In political science, an electoral realignment is the equivalent of a NFL Super Bowl dynasty. Historians recount landslides by the dominant party and chronicle how the subordinate party struggled to stay competitive. Of course, an NFL dynasty or electoral realignment is not evident until it nears its conclusion, but this does not prevent speculation as to whether one has occurred. With a decisive victory by President-Elect Barack Obama and the Democratic Party on November 4th, several observers, some reasonably and some unreasonably, are concluding a political realignment is underway. Only four years ago, a “permanent Republican majority” was seemingly heralded by a seventh victory in the past ten presidential elections and expanded congressional majorities. Given the rapid turn of events, is a declaration of a realignment in favor of the Democratic Party merited? As a very preliminary conclusion, yes. The Democratic victory last Tuesday is the most recent manifestation of various historical, institutional, and political forces that have shaped the modern American electoral environment.1
As John Judis aptly notes in “America The Liberal,” “Realignments are not scientifically predictable events like lunar eclipses, but they have occurred with some regularity over last two hundred years--in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1980.” Moreover, Judis acknowledges not all realignments are the same, describing some as either “soft” or “hard”. A hard realignment reflects comprehensive domination of the presidency and Congress by one party, such as after 1896 by the Republicans or 1932 by the Democrats. Alternatively, a soft realignment similarly features a dominant party, but continued competitiveness on the part of the other party; an example is the general Republican dominance of American politics since 1980.
Republicans generally won the presidency or Congress in decisive fashion thereafter only to be denied comprehensive control by a still competitive but weaker Democratic Party. Because the Republican Party never fully dominated this period, Judis concludes the recent election simply validated the thesis of The Emerging Democratic Majority, (a book he authored with Ruy Teixeira), which generally predicted (it was published in 2002 just before the Republicans recaptured Congress and the Bush Administration won re-election in 2004) the voting majority Obama received. As such, Judis argues the depiction of America as “center-right” is incorrect and President-Elect Obama should interpret the election as a mandate for a liberal agenda.
Judis is correct up to a point. The Democratic victory in 2008 is indeed the beginning of a realignment, but is far more reflective of trends preceding the socio-economic composition of the majority he and Teixeira presciently identified.
A more insightful interpretation of the Democratic victory this year can be found in Michael Lind’s “Obama And The Dawn Of The Fourth Republic.” Lind examines the 2008 election results within the long 200 plus year continuum of American history and the coinciding debates over the role of government. According to Lind, landmark elections like 1860 and 1932 signal the advent of a new “republic,” whereby the content of American politics shifts to new priorities.
During these periods, the two original foundations for exercising governmental power, Hamiltonian centralization and Jeffersonian decentralization, continue their struggle to shape the nation’s future. Conveniently enough, these seventy-two year periods can be split in half whereby the Hamiltonian impulse can be observed in the first thirty-two years, while the Jeffersonian response can be identified in the second thirty-two years.
Accordingly, Judis’s soft realignment in 1980 is more appropriately seen within the continuum of the “Third American Republic” between 1932 and 2004. This period opened with the strong Hamiltonian agenda of FDR’s New Deal only to ebb in 1968, when the liberal Democratic coalition collapsed in the face of robust Republican conservative coalition that would dominate politics with a Jeffersonian message until 2004. Since the seventy-two year period is a framework and not a hard template, Lind characterizes Bush’s re-election in 2004 as a “fluke,” a judgment increasingly merited after observing the successive routs the Republicans have experienced in 2006 and 2008.
Lind argues the recurring cycles reflect the influence of economic development and technological changes, but additionally acknowledges “the broad outlines of technological and economic change merely provide the frame for the picture; the details depend on the groups that emerge victorious in political battles.”
In this regard, identifying the historical and institutional sources influencing the electoral prospects for contemporary ideological positions becomes important.
Before There Was A United States
In the same fashion as Lind’s analysis, the sources of American political realignments are derived from debates that date to the founding of the nation. Concurrent with the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian debate were questions as to how potentially destructive factionalism would be prevented and what role America would have on the international stage.
With the ratification of the Constitution, America famously enshrined the principle of “separation of powers,” whereby the three branches of government would function as equals, checking and balancing against the others.
