Posted: November 24, 2003
ne of the chief questions posed about contemporary American politics by journalists, scholars, and political strategists is how our time fits into the familiar framework of "partisan realignment." Originally put forward by political scientists like V.O. Key, E.E. Schattschneider, Walter Dean Burnham, and James Sundquist, realignment theory holds that American political history can be divided into eras characterized by the long-term dominance of a particular party and a corresponding public philosophy. In this view, the break from one era to another is typically identified with one or more "critical elections," such as 1860, 1896, and 1932 (some add 1800, 1828, and 1968 or 1980).
Observers have been bedeviled by the stubborn refusal of contemporary America to conform to the expectations advanced by the realignment model. While one party or the other has sometimes enjoyed temporary ascendancy since 1968, the period as a whole has been characterized by divided government, roughly even party division in the electorate (since the mid-1980s), and bursts of policy innovation alternating with periods of bitter stalemate. The 1990s, in particular, saw a tight balance that neither side could break out of, culminating in the "perfect tie" of the 2000 national elections. This stalemate has inspired a number of theories, including most prominently: 1) we have been temporarily "dealigned," until the next realignment; 2) we have been permanently dealigned due to unique features of modern political life; 3) because of the new power of congressional incumbency, Republicans gained an unsual "split realignment" starting in 1968, first at the presidential level and only many years later at the congressional level; and 4) while partisan realignment was elusive, conservatives gained something of a "philosophical realignment" by changing the terms of the public policy debate. There is something to be said for—and against—each of these notions, and none has garnered anything approaching a consensus.
In The Emerging Democratic Majority and Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre, the authors add two more ways of looking at the question. John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira accept the realignment framework, at least in its most basic form, and argue that there was a Republican realignment starting in 1980, to be followed (probably) by a Democratic realignment in the immediate future. David R. Mayhew calls into question the entire framework of realignment itself, arguing in the end that it has outlived its usefulness as an analytical tool.
Judis and Teixeira suffered the misfortune of publishing their book—self-consciously modeled after Kevin Phillips' 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority—immediately before the November 2002 elections. The historic nature of those results, which represented the first time since 1934 that the president's party gained seats in both chambers in a midterm year, led to widespread dismissal of The Emerging Democratic Majority as having already been overtaken by events. In many respects, these criticisms were unfair, inasmuch as the authors had explicitly warned that the war on terrorism "will certainly benefit the Republicans (and generally incumbents) in November 2002 and at least mitigate whatever gains the Democrats might have expected." In their view, once national security concerns recede again, the general trend that they have outlined will reassert itself, probably leading to a stable Democratic majority by 2010.
The heart of their thesis is that trends in American society revolving around "work," "values," and "geography" favor future Democratic success. In short, the prevalence of post-industial workers, the spread of countercultural values, and the increasing Democratic dominance of population centers give Democrats the inside track on building a majority coalition for the future.
That coalition, they contend, will be based on professionals, women, and racial minorities. To be successful, however, Democrats must add white working class voters to the mix. They examine each of these groups in turn. Professionals, they point out, used to be predominantly Republican but are now leaning Democrat (a trend which started in 1972). According to Judis and Teixeira, the areas of greatest growth among professionals are in the "creative" and "nurturing" fields, like teachers. Furthermore, in a departure from the past, many of the new professionals work for someone else or otherwise feel impinged by the workings of the free market (for example, doctors chafing against insurance companies).
Women—or to be more precise, highly educated women in the workforce—are now a staple of the Democratic Party's electoral strategy. In the authors' view, like professionals, but perhaps to an even greater degree, these women have undergone an ideological transformation and are highly committed to countercultural values and to abortion on demand. Because a higher percentage of women are migrating to this sub-group, Democrats can count on bigger majorities from women in the future.
As the authors recognize, minority groups must be disaggregated and examined in turn, but the book's treatment of them is disappointing. Blacks are largely taken for granted. Hispanics are labeled "a crucial part of a new Democratic majority." And Asians, the authors note, trended Democratic during the Clinton years.
Yet, without working-class whites, this coalition is insufficient, despite its growth potential. In 2000, for example, Bush won working class whites by 57-40 percent, accounting for Gore's defeat.
