

But how long has long been a matter of debate. Arthur Schlesinger Sr. once famously suggested that American politics oscillated between liberal and conservative poles in predictable 30-year cycles. One recent study of American electoral political history suggests Schlesinger may have been on to something.

In order to test his prediction, Samuel Merrill III (a professor of mathematics and computer science at Wilkes University), Bernard Grofman (a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine) and Thomas L. Brunell (a professor of political science at the University of Texas, Dallas) analyzed the Democratic seats from every U.S. House and Senate election since 1854, as well as the Democratic vote share of every presidential election since 1854.

Clear up-and-down patterns emerge. And when subjected to something called a spectral analysis (a statistical technique designed to decompose a time series into cycles of different lengths, similar to what scientists use to decompose white light into colors), the professors found the data have a clear peak around 13 periods — meaning that the U.S. government completes a full Democrat-to-Republican-to-Democrat cycle roughly every 26 years.

“It’s interesting that what we came up with really fit the Schlesinger predictions very well,” Merrill said. “But a lot of it is just gradual change, change that follows more like a sine curve than something abrupt. You have a cycling where the two are out of phase, each one affecting the other. You get a cycling that continues for a long time, not an equilibrium.”

A finding of gradual change goes against the “critical elections” theory of American politics — that is, that there are occasional crucial “realigning” elections that dramatically rewrite the electoral map for a generation to come, sort of like periodic earthquakes. (This theory, once prominent among scholars of American politics, is increasingly out of fashion — but perhaps there are cycles for theories, too.)

Rather than plate tectonics, Merrill and colleagues see more of a pendulum, in which centripetal and centrifugal forces pull the country and its political institutions back and forth along the political spectrum.

In an academic article describing their findings, they explain this in terms of a “Voter-Party Interaction Model.” The basic argument is that public opinion is centrist. But once a party gets into power, its leaders tend to push it to political extremes because they have more extreme policy agendas than the centrist public (hence, the centrifugal force).

But as years of polling show, the public responds to this. Public opinion almost always tends to move against the party in power. “Voters just seem to react more when something negative happens than when something positive happens, and negative things can accumulate,” Merrill said. “They take their toll after a period of time.”

Or as another Schlesinger, Arthur Jr., once put it, “Disappointment (is) a basic spring of political change.”

This, then, creates an opportunity for the minority party. It can move to the center to pick up enough public support to win back majority status (hence, the centripetal force). And then the minority party becomes the majority party, and the cycle begins anew.

But while Merrill and colleagues see things following a roughly consistent pattern, others are not so sure.

“I don’t think there are well-defined cycles,” said Edward G. Carmines, a professor of political science at Indiana University who has written about party alignments. “There are rough approximations of what might be called cycles … but not in a strict kind of 30-year pattern. I don’t think they’re highly predictable.”

Carmines instead sees a largely random element in the changing fortunes of the parties — essentially, driven new issues that periodically arise and split the electorate in new ways. “The things that make a party successful in a given era and in a given set of circumstances tend to lessen and erode,” Carmines said. “And the other party, wanting to be competitive, finds ways, sometimes through new issue conflicts, of gaining the upper hand.”

In Carmines’ view, the current Republican decline largely reflects a shift from Republican-friendly issues, with the war especially working against the GOP. In the view of Merrill and colleagues, the Republican downfall was the inevitable result of a period of the kind of creeping extremism and accumulating scandals that always happens to parties in power (though shifting issues may play a role as well).

Either way, opinion polls clearly show that after a period of Republican dominance, public opinion is currently moving in a liberal direction. According to studies by James A. Stimson, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, “liberal mood” peaked in 1990, hit a trough in 2001 and is currently on its way back up. That Democrats won control of the U.S. House in 2006 after 12 years of Republican control neatly conforms to the 13-year half-cycle predicted by Merrill and colleagues — then again, that was after 40 years of Democratic control of the House.

Merrill and colleagues are now beginning to investigate whether cycles also occur in Britain. Merrill said their preliminary analysis suggests that there also seems to be cycling back and forth between liberal and conservative poles on roughly 26 or 28 year cycles going back to 1830, though there is more work to be done on the question.

For all parties concerned, the apparently inexorable wheel of political fortune offers important lessons. For the party in power, “They’d better take advantage of it,” Merrill said. “Their time will come, and it probably won’t be that long.” In other words, no use getting arrogant and thinking that there has been a permanent reordering of the political map. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen. Better to take advantage of the fleeting power to get things done.

And for the party out of power: patience. It’s only a matter of time before the party in power overreaches and before a new issue comes up that can turn the tables.

For those who value stability, all of this suggests that American democracy may be in good health after all, oscillating back and forth as it does around Schlesinger’s vital center.

“In a way, I feel better about American politics having done this,” Merrill said, “that there’s not going to be one party that stays in power forever.”

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Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

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