In designing an elected executive, the Founding Fathers rejected the establishment of a monarchy in favor of a republic. Moreover, America’s first President, George Washington, warned against “entangling alliances” and excessive in overseas affairs. While some historians depict Washington’s counsel as the basis for isolationism, the warning really underscored America’s desire for “insulation” from foreign affairs as conducted by power-politics driven Europe. America would indeed be ambitious on the North American continent, but generally sought to distinguish the nation’s virtuous republican character free of the imperial traditions associated with its former colonizer and the other European great powers.
Occasional Lapses, Enduring Consequences
While the “separation of powers” and “a republic, not an empire” are fundamental principles, the course of American history has been affected by the episodic deviation from them. When these deviations have occurred, the justification has usually been an emergency. While the question of national emergencies confounded the Founding Fathers, they found an answer in the writings of the Enlightenment thinker John Locke.
In Second Treatise of Government, Locke defined a “law of self-preservation” whereby an executive could employ extraordinary powers when an emergency existed. The rationale acknowledged an executive could move swiftly, as legislatures could not. Extraordinary actions could then be justified by the legislature's and public's subsequent concurrence that an emergency existed.
The Founding Fathers made no provision for such an emergency prerogative, but they did agree on the need for executive initiative and extraordinary actions to safeguard the nation. However, there were two corollaries -- one, the executive does so at his or her own volition, and two, he or she must report to the Congress at once.
In the seventy-two years leading up the Civil War, invocation of an emergency occurred numerous times – Jefferson in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, Tyler in 1845 regarding the annexation of Texas, and Polk in 1846 at the outset of the American-Mexican War. In each case, the unprecedented exercise of executive power was controversial but justified as necessary in the face of emergency circumstances and subsequently endorsed by the Congress.
In 1861, however, the emergency prerogative took on new dimensions. To preclude the gravest threat to self-preservation, President Lincoln postponed the opening of Congress, assembled militia, expanded the military forces, suspended habeas corpus, and ordered a naval blockade of the Confederacy. Most famously of all, Lincoln unilaterally issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Opponents argued Lincoln was behaving like a tyrant, but he responded the actions were justified in surviving to the greatest emergency the nation would ever face -- dismemberment. Unfortunately, in his eager pursuit of national preservation, Lincoln’s justifications would have consequences in the future.
Lincoln's reinterpretation ratified the prerogative as an engagement of the Constitution's “war power;” moreover, Lincoln placed the “war power” in the office of the Presidency. As the executive branch also contained the office of the Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln made military command equivalent to presidential initiative, establishing the concept of a “military presidency”. Lincoln's innovations would have implications in the next century when America finally emerged as a world power.
Becoming a World Superpower -- The Vital Center and Its Collapse
After the Civil War, American politics again concentrated on domestic matters. As before the Civil War, the primary political issues concerned the economy.2 While the American victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898 signaled the emergence of America as a world power, the nation refrained from becoming an aggressive imperial nation. More importantly, participation in the world’s first world war did not revive Lincoln’s military presidency or imbalances in favor of the executive branch.
After 1860, the Republican Party dominated. The discredited pro-slavery Democratic Party stood by as Republicans nationalized the banking system, enacted protectionist tariffs, and subsidized railroad construction across the continent. This domination continued and adjusted when a successor Republican coalition crafted in 1896 by William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt sought to redress the imbalance of a government acting in concert with industry. The Republican split in 1912 permitted a brief Democratic interregnum under Woodrow Wilson, but in 1920 avowedly laissez faire conservative Republicans returned and dominated American politics for the Roaring Twenties. Then came the stock market crash and the Great Depression. Hoover scrambled to change course and introduced government intervention in the economy but it was not enough to save the Republican Party.
In 1932, voters provided FDR and the New Deal a massive mandate, a undeniable political realignment in favor of the Democratic Party. However, the critical factor in sealing the enduring dominance of the New Deal coalition was the event of America's involvement from 1941 to 1945 in the Second World War and its assumption of global leadership the subsequent Cold War.
While FDR’s New Deal was enormously popular and provided the basis for a sizable coalition, it did not revive the depressed American economy and it is uncertain whether the voting majority would have held without the advent of the Second World War in 1939. Assuming the role of Commander-in-Chief revived the Lincoln precedent of the military president and transformed FDR into an indispensable political figure. Separately, the war rescued the reputation of the New Deal as the corresponding economic stimulus ultimately revived the economy – and seemingly validated government management of the economy.