Geographically, the authors look to the elections of 1992, 1996, and 2000, and see 20 states and the District of Columbia having voted for Democrats all three times. This collection of states provides 267 electoral votes, only three short of a majority. The authors argue that the Democrats are tantalizingly close to possessing the "lock" on the Electoral College that Republicans were alleged to have had from 1968-1988.
Finally, Judis and Teixeira review the unsuccessful attempts to reforge a Democratic majority out of the ruins of the New Deal coalition. George McGovern with the New Politics, Henry Jackson with a restoration strategy, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart and the Atari Democrats, Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, and the Democratic Leadership Council each made an attempt, and none succeeded alone. Only Clinton, who drew from several of these strands and had the political skills to paper over the contradictions, created a winning coalition.
This point, however, must call into question much of the authors' analysis. If the authors are right in their appraisal of the politics of the Democratic Party after 1968, it would appear that Democratic success in the 1990s was a product of Clinton's unique background and abilities. This raises the question of how replicable it is. Al Gore already tried and failed (in the authors' account) because he lacked the skill to appear integrative rather than simply contradictory.
This raises a larger objection, which is that one can always construct a theoretical majority by assembling on paper the requisite building blocks, but making it a reality in the voting booth is something altogether different. The pieces existed to form a Republican presidential majority starting in 1980, but one needed events and leadership to realize the potential. In the absence of stagflation, Iran, and Afghanistan, would it have happened? Could John Connally or Phil Crane have pulled it off?
As progressives, Judis and Teixeira may think that they are justified in writing as if present trends can be assumed into the future, but the rest of us may wonder. Is there no ceiling to how many women will desert the home? Perhaps we have already reached it. Besides, maintaining coalitional unity between the white working class and the Big Three (professionals, feminist women, and minorities) is no easy task. Their economic interests are often divergent (think about affirmative action and minority set-asides), and their cultural views are often not only divergent but mutually hostile. After 9/11, while construction sites were awash in American flags, the "ideopolises" touted by Judis and Teixeira were embroiled in debates about how much blame could be heaped on America. Even relations among (or within) the Big Three can be testy. Vouchers pit inner-city blacks against the teachers' unions. Hispanic cultural values and radical feminism are not clearly compatible. And so on.
Even as unusually skilled leadership can meld these pieces together, it is possible for politically astute leadership on the other side to fragment the coalition by deliberately exploiting its contradictions. The authors give little credence to the notion that George W. Bush can pull it off, but they may have underestimated him. And what of Arnold Schwarzenegger? His recall victory raises not one but two key challenges for their analysis, demographic (Schwarzenegger gained a hefty proportion of the Hispanic vote even while running against an Hispanic candidate, Cruz Bustamante) and geographic (California's rich harvest of electoral votes may no longer be "in the bank" for Democrats).
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In Electoral Realignments, David R. Mayhew explicitly refrains from making judgments about current politics. Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale and author of a long list of classics starting three decades ago with Congress: The Electoral Connection, Mayhew seeks instead to debunk the whole idea of electoral realignments. He begins by identifying major assertions central to realignment theory, such as:
- Elections can be sorted into a few realigning ones and many non-realigning ones.
- Realignments occur with periodical regularity.
- Realignments are marked by higher voter concern and turnout, by important third-party activity, and by turmoil in nominating conventions.
- Realignments are insurgent-led polarizing events producing a new voter cleavage and leading to long spans of unified government control by a new majority.
- Realignments lead to significant policy change, emphasizing redistributive policy.
Mayhew then tests the three "canonical" realignments of 1860, 1896, and 1932—judged "canonical" by consensus of the landmark realignment literature—as well as many other elections, against these claims. He finds a surprising disjunction between the assertions and the reality.
Specifically, on the basis of the realignment theorists' own standards, Mayhew discards 1896 as highly overrated, makes a case for 1874-76, 1912, 1920, and 1948 as key elections, and generally rejects the "Rip Van Winkle" notion that voters only come awake once a generation, leaving most elections as largely irrelevant. He acknowledges, of course, the outstanding importance of 1860 and 1932, but argues that the cases are so extreme—civil war and the worst depression in national history—that they hardly make useful anchors for a generalized system of electoral analysis. He indicts progressive historians and political scientists for building electoral theory around a progressive narrative of American history that claimed "American political history had been a continuing, zero-sum contest between, on the one hand, an acquisitive and domineering business class and, on the other, a chiefly lower-bracket coalition of farmers and laborers bent on curbing those mercantile or capitalist propensities." This narrative "does not come close to working" as a sound analytical tool.
