American politics—maybe all politics?—tends to feature generational waves: the Founding generation, the Civil War generation, the Greatest Generation, etc. Obviously this categorization is something of a construct of observers and an artifact of historians, but it also captures something real.
Generational waves seem to characterize the American presidency. Consider the last century or so.
Franklin Roosevelt was born in 1882, Harry Truman in 1884, and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1890. So for 28 years, we had presidents born within a decade of each other, shaped by two world wars and the Great Depression.
Then came 1960. As was much noticed at the time, the John Kennedy-Richard Nixon race marked a pretty dramatic generational change. Kennedy was born in 1917, 27 years after Ike. And he was followed by a host of near-contemporaries: Lyndon Johnson (b. 1908), Nixon (b. 1913), Gerald Ford (b. 1913), Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), Ronald Reagan (b. 1911), and George H. W. Bush (b. 1924). This World War 2 generation populated the presidency for 32 years.
Then came the most recent generational change. In 1992 Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, over two decades older than Clinton. Clinton was born in 1946—as was his successor George W. Bush, and as was Donald J. Trump. Barack Obama is younger—born in 1961—but still a Baby Boomer. Joe Biden is a bit older, born in 1942, slightly pre-Boomer. But let’s call this the Boomer presidential generation. Assuming for the moment that Joe Biden serves one term, its tenure will last 32 years as well.
So three generational waves have marked almost the whole of the last century.
In 2024 (or possibly 2028), we’ll see the next wave. Kamala Harris, for one, is more than two decades younger than Joe Biden—and so are most of her likely competitors from both parties. So 2024 will presumably be a 1960- or 1992-type moment.
Past generational presidential turnovers have marked pretty profound changes in politics more broadly. Could the next one as well—in policy, in party structure, in mode of governance?
And what about the Biden presidency itself?
Joe Biden will be the post-Trump, post-pandemic, post-development of a new media landscape, and post-all-kinds-of-other-big-changes president. Will Biden simply mark the end of an era? Or could he be the harbinger of the next era? Or could he be the person who ushers it in? Biden has said he expects to be a transitional figure. Will he preside over a transition that ends an era, or lays the groundwork for a new one?
Now that I’m no longer such a loyal Republican, or even such a convinced conservative, perhaps I can quote Antonio Gramsci, from his prison notebooks: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
The old era of hyper-polarization, divisive demagoguery, policy paralysis, culture war, and everything else we see around us, does seem to be dying. But could a new era be successfully birthed? Could America deal with this crisis by peacefully ushering out the old era and shaping a new one, one that renews the institutions of liberal democracy, that restores a decent civil life, that revives a healthy liberalism and creates a sound conservatism, that enables a new governing center in the midst of a reasonable and deliberative politics?
One wouldn’t have expected Joe Biden to be the person who would succeed in providing an American answer—perhaps an exceptionally American answer?—to Gramsci’s challenge.
But history is full of surprises. Perhaps the new can be born out of the dysfunction and distemper of the old.