Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Electoral Realignments

I have been mulling over the future of the political landscape, and have particularly been thinking about 2008. Yes, it is indeed a long way off, but it has the potential to be a momentous election. But it probably won't be, and here's why.

Many political scientists, beginning especially with V.O. Key, have written about electoral realignments. There are many different theories, but it boils down to this: that every thirty-two years or, like clockwork, the electorate undergoes a dramatic shift. Crtitical elections - 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, 1968(?) - occur on a freakishly regular cycle. At these critical elections one party becomes dominant while the other is eclipsed. If you look at the pattern, we should be in the midst of one of those shifts.

David Mayhew has debunked the realignment theory, and has done it so effectively that I personally think it's completely worthless as a theory. I do think that there have been transformative elections, they just do not occur in any regular cycle. They have been: 1800 (Jefferson), 1860 (Lincoln), 1932 (FDR), and 1980 (Reagan).

Each of these elections - save one - witnessed the ascendency of a major ideological figure who reshaped the electorate. Jefferson's democratic and states' right oriented Republicanism beat back the Federalists; FDR and his big-government New Deal radically transformed the Nation's political structure; and Reagan's conservatism signalled a retreat from the New Deal.

Lincoln's election was different because I don't believe that Lincoln himself advanced a radically new ideological agenda. Rather, the circumstances and the way he managed the war to a successful outcome changed the American polity.

So we see four very prominent figures leading small revolutions. There have been other great leaders and great Presidents in American history, but none of them - through the force of their personality and program - did as much to alter the landscape.

Which brings us back to the coming election. I do not see any transformative figure emerging. That's not to say that there might not be a small change in the political climate, but not one that will radically change the current political tide.

Democrats have placed much hope in Hillary Clinton. I concede that she has an excellent chance in 2008. But I do not think her election would signal a sweeping transformation or realignment. She does not present a grand ideological platform a la FDR or Reagan (technically FDR's program was relatively non-ideological, but he did offer a platform of far-ranging change). I believe that her husband had an opportunity to be the sort of figure just mentioned. His third-way approach had the potential to transform the Democratic party, and thus energize the electorate to its favor, as Tony Blair did for New Labour in Great Britain. But though he achieved personal electoral success, Clinton failed to galvanize the public to his political philosophy as did Reagan a decade earlier.

The Democratic party desperately needs its own Reagan - or another FDR or Jefferson. It needs a figure that can not only deliver electoral victory, but also advance an ideological agenda that sways the public more general to the party. Ronald Reagan not only fought policy battles, he constantly argued on behalf of conservative principles and moved the country in a more conservative direction. He just wasn't an ordinary political figure who happened to hold office. He wasn't merely a great president - he was a great president who also radically reshaped the political landscape based upon his ideology. That's the type of leader the Democratic party would need to become the dominant party once again.

Of course I am a conservative, so Democrats reading this can take it for what it's worth.


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