One of the most enduring concepts of
America political science is the idea of "realignment". This is
the idea that some presidential elections mark something more than the
mere choice of a particular president. Instead, they mark an epoch,
a decisive shift in public opinion, a swing of the pendulum, between
parties, between ideologies and between great blocks of voters.
Political scientists being as they are, there have been innumerable arguments about the concept of realignment since it was first proposed by the great VO Key in 1965 and modified by Walter Dean Burnham in 1970. Some, for example, have argued that alignments can take place at a single presidential election, others that the crucial shift may take place over several years.
Some sort of consensus has emerged, however, that realignments or "critical elections", as Burnham called them, seem to occur about every thirty to thirty-six years, or roughly once in a generation.
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation
Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's
correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.
He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).
Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure:The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)
Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy article on US politics:
"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)
"America against itself" (19 February 2007)
"Democracy in America: the money trap" (27 March 2007)
"Queen Elizabeth meets President George" (9 May 2007)
"The politics of justice" (9 July 2007)
"The United States: democracy in trouble" (30 September 2007
There is argument whether William McKinley's election in 1896, masterminded by Marcus Alonzo Hanna with the help of oceans of business money, was a true realignment, given the interruption of Republican ascendancy caused by Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" insurgency in 1912. That elected the (more or less) Progressive Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.
The victory of Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932, however, was undeniably a classic realignment. It did establish a clear ascendancy for a Democratic Party that was an odd alliance between southern racial conservatives and northern labour. The Roosevelt coalition lasted for thirty-six years under FDR, Harry Truman, John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, interrupted only by the Dwight D Eisenhower years, until 1968.
In that year the "solid south" and with it the Roosevelt coalition, broke up. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 confirmed African-American voting in the south, and drove conservative southern Democrats into the Republican party. As a consequence, American party politics became, what they had not been before, an ideological contest between conservative Republicans and (more or less) liberal Democrats.
Next year it will be forty years since Richard M Nixon's victory in 1968, and thirty-eight years since the conservative ascendancy was confirmed by Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980. It is time to ask whether 2008 will be the year of a new realignment.
The times' temper
A presidential election is not only
about electing a president. A year from now one-third of the United
States Senate, the whole of the House of Representatives and hundreds
of seats in state legislatures will be up for election.
Moreover all presidential elections
perform two functions, one precise and measurable, the other a matter
for interpretation, but real none the less. Elections choose elected
officials, and so determine who controls the legislatures, the executive
mansions and - indirectly - the judiciary. They also offer an opportunity
for the voters to express their mood. They define the agenda of politics.
The 2008 elections will take place at a time when the Republican ascendancy, made possible by Nixon, triumphantly affirmed by Reagan, and continued by the Bushes, father and son, is badly shaken.
The Iraq war is not only a disaster.
It is seen as a disaster by a massive majority of the electorate. Most
Americans are aghast at the prospect of an Iranian government acquiring
nuclear weapons. Yet the great majority also shrinks from the swaggering
war talk of Dick
Cheney and some neo-conservatives.
Rising and increasingly confident voices are also denouncing the Bush administration's authoritarian response to 9/11. The political class, including many Republicans as well as most Democrats, are deeply unhappy about an attorney-general who thinks the Geneva conventions are "quaint" and at the prospect of his being replaced by another who thinks "waterboarding" is not torture.
Until recently, however, dissent and distaste at the Bush administration's style were tempered by a feeling that the country and the economy were in acceptably good shape. There was, to be sure, some concern about the growth of inequality, and very real frustration about the malfunctioning of the healthcare system. Now, however, there is also a broader sense that the economy is not in good shape.
Recession may not be round the corner. But the housing market, at least in several regions, has collapsed. The banking and commercial credit systems have been badly hit by sub-prime mortgage lending and the reckless way in which unsound loans were sold on as worthless derivatives.
It is beginning to be seen that these problems are not to be shrugged off as local difficulties. When General Motors, Ford, Caterpillar, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch are all in serious trouble, all is not well with American capitalism. When the dollar is falling like a stone against the renminbi, the yen, the Indian rupee and sterling as well as against the euro, and unheard of proportions of foreigners express distaste and even contempt for America foreign policy, there are questions to be asked about the international dimension of the conservative ascendancy as well.
A new narrative?
All this might suggest that a critical election is inevitable, and that it will result in a generational realignment like those of 1932 or 1968. That, however, is not certain, for at least three reasons:
* so far, although the Bush administration is spectacularly unpopular, the Democrats who control Congress are even less liked
* so far there are few signs of deep
surges of popular anger. Bloggers denounce the administration. Opposition
politicians are raising unprecedented amounts of money. But there are
no signs yet of the sort of political prairie- fire that swept Roosevelt
to Washington in 1932, or indeed Reagan in 1980.