FDR remained in office, winning two more terms; the Republican Party inched back but essentially echoed the liberal agenda. FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, continued New Deal policies as part of his Fair Deal and rejected a retreat from global affairs, positioning the United States as leader of the free world and counterweight to the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
The cumulative effect was the elevation of the executive branch vis-à-vis the Congress for the duration of the Cold War and the ascendancy of the liberal anti-communist consensus that shaped both the post-war Democratic and Republican Party outlooks. The Cold War presidency was Lincoln’s military presidency renewed and subsequent Democratic Congresses protected the principles of the liberal New Deal.
This consensus, famously labeled the Vital Center by historian Arthur Schlesinger, encapsulated agreement by the two parties on the major issues of the day – government involvement in the economy and bipartisanship in support of anti-communist activism abroad.
The height of the Vital Center consensus was best typified by the 1960 presidential contest. Republican nominee Richard Nixon and Democratic standard-bearer John F. Kennedy were virtually indistinguishable and the resulting vote was one of the closest in American history.
While seemingly indicative of near unanimity across the body politic, the truth was an increasingly fragile consensus. Bipartisanship was laudable but necessitated a political quid pro quo necessary to maintain unity. Concessions, necessary for cooperation, diluted innovation in the domestic sphere; a sluggish economy, cultural conformity, the dearth of reform or progress on civil rights were stark reminders. In this formulation, if Vital Center politics and bipartisanship produced a failure, then the result would be enormous strain on partisan consensus and inevitably, political instability.
Ideological cracks were already emerging too. In 1955, William F. Buckley declared the intention of conservatives to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” In 1962, liberals issued the Port Huron Statement, a manifesto for strident progressive reform. As E.J. Dionne succinctly noted, they had the same enemy -- “The New Left despised ‘Establishment liberals.’ The right hated ‘the liberal Establishment.’”
The conservative revolt succeeded first. In 1964, conservatives seized control of the Republican Party and nominated their champion, Sen. Barry Goldwater. The Goldwater candidacy lost in a Democratic landslide, but the Republican Party was firmly in the hands of a conservative majority that endorsed anti-communism and nationalism in foreign affairs, traditionalism in social issues, and the free market in economic doctrine.
In 1972, liberals won control of the Democratic Party and nominated Sen. George S. McGovern, a recognized leader of antiwar and progressive forces. McGovern similarly lost in a Republican landslide, but the Democratic Party was now home to liberalism that sanctioned détente and accommodation in foreign policy, progressivism in social issues, and welfare activism in economic doctrine.
Given the ideological polarization of the two political parties, a conflict was inevitable – subsequent political debates featured détente vs. anti-communism in foreign policy, and progressivism vs. traditionalism in social issues, free market vs. welfare activism in economic doctrine. While the Republican conservative and Democratic liberal elites took pride in their ideological consistency, the voters generally retained their preference for an anti-communist foreign policy and liberal domestic policies.
Thus the voting majorities of the public did not coincide with the ideological framework within each party. Conservative majorities in foreign policy and social issues were well received by the public, whereas free market doctrine was not. Liberal majorities for welfare activism proved popular while détente foreign policy and progressive social stands were rejected.
Moreover, institutional biases were at play. The executive branch was the locus of military command and foreign policy direction, an outgrowth of Lincoln's military presidency, FDR’s example during the Second World War, and the subsequent demands of the Cold War. Furthermore, the president was more visible on cultural issues as he came to symbolize “moral leadership.” The legislative branch was at the forefront of questions of economic doctrine. Congress established and perpetuated the popular entitlement programs initiated by FDR and further expanded by Lyndon Johnson.
The result was “cross-cutting majorities” – public preference for an anti-communist foreign policy, traditional social stands, and a welfare-oriented economy led to Republican and Democratic domination of the executive and legislative branches, respectively. Electing a Republican president and a Democratic Congress was routine and characterized the general makeup of the American government from 1968 to 1992.
These circumstances explain why Richard Nixon’s massive 1972 landslide did not translate into a corresponding congressional takeover or why the gains of the vaunted Reagan Revolution in 1980 were ultimately limited. Reagan brought in a Republican Senate as well but the House remained firmly in Democratic hands. The House had been so since 1954 and would remain until Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994.
The reversal of both parties’ fortunes between 1992 and 1994 similarly validates the existence of cross-cutting majorities. During these two election cycles, each of the aforementioned main issues featured major changes that produced corresponding reactions in voter preferences.
