Political scientist Stephen Skowronek talks about how his theory of the cycles of presidential history explains the campaign’s shocking resultsHistorians in the News
tags: election 2016, Trump, Know Nothings
The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States stunned the entire world—including, by all accounts, Trump himself. Yet the Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek says he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the results.
In his acclaimed book The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership From John Adams to Bill Clinton (1997), Skowronek describes what he calls the sequence of “political time,” a cycle that has held true more than 200 years. He claims all of presidential history follows a distinct pattern: “Reconstructive” presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (to take only the last two cycles) transform American politics in their own image, clearing the field of viable competition and setting the terms of political debate. They are followed by hand-picked successors (Harry S. Truman and George H.W. Bush) who continue their predecessors’ policies and do little more than articulate an updated version of their ideas. They are usually succeeded in turn by presidents whom Skowronek calls “pre-emptive”—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton—who represent the opposite party but adopt the basic framework of the reigning orthodoxy. Next comes another faithful servant of that orthodoxy (John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson; George W. Bush), followed by another preemptive opposition leader (Richard Nixon, Barack Obama) who again fails to overturn it. The final step in the sequence is a “disjunctive” president—usually somebody with little allegiance to the orthodoxy who is unable to hold it together in the face of the escalating crises it created and to which it has no response. The last disjunctive president, in Skowronek’s schema, was Jimmy Carter.
I recently spoke over the phone with Skowroneck about what the 2016 election revealed about where we are now in political time. He offered some fascinating observations about the Obama presidency, the Trump phenomenon, and what might come next. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Richard Kreitner: What does the election of 2016 tell us about the presidency of Barack Obama?
Stephen Skowronek: First of all, it tells us that the Reagan era is not over. Obama was just an opposition leader trying to see how weak and replaceable the reigning orthodoxy was. His own probing for opportunities to repudiate it stimulated a reaction that ended up reviving that orthodoxy in an even more virulent version—first with the Tea Party and then with the Trump campaign. We shouldn’t be very surprised by that. It’s actually fairly typical of second-round opponents of old regimes. They tend to find that the old orthodoxy comes back with a vengeance. Think of Richard Nixon probing New Deal liberalism for points of weakness, or Woodrow Wilson questioning but not overturning the Republican orthodoxy that had ruled since Lincoln.
In that context, I think what’s most interesting about Obama is not his failure to transform everything, but his apparent disavowal of that whole standard of governing. There’s something to his ruthless pragmatism, his emphasis on problem-solving plain and simple. He tried to convince the nation to stop thinking about political transformation and great leadership the way we thought about it in the past—the great repudiator who transforms everything all at once. He wanted to get rid of that and adopt a more secular, practical approach to government. That’s what he found attractive in Hillary Clinton as an heir. Her defeat is one indicator that Americans are not through with this old Jacksonian idea of redemptive politics, of reconstruction, the idea that we have to make America great again, drain the swamp, and so on—redeem some ancient mythic idea of America—which evidently still has a lot of cultural resonance and appeal. That makes Obama a tragic figure. He offered rational, sensible approach to problem-solving. In America, that is still a limited premise on which to base any extended form of rule.
With his ruthless pragmatism, Obama disavowed the whole idea of a transformational presidency. ...