Policy is generally insulated from politics in America – regardless of the outcome of even presidential elections, economic and military policy remain much the same from administration to administration, even – as in 2008 – when one candidate promises “…change!” Campaigns are rarely decided on issues; rather, candidates are marketed like toothpaste.
Presidential elections do however sometimes provide an occasion for the political re-alignment of various social groups. After 1932, for example, a large part of the American working class allied with the Democratic party as a result of the Great Depression. On the other hand, in 1968 the Republicans destroyed the ‘Solid South,’ which had voted Democratic since the end of Reconstruction.
In the history of the US since its founding, successive social groups have dominated the national politics and economy – Southern plantation owners, Northern industrialists, Midwest agriculturalists, overseas investors – but they’ve all had in common the fact that they were too few to rule on their own, especially in a polity that was ostensibly democratic. Each group needed allies from other classes to make their writs run. But these alliances were unstable, because of the conflict of interests among the various groups, even when allied.
The great realigning election of the 19th century was of course 1860 – followed by the Civil War. But 1896 has some claim to the title as well. That now largely forgotten election was a sweeping victory by Republican William McKinley over William Jennings Bryan and his Democratic Party: as a result the Republican/Progressive coalition dominated national politics until the 1930s. (The only Democratic president in that period, Woodrow Wilson, largely adopted the Republican/Progressive platform, at home and abroad.)
Realigning elections seem rarely to be explicitly about the realignment – in 1932 FDR ran on a platform of a balanced budget, and in 1860 Lincoln promised not to disturb slavery in the South – but the realignment occurs anyway, often after the election is over. Both the New Deal and the Civil War were afterthoughts, as it were, of a winning party, driven by necessity.
1860, 1896, 1932, 1968 – it may be coincidence, but realigning elections for a century and a half (or more) seem to occur about every generation-and-a-half. (Historians’ rule of thumb is that a generation is the amount of time it takes for you to achieve your parents’ current age – roughly 25 years.) On that schedule, we’re due – even overdue.
The development of the last generation and a half would seem to favor realignment: while real wages for the vast majority of Americans have been flat or declining for 40 years, the tiny economic elite (“the 1%”) has amassed wealth at an accelerating rate; the (few) rich are getting much richer, and the (many) poor, much poorer. The financialization and planned de-industrialization of the US economy in the same period has widened the chasm of economic inequality; unemployment in the current Great Recession is approaching levels not seen since the Great Depression. The current alliances seem unstable.
The Financial Times writes this week, “Mitt Romney’s decisive defeat will unleash another bout of soul-searching in a Republican party torn between conservative purists and a moderate rump aware that the Grand Old Party must broaden its appeal to have any chance of regaining the White House … The conclusion that demographics is electoral destiny has never been truer: the Democratic party can now win less than 50 per cent of the white vote and still capture the White House.”
Could it be that, after the Romney fiasco, a hollowed-out Republican party – opposed from several directions by groups like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street – will be reconstituted somewhat as it was in 1896 and 1968, and as the Democrats were after 1932? If so, there’s an obvious understudy waiting in the wings – the Ron Paul movement, already smarting at what they see as their illegitimate exclusion by the official Republican party, sealed at the convention in Tampa.
Is it possible that Barack Obama, master of the child-killing drones and the austerity-producing Grand Bargain, in his triumph will be accosted by a new Republican party, anti-interventionist and anti-Wall Street (or “isolationist” and “libertarian,” if you prefer) – Ron Paul’s characteristic positions? Remember that it was only a short while ago that Republicans and Democrats alike smiled haughtily at Rep. Paul’s demand to “Audit the Fed!” But by last July, as the Huffington Post reported, “In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) to audit the Federal Reserve…”
I’m not in fact betting on a Paulist Republican Party in the new year or even during the course of the second Obama administration; but if it happens, remember I told you so…
C. G. Estabrook recently retired as a visiting professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; he conducts the weekly cable program “News from Neptune” on Urbana Public Television (and YouTube) and can be reached at email@example.com.