Instead, Mayhew argues for the importance in American elections of contingency, short-term strategy, and voter assessments of party management ("valence issues"): "A scandal, a fancy, a blunder, a depression, or a world war may come along and swerve voters. A terrorist attack may do that. Any kind of contingency-free theorizing about real politics has serious limitations." Mayhew consequently offers alternative electoral frameworks built around "bellicosity" (e.g., the 1810 "war hawks," the 1844 issue of Texas annexation, the firebrands of 1860), race, and economic growth. Ultimately, in Mayhew's view, there is a "good argument for abandoning the terminology [of realignment] entirelyâ€¦it has come to be too much of a dead end."
As in his 1990 Divided We Govern, which attacked the claim that divided government produces legislative gridlock, Mayhew has taken on conventional wisdom with verve, historical perspective, and a mound of evidence. His main argument is important: that there have been many crucial elections in American history, including some long neglected, and that realignment theory has often tried to fit square pegs into round holes. His discussion of the role of war is also arresting. From 1812 to Vietnam, wars have often been at the center of significant electoral changes in American history, consistently destabilizing voter coalitions. In this observation, Mayhew is on to something. One might add that the German conquest of France in 1940 unnaturally extended the Roosevelt presidency to a third term and may well have added 12 years to the Democratic rule that began in 1933. FDR's success as commander-in-chief undoubtedly also buoyed Democrats in national elections at least until 1972, when (under the pressure of the Vietnam War) George McGovern squandered his party's reputation for vigorous foreign policy.
Though he himself eschews direct consideration of contemporary politics, Mayhew's work has obvious relevance. His conclusion that 1896 was relatively small potatoes calls into question the foundation of Karl Rove's strategy, which is aimed at making George W. Bush the new McKinley at the head of a new Republican majority. He also has bad news for Judis and Teixeira: On the road to the (putatively) emerging Democratic majority, the war on terrorism could as easily be an off-ramp as a speed bump.
This is not to say that there are no shortcomings to Electoral Realignments. First, the 15 claims of realignment theorists turn out, upon closer examination, to be a mix of some consensus standards with a fair number advanced by only one or a few analysts. It might have been better to test elections against a more fundamental core of realignment assertions.
Second, Mayhew hedges on the status of some key elections. For example, he acknowledges that 1800 is often placed in the realignment "canon," but doesn't include it in the "big three" for testing nor does he give it substantial attention. Yet 1800 was a triumph for Jeffersonianism so decisive that it sounded the Federalist Party's death knell and set the course for American public policy far into the 19th century.
More generally, Mayhew seems to give short shrift to the notion that realignment theory could be adapted to the reality he describes. It is one thing to say that there are more than a handful of important elections in American history; it is quite another to argue that one cannot rank them in some rough order. While the sharp dichotomy offered by the realignment school may well deserve to be rethought, it is hardly possible to argue that all American elections have been equally important.
Finally, while the progressive narrative of good farmers and workers versus bad capitalists is at least as dubious as Mayhew portrays it (he is probably too circumspect), there is another source of political conflict beyond bellicosity, race, or economics that is worth considering. That is the ongoing struggle over the proper nature of constitutional government and the meaning and relevance of the founding. At any rate that—and not plebeian farmers against Federalist aristocrats—was at the heart of the "Revolution of 1800." One could argue, at a minimum, that this dialogue was also key in 1860, 1876, 1912, 1920, and 1932. And even if there has not been a classic realignment since 1932, the post-1968 destruction of the Democratic majority owed something to this theme as well. Election analysis that does not take contingency into account as a major factor is, as Mayhew points out, likely to fail in its task of illumination. Election analysis that leaves public philosophy out of the equation misses something important, too. For example, the similar contingency of economic depression brought about very different public policy outcomes in 1932 than it had in 1896, partly because the New Dealers had the benefit of a generation of progressive public philosophy laying the groundwork for a more activist federal government.
In the end, Mayhew's criticism won't likely achieve his stated goal—not only is it hard to imagine political scientists (let alone journalists and practitioners) completely forsaking the idea of realignment, but the attack itself virtually guarantees a profusion of academic rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. But if his real goal is to force a much-needed reappraisal of the realignment genre, Electoral Realignments deserves to, and likely will, succeed.