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Thirty Year Cycles

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I used to believe there was an enduring 30 year cycle in the history of the US which became especially evident in presidential politics. Four years ago I abandoned that belief in the face of what seemed clear Popperian falsification.

Now I'm wondering if I have to go home again, in a conceptual sense.

The 30 year idea included the view that there is a general drift of reform in our history in which each train of reform runs out of steam as its central figures age, get tired, and fall out into competing factions. When that train has lost forward momentum, there is a strong counter-reform move. I don't remember what the term for this is. Let's call it the Rightward Shove for now.

The second election of Grover Cleveland to the Presidency, in 1892, was such a shove. Never mind now just in what respects. The next Rightward Shove after that came in 1920, bringing in Harding and bringing an end to the Progressive Era. The next Shove after that ... 1952, Eisenhower and the end of the New Deal era. The next one after that ... Reagan in 1980, pushing back on the reform wave that had begun life as the New Frontier. You see that these elections each came either 32 or 28 years after the one before -- 30 itself is not divisible by four. And each came after a 20 year period of leftward movement (however exactly one wants to define that!).

I abandoned my adherence to this cyclical theory not too long ago because I had confidently predicted on its basis the election of a Rightward Shove dispensing Republican in either 2008 or 2012, either 28 or 32 years after Reagan's victory, 16 or 20 years after Bill Clinton's. But no such shove came. Instead, Barack Obama won both times.

But now I think I may have abandoned this view too soon. Maybe the 30 year cycle is real, grounded in the fact of human aging and the factional (fracturing) nature of large political parties or movements. Obama preserved an old wave, so to speak, beyond its "buy by" date.  He preserved and continued Bill Clinton's reform push. But what we've seen is that he stretched the rubber band without breaking it, and that the rubber band has snapped back on us at last.

So these Rightward Shove's can bear lots of metaphors. We might understand the theory as still viable allowing for a little variation, and contemplating Donald Trump as the administrator of this shove.

I blame Popper.

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