Recycling political time: Why 2022 could be 1982 all over again

Recycling political time: Why 2022 could be 1982 all over again
Image via Creative Commons.

I want to ask whether public opinion surveys, in advance of next week’s elections, might be wrong, but first let me say this: Serious pollsters aren’t biased. Even partisan pollsters work hard to produce reliable numbers. Though they are partisan, the party actors who pay for their information want information that’s more or less accurate.

So let’s set aside conspiratorial thinking.

Let me also say that by asking whether public opinion surveys might be wrong, I risk encouraging magical thinking. Fact is, the GOP does have a historical advantage. (For two decades, the party controlling the White House loses the House.) They have structural advantages, too (gerrymandering, voter suppression laws). We should expect the expected – that the Congress is the Republican Party’s to lose.

READ MORE: The midterms are a chance to reject the GOP and its redundant gothic politics

So work like hell to stop them.

Let me also say that by asking whether public opinion surveys are wrong, I don’t presume to know more about them than you do. I’ll leave that to election authorities like Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein. He recounted three ways polling could be wrong.

  • There are fewer pollsters than there used to be. “Fewer polls heightens the chance that the estimates will be off,” he wrote.
  • Polling is harder these days. More people use mobile phones, fewer use landlines. More people refuse to talk to pollsters or if they do, fewer speak truthfully. “The old way of doing things that persisted for some 50 years is pretty much gone.”
  • Who’s voting and how? Some states expanded voting. Others restricted voting. “All of this changes how likely different groups are to vote, but not necessarily in predictable ways.”

Finally, there’s the matter of turnout. It was big for the GOP when Donald Trump was on the ballot. It was smaller when he wasn’t. It was big for Democrats when he wasn’t, bigger when he was. Anyway, “horse-race polls close to the election also incorporate ‘likely voter’ screens that are really just educated guesses,” Bernstein said.

So when I ask whether public opinion surveys might be wrong in advance of next week’s elections, it’s not because I think pollsters are biased. It’s not because I think magically. And it’s not because I have knowledge of them that comes from more than press reports.

READ MORE: What if the midterms change nothing?

However, I do think all of these things fit beneath a larger rubric.

That rubric is political time.

There are actually two kinds of time, according to political scientist Stephen Skowronek. One is “secular time.” In it, all presidents act as problem-solvers. I take “secular time” to be the time we’re all making a fetish of. It’s the stuff that we read about, that we debate and that operates in tandem with a separate, hard-to-see kind of time.

Skowronek called that time “political time.”

“Political time measures the years that unfold between periodic resets of the nation’s ideological trajectory,” Skowronek wrote in 2016. “It tells of the state of the political movements contesting national power, of the expectations of the mobilized polity.”

“Secular time” is the trees in the forest. That’s where most of us are right now. That’s where we argue about whether public opinion surveys, in advance of next week’s elections, might be wrong.

“Political time,” however, gets us out of the trees.

It gives us a 30,000-foot view of the forest.

The last time political time was reset was in 1981, Skowronek wrote, with the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. “The Revolution of 1981 thrust a conservative insurgency into control of the national agenda, and Reagan’s first budget followed up with a programmatic breakthrough that was designed to lock in movement priorities.”

Reagan’s reset “fits well-known historical patterns,” Skowronek said:

Think for example of the rise and fall of Jacksonian Democracy between 1830 and 1860, or the rise and fall of New Deal liberalism between 1930 and 1980, each of which followed a similar rotation of alternating victories for the party that carried forward the received political orthodoxy and the party at odds with it.

Skowronek’s words, written in 2016, turned out to be prescient:

If the election of 2016 follows the patterns of the past in lockstep, we would expect the inauguration of a Republican president in 2017 and with that, a third iteration of orthodox innovation.

Because Joe Biden has favored government intervention into civil society, the Republicans say he’s like Jimmy Carter. He’s going to tax and spend his way into a one-term presidency. Just as Carter did.

But the real Jimmy Carter is Donald Trump. Carter was the third interaction of Roosevelt. Trump was the third interaction of Reagan. Both were one-term presidents. The electorates had had enough.

What does that make Biden?

History suggests that he’s like Reagan in that he seems to have reset political time. (We can’t know for years, though.) More people voted for Biden than for any candidate, ever. His election was, like Reagan’s, “a populist intervention, a purge of the entrenched, a thoroughgoing reconstruction of governmental operations,” as Skowronek wrote. “Performance in political time is about reconfiguring government to conform to a particular political ideal or reform principle."

If historical patterns hold, this year’s midterm will bring the country full circle back to the beginning of the current cycle of political time.

Reagan’s first midterm was in 1982. Biden’s is in 2022. In 1982, inflation was high. In 2022, inflation is high. But the midterms changed nothing in 1982. Will history say the same of 2022?

We’re about to find out.

READ MORE: Biden’s approval rating is where Reagan was ahead of 1982’s midterms: report

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