"Realigning elections"

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Every time we vote for president in this country, a silent conspiracy of candidates and journalists contrives to place a giant fork in the road right in front of us. We are always at a moment of crucial decision. Whatever choice we make, we will be setting the course of American politics for decades to come. Even the most seemingly uneventful campaigns--Ronald Reagan's effortless victory over Walter Mondale in 1984, for example--are routinely portrayed in apocalyptic terms while they are going on. That year, Mondale proclaimed himself to be "fighting for the future of America," Reagan talked of a collision between "two different visions of the future," and Newt Gingrich prophesied that the result would usher in a full generation of Republican dominance, much like William McKinley's victory over William Jennings Bryan had done in 1896.

It was all nonsense. Ronald Reagan's presidency was historically significant, but the 1984 election was not. By the time it was held, the most important events of the so-called Reagan revolution had already taken place. The voting that year told students of politics very little that they did not already know. Most elections are like that. Once they are over, we realize that there was no fork in the road. We were merely choosing to stay on the path that we were following, or at most opting for incremental change. The underlying realities of any political era--voter loyalties, regional preferences, party ideologies--are not that easy to dislodge.

Still, anyone who thinks about American politics has the sense that there are exceptions to the rule: truly critical elections that in one stroke alter the entire system and write new rules for the coming generation. There was 1860, when the Republican Party burst onto the national scene, captured the presidency, and won majorities in Congress that it was to keep for most of the next three decades. And there was 1932, when the nation's burgeoning urban ethnic electorate swung to the Democratic side, set in motion the New Deal, and established what came to seem like permanent Democratic control in Congress and in the states.

So there certainly are turning points in American politics. It is foolish to proclaim such a "defining moment" every four years, ignoring the plain evidence of history; but it seems equally foolish to dismiss such moments altogether. And over the years it has been a major preoccupation of political scientists to study the cycles of electoral history, to sift through the data and to find rules that separate the genuine turning-point elections, those that realign the political process, from the more common elections in which we simply meander along much as we had been doing before.

This is a task that has attracted some of the most distinguished election scholars of the past two generations: V.O. Key Jr., E.E. Schattschneider, James L. Sundquist, and Walter Dean Burnham. They read the election returns going back one hundred fifty years, looked for patterns, and (though they differed on some of the details) found patterns so similar and so striking that they at first seemed difficult to believe. The scholars found that not only do realigning elections occur in American politics, they occur with the regularity of a comet: every thirty-six years. The system of 1860, with its sequence of Republican victories in close presidential elections, yielded abruptly in 1896 to a cycle of much more pervasive Republican control, in which most of the elections were landslides and Democratic majorities in Congress were infrequent and brief. That system in turn gave way to the era of New Deal coalition strength, lasting through the Depression and World War II, and on into the 1950s and beyond.

Not only are the cycles regular, but the quirks are regular. In each thirty-six-year cycle, the minority party wins two of the nine elections (Grover Cleveland in 1884 and 1892; Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916; Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956). Four years before the end of every cycle, there is an election that falls short of upsetting the balance but points the way to the new order that lies ahead. The classic example is Alfred E. Smith's Democratic candidacy of 1928, which failed nationally but broke through in New England and the cities of the industrial Northeast, prefiguring the Roosevelt victory four years later and those of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson further down the road.

Realignment theory seems to have an almost Nostradamian neatness, but it has undeniable facts on its side. Of course, like any grand theory of cyclical history worthy of the name, it is marred by a few problems. Most conspicuously, there is the problem of 1968. That year, when Richard M. Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey opposed each other for president, it had been thirty-six years since the last realignment. It was time for the wheel to spin again, bringing to an end a completed cycle of New Deal Democratic hegemony. And Nixon did defeat Humphrey--but at the other levels of the system nothing much happened. Congress remained in Democratic hands, as did most governorships and legislatures in most of the states around the country. Where was the realignment?

There are several ways to deal with this puzzle that preserve the grand theory in one form or another. One can argue that realignment began on schedule in 1968, but was cut short by unforeseen events. The cultural turmoil of the late 1960s was an upheaval in society powerful enough to signal an upheaval in politics. The defection of millions of Southern and big-city Democrats from their New Deal loyalties not only elected Nixon but also seemed to bring the electoral rules of the previous period to an abrupt end. Then, the argument goes, Watergate intervened. Instead of consolidating their power in Nixon's second presidential term, Republicans threw it away, consigning themselves to minority status in most of the political system for another two decades. This is the argument that Kevin P. Phillips made in the 1970s, following the success and then the apparent refutation of his book The Emerging Republican Majority, in which he confidently proclaimed in 1969 the arrival of a new GOP cycle in perfect consonance with the rules of the thirty-six-year cyclical theory.

