Models of American Electoral Politics: 2. Archetypes

This is the second in a three-part series of blogs discussing the various models of periodisation of American electoral politics and their applicability to the contemporary United States’ political context. The first part can be read here and the third can be read here.

Following on from the first blog in the series that looked at party systems, this blog considers presidential archetypes for a different perspective on the US political context. Research conducted by Misha Leybovich – what I will term the Leybovich model – both challenges and corroborates the party system model by considering the presidents themselves rather than the electoral science of their accessions.

According to the Leybovich model, the archetypes of presidents go through a cycle every 30 to 40 years, represented by a transformational leader at the start of each. As Leybovich notes, “[They] defined the political conversation for the next several decades.” This distinction is important, I feel; not only did these presidents transform politics in their own time, they also left a legacy that sustained their influence years after they left office. I’ve transcribed Leybovich’s spreadsheet and made a few tweaks for ease of understanding, but the idea is much the same.

The cycle is as follows:

  • Transformer – brings a revolutionary new outlook to the political environment that will define the era.
  • Continuer – the transformer’s sidekick, who carries on their legacy with similar ideas.
  • Triangulator – a response from the opposing party to the re-alignment.
  • Reimaginer – does what it says on the tin: they re-imagine the transformer’s original ideas.
  • Precursor – can’t quite bring about any transformation change, but they do foreshadow the outlook of the next era.
  • Ender – presents an expired impression of the transformer’s initial ideas, to lose re-election to another incoming transformer, beginning the cycle again.

This model actually backs up the regular political re-alignments that classify party systems – after all, there’s no rule that these patterns should occur so regularly – but like the party system model, it is important that Leybovich’s model is duly critiqued.

It should be noted that the two eras that fit the model best are the two most recent – what Leybovich terms the ‘collectivist’ and ‘individualist’ eras – begun by FDR and Reagan, respectively.

The first era, which he calls the ‘founding’ era, is definitely the messiest. James Madison – who, according to the model, would be a ‘reimaginer’ of Washington and Adams’ policies, was definitely more akin to those on either side of him – Jefferson and Monroe. The model would categorise Monroe as a precursor to Andrew Jackson. However, Monroe presided over a period of high bipartisanship – “the era of good feelings”. While Jackson, transformative as he was, was deeply divisive and is the root of the modern party divisions.

In comparison, the second era is sparse and brief, but this could be explained by the rising tensions that would lead to the civil war. Further, history shows that Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore were hardly precursors to Lincoln. However, the fact that separate study supports the existence of a brief second era further reinforces that the party system model also had a shorter second party system.

The third era sees Lincoln followed by four ‘continuer’ Presidents and Grover Cleveland supposedly fulfilling the roles of both Triangulator and Precursor – he definitely wasn’t the latter because he and Teddy Roosevelt didn’t agree on much.

The fourth, ‘progressive’ era is tricky because it happened at a time when both parties were re-aligning away from their 19th century platforms to their present ideologies. Woodrow Wilson didn’t ‘triangulate’ TR. This era also lacks a precursor to FDR. Even if Calvin Coolidge was substituted out of ‘Reimaginer’ and into this spot, it wouldn’t really fit.

Timings of Leybovich’s cycles roughly line up with party systems. But as described, the roles ascribed to the different presidents are far from perfect fits.

Personally, however, I find that application of the Leybovich Model provides a fascinating insight into the roles played by each president. By challenging the model we can question assumptions and understand some of the underlying trends and forces that have shaped US politics over the last 200+ years.

In the third and final part of this series, we’ll consider how these models influence our understanding of the context in which Joe Biden will operate as he settles into the role of President.

This was the second in a three-part series of blogs discussing the various models of periodisation of American electoral politics and their applicability to the contemporary United States’ political context. The first part can be read here and the third can be read here.

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