For a long time, I thought of US politics in terms of a 30 year cycle. I thought of this as the "short cycle" of two, for I also had and still have a long cycle theory.
But the short cycle was specifically keyed to Presidential election, so it manifested itself in 32 or 28 year intervals (since 30 is not divisible by four).
Pursuant to the short cycle theory I compared President Obama's election in 2008 to the election of other relatively obscure figures who carried on the impetus of a reform movement past its prime. A haberdasher in 1948 was elected as the last hurrah for the New Deal. Four years later he bowed out, letting Adlai Stevenson take the fall for Eisenhower's victory. Twenty eight years after 1948 brings us to 1976, when a peanut farmer became President as a final upsurge of New Frontier/Great Society liberalism. Four years later he was mugged by an Ayatollah on the way to defeat by Ronald Reagan.
Thirty-two years from 1976 brings us to 2008. So that cyclical theory led me to the expectation that Barack Obama would be a one termer, defeated by a conservative Republican in 2012. It didn't happen. So maybe in my efforts to understand events THIS year I should forget that and fall back on the theory concerning longer cycles.
According to this, there are three great periods of constitutional equilibrium in US history, punctuated by periods of turmoil. Here's a quick cheat sheet (ignoring for the moment the fact that the colonial pre-history of the US analogously breaks down into two imperial periods, separated by a time of great tumult in the 1680s set off by the Glorious Revolution in the motherland.)
1775 - 1787 TUMULT
1787 - 1860 First Republic (73 years)
1861 - 1865 TUMULT
1866 - 1929 Second Republic (63 years)
1930 - 1937 TUMULT
1938 - 2008 Third Republic (70 years).
On this hypothesis, we have lived through a period of tumult, and this Presidential election will presumably lay the groundwork for a distinctive Fourth Republic.
If a Democratic candidate is elected President, whether it be a he or a she, then one can see the outlines of the Fourth Republic and its differences from the Third. In either case, we will think of this period as the tricky transition of the US into a Western European style social democracy. The Supreme Court decisions upholding Obamacare and marriage equality have a long life ahead of them as important precedents -- the next couple of SCOTUS appointments will be Justices inclined with the majority there. As important, the decisions creating a religious exemption for the insurance mandate and deregulating campaign finance will have a rather brief life ahead of them, and the decisions reversing them will be the key fourth-republic-defining precedents.
I don't see any possibility of a Republican victory in this election. Of course, I'm often wrong but that by itself doesn't establish the contrary proposition.
There is a third possibility: an independent candidate's victory. What will that mean? Either more tumult or a very different Fourth Republic. Tomorrow I'll say a few words about how this might come about.