How history predicts the 2020 election (and the next 40 years)
The next President of the United States will be a transformational progressive. This person will shape American politics for the next 40 years. Here’s why.
As a first generation American, I’ve always loved learning U.S. history. I use presidents to help me remember what happened when. Since 2016, I’ve been thinking about a) historical cycles, b) what Trump tells us about where we are, and c) what history tells us about where we’re going.
I started by framing elections in terms of disruptive cycles, and which presidents represented a transformational era change. The ones who defined the political conversation for the next several decades. Going backwards, it seems like the consensus is: Reagan (1980), FDR (1932), TR (~1900), Lincoln (1860), Jackson (1828), and Washington (1788).
With the era starters set, I looked at the presidents in-between. I noticed patterns in how major parties trade off control. Based on my understanding of what each president represented, I noticed some archetypes repeat. And that era duration was somewhat predictable.
I’m a tech entrepreneur, and alum of MIT, Berkeley, and McKinsey. So naturally, I used all that data to built a model in a spreadsheet. I do try to be objective, but full disclosure that I personally lean left. Here’s the model, and then I’ll explain more about Roles and Eras.
- Transformer: Founder of the Era, from Party A.
- Continuer: Sidekick from Party A carrying the torch.
- Triangulator: Party B adjusting.
- Reimaginer: Party A’s second wind.
- Precursor: Party B’s next Era preview.
- Ender: Party A winding down the Era.
Presidents are complex figures. Parties change dramatically over time, even under the same name. So these archetypes don’t always hold true. And they’re less accurate the further back you go. But this may be one more tool to help predict what kind of president to expect at each part of the cycle.
These Eras roughly align with what are known as the First through Sixth Party Systems. This is a slightly different take, with slightly different dates, and Eras named with single summarizing words. And with the additional of Roles repeated across Eras. So let’s work our way backwards.
- Transformer (1980, 1984): Reagan remakes the tax code.
- Continuer (1988): H.W. Bush does more Reagan stuff.
- Triangulator (1992, 1996): Clinton offers Dem response to the Era.
- Reimaginer (2000, 2004): W. Bush does even more Reagan stuff.
- Precursor (2008, 2012): Obama previews new Dem direction.
- Ender (2016): Trump tries an expired impression of Reagan.
- Transformer (1932, 1936, 1940, 1944): FDR remakes the government.
- Continuer (1948): Truman does more FDR stuff.
- Triangulator (1952, 1956): Eisenhower offers GOP response to the Era.
- Reimaginer (1960, 1964): Kennedy and Johnson do even more FDR stuff.
- Precursor (1968, 1972): Nixon previews new GOP direction.
- Ender (1976): Carter tries an expired impression of FDR.
This country has changed a lot in modern times. So it’s not clear whether patterns going back before that are relevant to today. Still, the framework holds up decently. Some notes on the first four Eras:
- Transformers: Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and TR had the biggest impacts. Their presidencies changed history. Caveat that TR was elected as VP in 1900, but then quickly became president. Also, Progressive Era is a so-so title, and I’m open to a better alternative.
- Continuers: Most are pretty spot on. Shoving a handful of same-party presidents into this slot during Realignment isn’t the most elegant or accurate fit. But it also was a weird time after the Civil War.
- Triangulators: Decent fits across all Eras.
- Reimaginers: Decent fits across most Eras. Harding and Coolidge weren’t Reimaginers to TR, but were that to McKinley, who TR succeeded after assassination.
- Precursors: This is the weakest Role fit in pre-modern Eras. Jackson was an important general under Monroe, and Lincoln was initially a Whig who campaigned for Taylor. But Cleveland wasn’t a strong Precursor to TR, and there wasn’t one at all to FDR.
- Enders: Reasonable list of not-top-shelf presidents, though McKinley is perhaps getting too much of a bad rap here.