Ultimately, however, this was not a very satisfying answer to the problem. Theories of history are supposed to be hardy enough to withstand the inevitable bumps in the road. To say that Watergate canceled the 1968 realignment sounded more like an excuse than an explanation. But there were other ideas. Burnham hypothesized that the growth of the realignment of 1968 had been stunted by forces within the political system itself--most notably by the decline of party identification among voters. Any partisan realignment depends on the decision of much of the electorate to give up one set of loyalties in exchange for another. If party loyalty itself had gone out of fashion, to be replaced by fickle preferences that shifted with each new sequence of candidates and commercials, then perhaps the cycle had been broken, and there was little point in arguing about when the next turning would take place.

Or perhaps realignment had not been canceled, just unavoidably detained. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, it was impossible not to notice that Democratic control of Congress--and the party's one recent presidential victory in 1976--had been built on the residual voting habits of rural and small-town Southern Democrats whose overall view of the world should have planted them squarely on the Republican side. One day, scholars and political strategists seemed to agree, these Southerners would finally make their break with the past, and the New Deal political system would be gone--a few years behind schedule, perhaps, but gone nevertheless.

Then came the Republican landslide of 1994, creating GOP majorities in the Senate, the House, and most of the nation's governorships, and prompting a whole new round of intense realignment debate. Was this finally the arrival of the Republican era that Phillips had announced a full quarter-century earlier? Or was it a brand-new realignment in itself, replacing a fragile but more or less coherent political system that had lasted from 1968 to 1994, one that deserved to be treated as a short electoral era in itself? These are undeniably interesting issues. And they all have one element in common. They all maintain a belief in the outlines of the Grand Theory: that there are regular cycles in American politics, with sharp breaks between the rules and assumptions of one era and another, and that they can occur suddenly, in a single dramatic election year. It is not a matter of what, it is a matter of when.

What no one has done until now is raise the possibility that the theory itself is the problem--that realignment scholars are seeking a cyclical order that does not exist in the first place. This is the argument that David R. Mayhew makes in his lucidly argued and stimulating book. Drawing on earlier research by Jerome M. Clubb, William H. Flanigan, and Nancy Zingale, and on later work by Larry Bartels, Mayhew asks the commonsense questions that might have been asked a long time ago. What are the unmistakable characteristics of a realignment? How can we tell when we are in the middle of one? And how do we avoid mistaking an attractive but misleading detour for the genuine historical crossroads we are looking for?

The most obvious sign of realignment, Mayhew begins, would be a drastic reshuffling of votes in a single election year: a big surge in one party's presidential vote, a pronounced drop in the vote for the other party, or a widespread exchange of party loyalty, with one section of the country moving decisively into the Democratic column and another one migrating just as decisively toward the GOP. The Roosevelt-Hoover election of 1932 meets all these tests. The Democratic vote went up, the Republican vote went down, and the map of loyalties--urban and rural, north and south, black and white, Catholic and Protestant--had to be substantially re-drawn. 1932 is the prototypical realigning election against which all others can fairly be judged.

The problem is that the other elections long assumed to be critical examples of realignment do not really meet the standard. Lincoln's election in 1860, for example, is only modestly eventful as measured by votes alone. That can be explained away fairly easily: the Democratic Party split into four factions that year, and so the numbers are of dubious value, since no statistical analysis can capture adequately the turmoil that existed in the electorate as the Civil War was about to begin. Much more troublesome is what might be called the problem of 1896. The struggle that year between McKinley and Bryan is central to the entire realignment theory. Virtually all exponents of the theory have posited that McKinley's decisive victory that year, with the working class in the Northeastern cities repudiating Bryan's populism and opting for the gold standard and McKinley's corporate conservatism, established a political system that remained largely intact for a generation.

It is a plausible enough argument, bolstered by voluminous contemporary accounts documenting the sense of those who lived through the campaign that they were indeed involved in some sort of electoral apocalypse. It is also an argument without which the cyclical edifice collapses. 1896 was exactly halfway between 1860 and 1932. Any serious effort to demonstrate that electoral upheaval occurs once every generation has to place a fateful crossroads somewhere in that last decade of the nineteenth century.

The difficulty, as Mayhew points out, is that in statistical terms 1896 is a realignment flop. The Republican vote went up that year, but not overwhelmingly; the Democratic vote did not change much at all; and, taking into account the nation as a whole, there was no significant reshuffling of partisan loyalties. Going purely on the basis of statistics, there are plenty of unheralded, supposedly uneventful election years in the last century--such as 1868, 1876, and 1920--that meet the numbers test much better.

Of course, it may be that raw voting statistics are the wrong way to go about the inquiry. Electoral realignment may be too subtle and complex a phenomenon to be captured through the dogmatic procedures of number-crunching political science. Perhaps there is a more effective way to do it. Mayhew takes a few possible alternatives and gives them a reasonable hearing. It might be the case, for example, that the way to spot a realigning election is by looking for high turnout as a sign of intense voter interest and incipient change. But this statistical method does not fare too well either. Both 1860 and 1896 were emphatically high-turnout years, but 1932 was not. More Americans voted in the Roosevelt-Willkie contest of 1940 than in 1932, and no one ever suggests that the election of 1940 was a watershed event.

