American politicos and pundits love to see a ‘realignment’ in almost every election. After 2002 and especially 2004, Rove told us all about a ‘rolling realignment’ toward the GOP. Bush was building a durable Republican majority, based on a populist, Christian-Jacksonian mobilization and the ‘Ownership Society.’ Values voters were energized, and the GOP base was bigger than the Democrats’. Rove was the ‘Architect.’ What a load of bunk that turned out to be…
And then last year, the Democrats made the same sorts of claims about 2006 and 2008. Obama told people his election was the beginning of a new era. Instead of activist Christians realigning US politics to the right, now it was the growing nonwhite population and the youth who would give Obama a reliable center-left coalition. Michael Lind particularly makes these sorts of arguments a lot. Now Krauthammer tells us this was also a fantasy.
Previous pseudo-realignments occurred in 1988 and 1994. Bush 41’s election supposedly gave the GOP a ‘lock’ (remember that one?) on the White House, and then Gingrich was going to ‘revolutionize’ Congress’ role. Both the lock and the revolution ended just 4 years later.
All this strikes me as overheated punditry trying to reach for some ‘Bigger Story’ in every election. Most journalists and academics like to deal in big ideas and structures. Who wants to say that candidate X won because heavy November snow in swing-state Ohio drove down candidate Y’s turnout? There is a lot more randomness than we probably want to admit. Yes, there are big structures in US electoral politics, but there are also clearly a lot of local effects. Kerry probably should have won in 2004, given the Iraq mess and the closeness of the 2000 election, but he was an awful candidate. The so-called transformational presidencies of Reagan and Obama were hardly massive landslide elections; in August of 1980 and 2008, both elections were a dead-heat. Gulf War victor Bush 1 should have beat a weak, second-tier governor in 92, but out came Perot to throw the whole thing up the air.
The point of these examples is to suggest that while there are big structural forces that persistently shape elections (unshakeable black support for the Democrats, e.g.), a lot more of the electorate is in play than we admit, especially in retrospect when we desperately want to find ‘Big Explanations’ and ‘Important Trends.’ Further, it is quite healthy actually that the electorate is so competitive. Polarization of the voters into two sharply divided and political consistent voting blocs is a recipe to divide the country against itself – as we saw with the Red-Blue divide of 2002-2006.
I think the search for realignments in every election comes from two journalistic desires. First, journalists probably want to think their work is tapping into something big and important. Who wants to write about how a sex scandal or loopy political family member cost someone an election? It is far more exciting to say things like the end of the Cold War, globalization, ‘postracialism,’ etc. drove an election outcome. Journalists probably want to be purveyors of big ideas and make a philosophic, rather simple day-to-day, contribution. Hence every election is scrutinized with a desire to find a big meaning. Then you can write books like this or this. This is probably a worthy instinct, but I have the sneaking suspicion it is rooted in a journalistic craving for academic/philosophic prestige (to be a public intellectual), particularly against academics, who professionally deal in big ideas and like to disparage bad social science as ‘journalism.’
Second, I think the realignment schtick helps create a comforting sense of predictability about US politics, and also justifies why we listen to journalists to begin with. This makes the exciting but clearly erratic US democracy feel more certain when we talk about it, and more importantly, ‘experts’ need that predictability if they are going to be experts. Cookie Roberts is already the flakiest commentator on TV, but no one would ever listen to her if she did not have the pseudo-certainties that come from these biannual ‘big explanations.’
Of course, there are big explanations, and the work of EJ Dionne and M Lind is actually quite good. But my sense is the realignments are usually of certain subgroups who don’t represent enough of the electorate to make elections really predictable. We know, e.g., that something like 1/3 of voters make up their minds on election day, and that name-recognition drives a huge amount of the House vote. But certainly specific blocs of voters have realigned. Civil rights is an obvious example. It drove blacks permanently to the Democrats, and rural white Southerners to the GOP. But simultaneously other groups have de-aligned in the last 50 years, and this gets a lot less attention. Jews and Catholics are good examples. Both were mainstays of the FDR coalition, but now they are so much in play that it is probably oxymoronic to speak of a Jewish or Catholic vote. Neither Israel nor abortion has created a meaningful GOP ‘capture’ of these groups. Women too are hardly a Democratic bloc; feminism has only at best a weak appeal.
So instead of trying to find a Bush- or Obama-driven realignment in the last 10 years, why not note that both had success in battleground states, and that the number of swing-states is actually fairly large now? And how about also mentioning how this is healthy for the republic? It keeps politicians on their toes and forces them to reach out to different communities and build bridges. This is good.