If you, dear reader, have more insights on the above (or any of the rest), hit me up on Twitter. I’d love to update this as smart people give feedback.
Each Era is about 40 years. Not a perfect pattern, but roughly consistent:
- Individualist, Realignment and Founding are 40 years each.
- Collectivist is 48 years, but FDR did win two extra terms.
- Progressive is 32 years, and is missing a two term Precursor.
- Populist is 32 years, but there were several one termers who would normally get two terms in later Eras.
It would be strange for this to happen cyclically for no underlying reason. Major events explain some (Revolutionary War → Founding, Civil War → Realignment, Great Depression → Collectivist), but not others (Populist, Progressive, Individualist). Or maybe it’s related to generational turnover. There may be overlaps with Strauss–Howe that I should look at further.
I wondered how this structure would align with the presidential rankings that historians do. So I graphed the average rank for each president from a list of major studies since 1982. Looks randomly distributed:
But when we separate Eras, and give a trendline for each, we see something interesting. Each Era starts with a higher ranked president, then trends down. The pattern’s consistency may indicate that there’s something here.
One note on the Realignment Era. The reason it looks different is Johnson and McKinley. Johnson was bottom-tier, immediately following top-tier Lincoln, early in the Era. This happened because of assassination, not election. McKinley, as mentioned earlier, kind of straddled Eras, got assassinated, and was a mid-tier president who doesn’t really fit the bottom-tier Ender Role. If you remove those outliers, the trend line looks like the others.
This post is not about Trump specifically. But he’s part of this overall story, and he’s the news story right now. As I shared my ideas with people, I often heard (sometimes in fear and sometimes in awe), “well maybe Trump is the start of his own Era.”
I don’t believe that is the case. His place in the cycle of history has all the makings of the Ender of the Individualist Era. And if you were to make a movie about the end of that Era, you’d includes lots of scenes of the news saying the stuff the news is saying today.
If patterns hold, the next president will be a transformational progressive.
It could happen in 2020, or in 2024 if Trump wins re-election. That would be new for an Ender, but could happen.
Also, caveat that a model built with only 45 presidents and 58 elections can be all kinds of wrong. Let’s meet up again in 2060 and see how it held.
Until then, here’s what the next 40 years might look like:
- Transformer (2020, 2024): Transformational Dem remakes the structure for a new Era.
- Continuer (2028): Sidekick does more remaking.
- Triangulator (2032, 2036): Post-Trump GOP offers response to the Era.
- Reimaginer (2040, 2044): Further Humanist push as tech and climate change get crazy.
- Precursor (2048, 2052): GOP previews new direction.
- Ender (2056): An expired impression before something new entirely.
This suggests that we’re entering the Seventh Party System. That feels about right. Both parties have deep internal tensions, from realigning coalitions. The next Era/Party System will still probably feature the Dems and GOP as the major parties. But what each represents may change soonish.
I chose Humanist to label the next Era, because I think the conversation may be about what to do with people as tech progresses at an exponential rate and the impact of climate change grows.
I’m making big claims here. To be better substantiated, future analysis may include looking at U.S. governors, U.K. Prime Ministers, etc. Each have different electoral structures. But if all of this stems from fundamental human nature, then some generational cyclical patterns may exist as well.
My thesis today is that a President’s impact is in large part a function of their Era and Role. If longtime patterns hold, and politics is not too broken, we may be starting a new Era. If so, a transformational progressive will win.
Thank you to Ashley vonClausburg, Clay Garrett, Mike Davis, Lisa Conn, Patrick Hammon, Georges Sassine, Andrew Fader, Kouichi Shirayanagi, Stefan Long, and @chrysics for reading the draft and giving me feedback. And thank you to Mr. Sewell at Irvine High for getting me stoked about U.S. History in the first place.
2019090501: Added reference to McKinley assassination.
2019090901: Added Stefan Long to Credits.
2019121401: Changed “like clockwork” to “cyclically”.