Similarly inconvenient facts spoil two other interesting hypotheses: that the mark of realignment could be unusual turmoil in the nominating process, or else the presence of third parties as major players on the scene. Those are pretty good descriptions of both 1860 and 1896, but they do not work at all for 1932, when Roosevelt was nominated without any significant opposition or controversy, and when third parties were a less significant factor than in most of the elections of the twentieth century. If third parties or convention fighting are necessary precursors to realignment, then 1932 does not qualify as a realigning year. And since 1932 is virtually everyone's realignment model, this form of speculation would appear to yield nothing but a dead end.

It could be, Mayhew conjectures, that all of these approaches are too rigid. Perhaps electoral realignment might be better understood through the more flexible techniques of narrative history, techniques that capture the social tensions and stresses that precede any long-lasting upheaval in the political system. Few would doubt the ability of any competent historian to show that the Civil War and the Great Depression were sufficient breeding grounds for electoral realignment, whatever the data-crunching might appear to suggest. And similarly dramatic stories can be told about 1896, and have been told by historians as different as Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward, and Laurence Goodwyn. The massive unemployment of the ongoing industrial depression, the trauma of the Pullman railroad strike, the rise of Populist enthusiasm, and the drama of Bryan's Cross of Gold speech to the Democratic convention: all of this is certainly the stuff of which realignment scenarios are made.

The difficulty, Mayhew observes, is that equally compelling stories can be created around other dates and other situations as well. 1896 was a year of stress and unsettling societal change, but so were 1876 and 1912. And both those elections yielded far more policy innovation on the part of the federal government--the end of Reconstruction in the first instance, the enactment of Wilson's Progressive economic agenda in the second--than 1896 did. But nobody ever nominates 1876 or 1912 as an example of critical elections and long-term realignment.

Why not? To Mayhew the answer is obvious: nobody looks for realignment in 1876 or 1912 because those years are inconvenient to the cyclical theory. For the cosmology to work, something profound has to be seen operating in the last decade of the nineteenth century--and so the attempt to discover such a transformation has driven an entire subspecialty of political science for decades. In Mayhew's view, realignment theorists are a little like Marxists or Freudians. They start with the theory and then look for the facts to support it, so it is no surprise that they manage to find them. And as Herbert Marcuse used to instruct, if the facts don't fit the theory, so much the worse for the facts.

If Mayhew is correct and American politics really does not run in generational cycles, then how does it work? In his final chapter, he comes close to forswearing any systematic attempt to explain electoral history. "Electoral politics," he writes, "is to an important degree just one thing after another....Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans....It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation....It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end." In pursuing this argument with remarkable diligence and precision, Mayhew may succeed admirably in wounding the Grand Theory severely among some of its long-standing adherents.

Still, Mayhew is unlikely to disabuse candidates, columnists, consultants, or any other political analysts of the notion that some larger patterns of history are embedded in the election returns every four years. This is in part because the periodization of history is not a habit limited to political scientists or to the study of elections; it is the way nearly all of us try to make sense of the past. Any rational person who thinks about the events of the twentieth century knows that there is no logic to dividing those events into rigid decade-long chunks--the Roaring Twenties, the Complacent Fifties, the Subversive Sixties--or slapping blanket labels onto whole generations of Americans: the Greatest Generation, the boomers, Gen X. Cultural history, like electoral history, is far messier than these categories and clichés. And yet all of us, including the most sophisticated and sensible of historians, continue to talk and to think as if this were the way historical forces really operate. It is far more convenient and intellectually satisfying than starting from the premise that elections or cultural fashions or generational attitudes are just "one thing after another."

I would guess, for example, that most of us who were young in 1968 believed then, and still believe now, that the election that year was a genuine turning point in American politics, a moment of turbulence in which large and irreconcilable forces fought over the direction of the Republic, with fateful consequences riding on the result. The source of this persistent belief cannot be traced in the election returns from that fall, or in the turnout, or in any particular law or policy that flowed from Nixon's victory over Humphrey. The source lies in memories about what 1968 felt like, in the emotion and the intensity and the bitterness that suffused every development in the campaign that year, and has not re-appeared in any election year since. Even conservatives who came to oppose much or all of the political and cultural legacy of the 1960s share the sense that 1968 was one of the hinges of modern American history, albeit for worse, not for better.

I have no quarrel with Mayhew's argument that historical generalities of this sort are based more on illusion than on demonstrable reality. But if so, it is an illusion that no sequence of arguments, no matter how carefully laid out, is likely to dispel. I suppose that finally the attitude of most observers toward political realignment is bound to be a little like Justice Stewart's attitude toward pornography: I know it when I see it. I have to confess that that is my crude and unempirical belief as well.


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