Sunday, November 16, 2008
Cycles of American Political History
As readers of this blog know, I have long felt that Barack Obama represented the best candidate for the Democrats to nominate because he offered the best chance for securing a realignment of the American electorate in an progressive direction. Actually, it wouldn't have mattered who the Democrats nominated out of the sterling lineup of potential candidates running this cycle. The election of any one of them--certainly including Hillary Clinton, not to mention John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd or Dennis Kucinich--would have brought about the same result. I just felt that the election of a progressive African-American would have been so historic that the realignment would have been undeniable. And, sure enough, now that Obama has in fact been elected, the word "realignment" is popping up in the press and in commentaries everywhere. (Among many such cites, see here, here, here, here, and even here.)
36 years seems to be a special, almost magical number in political cycles. Counting forward from the beginning of the Republic in spans of 36 years -- give or take 2 to 4 years -- one finds at the end of each such span the occurrence of a presidential election marking a major watershed transitional moment in American politics. Thus, counting forward from the first President, we proceed from Washington (1789) to Andrew Jackson (1828) to Lincoln (1860) to McKinley (1896) to FDR (1932) to Nixon (1968).
The presidential election of 1968 represented the last great realignment in American politics. It marked the boundary between the great liberal era ushered in by Franklin Roosevelt--and continued under Truman, Kennedy and Johnson--and the deeply conservative era we have all been living through ever since. (Note that Eisenhower, the sole Republican to serve as President during the period of liberal ascendancy, actually governed as a centrist, and did nothing to upset the liberal hegemony with regard to social policy. Indeed, in many ways Eisenhower furthered liberal causes, particularly with regard to racial desegregation, judicial appointments, and investment in public infrastructure. But that's another story.) As with most realignments, the coming change could be seen before it actually took effect. Thus, in 1964, the apparent Republican debacle of Barry Goldwater's massive loss to Lyndon B. Johnson actually marked Republicans' pioneering use of the new "Southern Strategy," which had employed cultural conservatism and veiled appeals to racism to peel the Southern states away from the Democratic Party's historic grip. Following up on Goldwater's lead, in 1968 Richard Nixon piggy-backed on the third-party candidacy of George Wallace to peel the old Confederacy away from the Democrats, narrowly defeat Hubert Humphrey, and effecting the first major political realignment since F.D.R.
The Republicans subsequently perfected their use of the Southern Strategy in 1972 and later under Reagan in 1980 and 1984, cementing their grip on the South and identifying their party more and more with Southern values, world views, and cultural prejudices. It is no accident that the dominant accent heard in the corridors of power for the past 40 years has been Southern--whether the accent hails from Texas, Arkansas or Georgia. Even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were part of this conservative ascendancy. Both were elected under somewhat unusual circumstances: Carter after Nixon resigned in disgrace and was pardoned by his successor, and Clinton with the help of third-party candidate Ross Perot after conservatives had turned on George H.W. Bush for breaking his "pledge" not to raise taxes. Although they were both Democrats and nominally liberal, they were forced to trim their ideological sails to the dominant conservative political philosophy of their times, and had trouble governing in that environment. Moreover, it was Bill Clinton who famously said "The era of big government is over," after right-wing conservatives under the leadership of Newt Gingrich took over Congress.
Counting 36 years past the watershed year of 1968 brings us to 2004 as the next predicted cyclical realignment. The election results of both 2000 and 2004 were aberrations. At the very least, both of these elections were extraordinarily close. It has been argued (and this writer firmly believes) that they were effectively stolen by electoral manipulation and chicanery in the swing states of Florida and Ohio, respectively. (Two words: Karl Rove.) In fact, the country was getting ready for a new realignment.
Historically speaking, the elections of 2000 and 2004 were closely comparable to the election of 1824, in which John Quincy Adams lost both the popular and the electoral vote to Andrew Jackson, but nevertheless became president through backroom political deals in the House of Representatives with another failed candidate, Henry Clay. Adams' victory was entirely Pyrrhic; the election actually signaled the onset of a massive political realignment. This became obvious when Jackson roared back to defeat Adams decisively in 1828, crushing him in both the electoral college and the popular vote.
The situation for the past eight years of George W. Bush's Presidency is thus much like that which obtained during the administration of John Quincy Adams, with the significant difference that the unexpected occurrence of a massive terrorist attack on American soil on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent onset of Bush's trumped-up war on Iraq artificially extended Republican dominance for a full six years. Karl Rove's dream of instituting a "permanent Republican majority"--in actuality, a right-wing conservative majority--has ultimately proved illusory. (See here and here.) The latest progressive realignment -- which had actually already been predicted by some commentators and observers -- was deferred artificially, as it were, by the irregularities of the electoral situations in 2000 and 2004.
Harbingers of the new realignment actually became evident in the bi-election of 2006. By that point, general dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and widespread economic dislocations suffered by the struggling middle class had generated an unmistakable popular demand for a truly progressive change in direction. The Democrats "whupped" the Republicans out of Congress, making Nancy Pelosi the first woman Speaker of the House, and taking over the Senate as well.
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the new progressive realignment has come to full fruition. This is seen most clearly in the change in the electoral map. The Republican Party, which once secured its 40-year dominance by snatching the "solid South" from the grip of the Democratic Party in the series of elections between 1964 and 1972, has now actually become the Party of the South, confined to the very region upon which it once relied as the base for its national electoral coalition. In the height of irony, the party of Lincoln--the Grand Old Party which fought the traitor secessionists of the Confederacy, emancipated the slaves, saved the Union and amended the constitution to give equal rights to all Americans--has itself become the party of the Confederacy. Lincoln would not recognize as his own the political party which continues to claim him as its founder. In a very real sense, it is the Democratic Party of Barack Obama which has become the Party of Lincoln.
In this respect, it is interesting to compare the electoral map of the realignment election of 1896 (McKinley versus Bryan) with the recent election. The party divide is almost precisely the opposite of that which exists today. Thus, McKinley's dominant Republican Party was based in the Northeast and Northern Midwestern States, exactly like today's Democratic Party; while Bryan's Democrats were based in the old Confederacy of the South plus the states of the Great Plains. Like Barack Obama, McKinley was able to win because he also took California and Oregon. The South was far less populous in 1896 than it is today, and had correspondingly fewer electoral votes. However, if the 1896 electoral map were duplicated today, removing the modern states of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii from the map--none of which existed as states in 1896--McKinley would still win.)
In short, the Democratic Party has become the new dominant political party in America. It has inherited the base which the Grand Old Party of Lincoln created, and which McKinley's election in 1896 secured and made the governing national political party up until the Great Depression. After 1896, the Republicans became the big tent party, capacious enough to embrace conservatives like McKinley, Coolidge, Harding and Hoover, as well as great Republican progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. On the other hand, after McKinley defeated the populist Bryan, the Democrats were relegated to regional status, becoming little more than the party of the old Confederacy, nursing its grievances against the dominant north. It took the advent of the Great Depression and the rise of working class unions for the Democratic Party to reassert itself under FDR, beginning with the next great realignment election of 1932.
Today, the defeated Republican Party appears to be falling into the kind of disunity and disarray that appears on the losing sides of major political realignments. Republican office holders are searching for scapegoats to explain their party's recent loss. The various disparate factions of the Party--libertarians, social conservatives, Christianist fundamentalists, neoconservative authoritarians and free market fanatics--are busily forming a circular firing squad of blame. (See here, here, here, here and here.) Meanwhile, demographic trends in the country point inexorably toward continuing Democratic dominance for the foreseeable future. (See here, here and here.) It appears that the long predicted emerging Democratic majority has in fact finally emerged.