No More ‘Realignment’ Talk – US Politics is actually quite Competitive


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.

6 thoughts on “No More ‘Realignment’ Talk – US Politics is actually quite Competitive

  1. I mostly agree with this. Parties are coalitions and those coalitions often defy logic, but they work nonetheless. The Democratic Party today is largely a coalition of lower-income minorities and white professionals – how unexpected (but wonderful). The GOP is the union of business interests who probably couldn’t give a toss about gay marriage, and pitchfork-wielding Southern conservative mobs whose primary concerns are that somewhere, right now, a homo or minority might be getting some of their money. Those coalitions exist because they had to. So the GOP will find a way to survive, probably, although I’m not sure how.

    Nate Silver predicts a loss for Democrats of no more than two Senate seats, and I don’t think that anybody expects the House to switch. So the shift to Democrats in Congress is probably pretty durable, short of continued economic catastrophe.

    On the other hand, the GOP asylum has truly been taken over by the inmates, and even in the case of broad discontent with incumbents generally or Democrats specifically, it’s hard for me to imagine the swamp fever fringe of the GOP holding much appeal nationwide.


    • The point I really want to make is that ‘alignments’ suggest a durability that really isn’t there. Yes, FDR created a durable Democratic alignment in the House. But that seems to have become the regular journalistic template to analyze every election – how close are the Dems/Reps to some ‘permanent majority’? How about reversing the question and noting how increasingly FAR from such majorities the country has become?

      In the last 20 years, say, since 1988, US politics has actually been increasingly competitive, not increasingly aligned. There is no dominant partisan coaliton out there waiting to be won. Rove thought there was a durable center-right alignment out there, but there wasn’t. The Rove majorities lasted a meager 4 years (2002-2004), and now the Obama people talk the same way, especially at the New Republic. In fact, it is the opposite. US politics in the last two decades has revolved around the middle with lots of floatring independents, creating room for either side to win with a good message and campaign. (And thank god for that, as it suggests American democracy is vibrant and fluid, not some stale, debilitating ideological stand-off like France in the 50s.) Both Gingrich and Bush 2 flamed out in their efforts to ‘realign,’ and Obama will too if he believes Michael Lind and TNR about this youth-professional-minority coalition of the future. The American game is becoming MORE unpredictable and open, not less. Yet no one ever writes this.


  2. Great post, I agree 100%. This is why I disagreed with all of this talk about end of the Republican party that was sung like music in the press a few months ago. Yes, you have all of these so-called Republican blowhards out there and their lunacy is magnified by the media, but they too will burn out. Democrats can’t be advocating a one party, one ideology rule by the Democratic Party (as Rove did vis Republicans)? Are they? Because that will in turn ruin the Democratic Party. Not to mention that is very unhealthy for US democracy as Dr. Bob has clearly noted. As far as Nate Silver’s predictions, James Carville has predicted far worse. I for one can easily see Ohio go Republican in 2010. Also, I am not sure that this coalition of lower-income and white professionals is going to remain strong as it was in 2008. From what I have noticed and experienced it won’t. Which goes back to Dr. Bob’s point of unpredictability. To underscore Dr. Bob’s point, less and less people are identifying as either Republicans or Democrats. The Independents are determining elections more and more as was demonstrated in Virginia and New Jersey this month. In Virginia, for example white Professionals voted overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate for Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General. Virginia had been going blue since the 2006 mid-terms.

    Also, lets face it, had O not come along, the Democratic party would have as much charisma as the Republican Party. Well maybe a tiny bit more under HC. The entire Democratic Party is riding on O’s coat-tails.


    • I don’t know, guys. I agree with the larger point that every 52% election win heralds a new realignment in the press, right until the election swings the other way next time. The Democratic Party may not have much charisma, but the GOP is fiercely ideological whereas the DP is just not. I just don’t see very many moderates making it through the GOP primaries without being drawn, quartered, burned in effigy, and accused of homosexuality, treason, or communism (or all three). The Republican civil war isn’t over by a long shot and I can’t imagine a GOP resurgence in the Northeast. I do think the Midwest and West will become more competitive, marginal places like Ohio and Virginia.


  3. Pingback: Five Election-Explaining Clichés I really don’t want to hear this Tuesday | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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