Idealist and Civic Eras in
THROUGHOUT ITS HISTORY, America has experienced major political upheavals, or realignments, about every four decades. These realignments are caused by the coming of age of a new generation and the development of a new communications technology that is particularly appealing to the emerging generation. The differing characteristics of the emerging generation produce two very distinctive types of political realignments: civic and idealist. A civic realignment is strongly centered on cooperative efforts to resolve societal problems and build institutions because those are the typical attitudes and values of a civic archetype generation. Idealist realignments, in line with the beliefs of that generational archetype, are driven by attempts to use the political process to achieve or defend deeply held personal values above all else.
While in certain respects what happens during and after civic and idealist realignments is similar, in many other important ways the results that flow from the two types of political realignment are very different. In seeking to understand these similarities and differences it is important to remember that neither type of realignment refers to a particular partisan or ideological direction. Throughout the course of American history, the Democratic and Republican Parties have both led idealist and civic realignments. Both liberals and conservatives have, at various times, supported the strong political adherence to personal values that characterize idealist eras and the problem resolution and institution building that mark civic eras. But the similarities and differences between the two types of realignments do reveal what will happen to the nation's politics during the next three or four decades, no matter which candidate or party takes advantage of the changes that are about to occur.