With the end of the Cold War, conservatives lost their advantage on foreign policy and voters concluded international conditions were safe to embark on a more accommodationist foreign policy. Moreover, the Recession of 1990 to 1991 led to new expectations of the executive branch, by providing a rationale for a future welfare-activist majority in the presidency. In the next election, welfare-activist proposals by the Democratic candidate would win over the national middle class voting public and begin a Democratic hold on the presidency. However, the inability of the Congress to provide economic innovation or relief, coupled with overly expansive plans to take over health care on the part of the new Democratic Administration helped to repudiate welfare-activist economic doctrine and bring about a free market majority, which ended Democratic dominance in Congress.
Moreover, unlike the ideological battles that transformed into institutional turf wars and assertions of constitutional infringement, the two parties achieved a substantial amount of reform. During the 1990s, the Clinton Administration and Gingrich Congress passed welfare reform, tax reductions, and balanced budgets. If not for the Monica Lewinsky scandal and resulting fury, President Clinton and Speaker were poised to conclude a landmark deal on entitlement reform, as attested to in The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation.
Thus, by 2000, the norm of a Republican President and Democratic Congress had been replaced by a Democratic President facing off against a Republican Congress. George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 can be seen as the Republican equivalent of Democrat Jimmy Carter’s win in 1976 – anomalies resulting from public disgust with his predecessor’s scandals. Carter only won by one-tenth of a percentage point after leading by thirty-three at one point and, as everyone well remembers, Bush did not win the popular vote.
A Brief Moment for the Vital Center-Right…
However, Carter went down to defeat but Bush won re-election, why?
Again, the shift in voting majorities for the executive branch. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, voting majorities again favored the muscular nationalist message of the Republican Party. Poll after poll cited national security as the voters’ primary concern in 2004 and the greater confidence accorded the Republican Party on this issue. Accordingly, Bush went on to win the first clear majority of the popular vote since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Moreover, Bush had campaigned for and received a Republican congressional majority in the 2002 mid-term elections, the first such first term victory since FDR in 1934.
The parallel with FDR is telling because it indicates the Bush Republican conservatism might have achieved the permanent majority status Karl Rove had planned; a Vital Center primarily of a conservative composition featuring an “ownership society” economy and bipartisanship in support of anti-terrorism activism abroad.
In the end, however, the new Republican majority collapsed just as the original Vital Center did – overreaching in a war overseas, this time in the deserts of Iraq. Coupled with the horrendous mismanagement of the economy and the incompetence displayed during the response to Hurricane Katrina, voter majorities swung heavily to the alternative.
In 2006, voters favored greater welfare-activism in economic doctrine and accommodationism abroad, leading them to eject the twelve-year old GOP congressional majorities in favor of the Democratic Party. And now in 2008, voters have soundly defeated the Republican candidate in favor a self-proclaimed change agent committed to greater government involvement in the economy and less unilateral activism overseas.
The brevity of the Republican Party’s dominance during the mid-2000s reflects the greater volatility of global affairs in the modern day.
Prior to the Second World War, American elections generally revolved around economic issues; with the transformation into a superpower, the parties’ corresponding worldview became another basis for political competition. The static bipolar nature of the Cold War precluded sudden shifts or events, but the modern globalizing world is now replete with sudden shocks and events, like terrorist attacks, financial crises, pandemics, and climate change. Coupled with the 24/7 media, the corresponding shift in voter preferences is equally volatile.
The Obama Realignment
Thus, the preceding conclusion (House of Marathon, 10/31/08, “Après McCain Les Deluge”) that President-Elect Obama is poised to dominate American politics for the next eight years and the conclusion here that his election constitutes a realignment in favor of the Democratic Party.
With Republican failures on the economy (massive deficits, the financial industry collapse) and in foreign affairs (two mismanaged wars and a diminished reputation), solid voting majorities have lined up behind the Democratic Party. The Republican Party is leaderless, wrangling over ideological principles, and ill-prepared to capitalize on any missteps.
Upon inauguration, Obama will become the center of the American political universe. With hefty congressional majorities, a fawning media, and the manner in which his plans will cement a new majority, he and the Democratic Party will be almost unbeatable, regardless of their performance.
Just like FDR.
1 This essay is an updated adaptation of Republic In Crisis: The Evolution And Climax Of Divided Government In The United States, November 1993.
2 While the tariff, trusts, and monetary policy are seemingly mundane matters, the issues spurred tremendous political activity and voter turnout was greatest during this period of American history.