Monday, January 24, 2011

The Obama Generation

Gerard N. Magliocca

We are now in the second half of President Obama's term. This is probably a good time to think about how the last two years fit into broader patterns of constitutional development, with an eye towards what will happen in 2012.

In my books on Jacksonian Democracy and Populism, I set forth a detailed descriptive model of "generational change." The claim is that there is a pattern tied to the realignment of the party system that recurs approximately every thirty years and results in major constitutional reform.

What does this framework have to say about the Obama Administration? Well, here's what it suggested to me in 2008: (1) Obama would win the presidency decisively; (2) a transformative statute would be enacted by Congress in the first year or two of his Administration with some procedural irregularities; and (3) that statute would generate a powerful backlash in favor of the President's political opponents. I knew this because that is how every new constitutional generation begins. My premise, of course, was that the 2008 election was a realignment. The generational model, though, contains a handy diagnostic for making that assumption; namely, that about thirty years had passed since Ronald Reagan's watershed election in 1980. (I'll explain how I arrived at that yardstick in some future posts. It works for every fundamental shift in the party system except for what occurred between the 1960s and the 1980s.)

What does this framework tell us about the next two years? Well, it suggests to me that: (1) there will be a sharp conflict over the Affordable Care Act in this Congress focused on the Spending Clause; (2) the probability that the Court will strike down the individual mandate is relatively high if the case is decided prior to the next presidential election; and (3) President Obama will be reelected with more than 55% of the vote. The reasoning is the same as stated above--that is how the pattern has played out before if you adjust for certain variables.

So why haven't I written this up in a law review article or a book? One reason is that the size of the Republican victory in 2010 calls into question the premise that 2008 was a realignment. It is possible, though not probable, that the backlash against the President will carry through until 2012. More fundamentally, the historical pattern that I am relying upon only has eight data points (the Founding, Jeffersonian Democracy, Jacksonian Democracy, Reconstruction, Populism, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Reagan Revolution). No serious social scientist would say that is enough for a robust model. Nevertheless, I think that I am going to write this up. After all, at least I have some predictions that can be tested clearly.

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