As the political cycle turns

NOW that the Republicans have lost the Senate and Ronald Reagan is beginning to show lame-duck symptoms, we can properly ask: Where is United States politics, cyclically speaking? Can arguments in support of a Democratic resurgence take up where chastened Republican realignment claims are ebbing? Perhaps, but the best case is for a near-term period of uncertainty and transition. Moreover, what the elections of 1986 really do make clear is that the dead hand of history is still very much alive, and so are the precedents and cycles that the trendy like to dismiss as old stuff.

By way of example, take the Nov. 4 Senate results. The Republican loss of eight seats fitted quite well with the established ``six-year-itch'' pattern. That's the erosion that comes six years after a new party has captured the White House and a new president has brought in some marginal senators on his coattails. Six years later, when these legislators have to run for reelection on their own, a number don't make it. Inasmuch as Ronald Reagan brought in a large group of senatorial coattail-clingers back in 1980, quite a few did bite the dust six years later. Score one for precedent - and electoral reality.

Then there's the question of party realignment, the Reaganite hypothesis trumpeting the 1980s as the beginning of a great new Republican and conservative era. Alas, the trouble with this misconception is that it pivots on the naive, ideocentric belief that late 20th-century Republican and conservative history began only with the election of Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1980.

Which, of course, is simply not the case. In January 1989, when President Reagan's term expires, the Republicans will have occupied the White House for 16 of the previous 20 years beginning in 1968. What's more, of the four presidential elections out of five they won during that period, three were landslides (1972, 1980, and 1984), and the fourth, in 1968, was a 57 percent negative landslide against the Democrats (winner Richard Nixon's 44 percent plus George Wallace's 13 percent).

The key point is that two-decade periods like this, often including a bunch-up of landslides, have been signals of previous national political watershed eras. As a chronological examination of US elections will confirm, presidential supremacies of two-decade duration have emerged only following the reasonably well-accepted watershed years of US party politics - 1880, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and now, arguably, 1968.

After each of those elections, the newly ascendant party controlled the White House for either 16 or all 20 years out of the next two decades, and those were the periods when the nation's major new directions were laid down, from fighting the Civil War to overcoming the Great Depression.

Does this 20-year pattern mean the GOP will lose the presidency in 1988, thus more sharply delineating its 1968-88 hegemony? Not necessarily. If the Republicans, however, do hold onto the presidency in 1988, it's likely to be the result of a tight race between low-charisma candidates. Bluntly put, the new Southern-Western GOP conservatism that began cutting a swath through national politics in the late 1960s is no longer a young or adolescent movement; it's getting along in years. And the Nov. 4 Senate elections, in which the public ignored the President's urgings to cast one more vote for the Gipper, underscored all too well how the ideas agenda and attraction of the ``Reagan Revolution'' is declining. Furthermore, it's hard to see the programmatic basis or appealing candidate around which these appeals can be revitalized in 1988. So the late 1986 signposts for Reagan conservatism point mostly downhill, even as evidence grows of a national return to centrism and of a mildly resurging interest in activist government.

By these lights, then, there's considerable plausibility to Prof. Arthur Schlesinger's thesis, set forth in his useful new book, ``The Cycles of American History,'' that a new progressive era will get under way in the 1990s. One is indeed due, barring the sort of major economic debacle that produces more radical or extreme populist currents. So if the next five or six years are reasonably prosperous ones, we should see a cyclical progression emerging out of late 1980s confusion and ambiguity.

In the meantime, though, liberals will have to come to grips with the evidence that their palmy 1960s heyday was terminated back in 1968 by a conservative version of the major watersheds that have taken place every 28 to 36 years. True, it was briefly disrupted and confused by Watergate, and it never reached down from the White House to the grass-roots level like past upheavals. But the national-level repudiation of latter-day liberalism was and is clear enough, and if progressivism's heirs grasp that dimension, they may just build their new era in the 1990s.

Kevin Phillips is an author, commentator, and publisher of The American Political Report.

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