* the news media are in the middle of dramatic and probably irreversible changes. Newspaper advertising is melting away to the internet like the polar ice-cap. Openly conservative media (radio hosts, Fox News, conservative columnists and "op-ed" page contributors appointed because managements were frightened of being accused of liberal bias) are unrestrained in their denunciation of "liberals". Yet so far, no one has dared to take this conservative intimidation on.
Many citizens seem confused or unconcerned. Few, at least so far, make the connection between the dominance of the incumbent conservative ideologues and their present discontents and fears for the future.
"So far" . . . Those words recur
like a punctuation. We do have to remind ourselves constantly that we
are still one whole year away from polling day. But the political debate
has not yet revealed even a hint of the profound subterranean
stirrings that might presage an electoral realignment.
Most political reporting has focused,
to an unprecedented degree, on money. To be sure - untypically
- Democratic candidates have raised much more money than Republicans.
And candidates will need more money in the 2008 race than usual. At
least twenty-seven of the fifty states will have held their primaries
or primary-like caucuses by the end of February 2008. As a consequence,
the candidates will be obliged to campaign nationally (or nearly nationally)
for eight months, rather than for the eight weeks (from Labor Day
at the beginning of September to election day in the first week in November)
that have become the traditional span of the campaign.
Even so, and making all due allowance for the candidates' need for unprecedented war-chests, the style and content of the campaign so far hardly match the depth of the issues that need to be addressed. Still less do they presage a fundamental break in the political narrative.
The Democrats' field
On the Democratic side, Senator Hillary Clinton is so far ahead in the polls that it is becoming hard to see how she can be overtaken. In the last week (since the TV debate with rivals for the nomination on 30 October) she has seemed to stumble, at least to the extent of reminding people how calculating her policy positions are. She may come to regret voting for the non-binding resolution designating Iran's Revolutionary Guards as "terrorist" as much as she undoubtedly regrets voting for the Iraq war. Her elaborate structures of policy look more like careful calculations of what will be politically safe and electorally advantageous than expressions of any passionate personal belief.
Senator Barack Obama burst on the scene
a few months ago - having created a stir with his address at the Democratic
convention in 2004 - precisely because, in a number of speeches
and two books, he did seem to have strongly held personal beliefs and
a real determination to escape from the safe "triangulations" of
Clintonian politics. But he has not matched a good mind and a committed
heart with a safe pair of hands. His first foray into foreign
policy, a promise to invade Pakistan if elected president of the United
States, sounded (to borrow a simile from one of PG Wodehouse's cricket
novels) like a slow bowler desperately trying to bowl fast.
Senator John Edwards comes on like a genuine radical, but like a radical of the old school, and furthermore one with a comfortable income from the practice of law and with the help of his rich friends in the hedge-fund game. If there is real unhappiness among America's working poor and those who are afraid of declining into their situation, Edwards might be the man to articulate it. Yet so far, notwithstanding some good poll results, he has not succeeded in reaching the numbers that would represent even the promise of a realignment.
There is one other candidate with impressive
credentials. Al Gore was probably elected president in 2000. Since then,
he has won an Oscar and the Nobel peace prize
for his successful efforts to put what many believe to be the most important issue
of all on the political agenda He is intelligent, honest, and a southerner.
He has no chance of the Democratic nomination, and he knows it himself.
That in itself is a comment on the timidity of the party.
The Republicans' drift
The situation on the Republican side of the fence is different, but there too there is little sign of realignment. The frontrunners there (it is hard to avoid horse-racing terminology in analysing elections that have so little party content) are all for one reason or another unappealing to some of the core blocks of Republican voters. Two groups in particular have provided the footsoldiers of the conservative ascendancy: the Christian right, and the "Reagan Democats", working-class northern Democrats disillusioned with what they see as the excessive liberalism and unpatriotic attitudes of the modern Democratic party.
Rudolph Giuliani was popular with Reagan
Democrats as mayor of New York, and even more so after 9/11. His background
of three marriages, a messy divorce and (a traditional turn-off for
the voters he needs to attract) a name that ends with a vowel is almost
guaranteed to alienate social conservatives, though at present he is leading
the pack. Mitt Romney has tons of money and looks like a president from
central casting. But he is a Mormon; and impeccably conservative as
the Mormon church has become, to many Americans it is still mildly weird.
John McCain is a genuine national hero for his courage under torture in the "Hanoi Hilton", and he is an independent-minded politician. He is also a hot-tempered, divorced man with a hard-partying past, and he hates George W Bush (with good reason for the way the Bush campaign smeared him in 2000). Fred Thompson looks and sounds right, but he has worked as an actor, for heaven's sakes, and Ronald Reagan he ain't.
The professionals hanker after an Arkansas Baptist minister, one Mike Huckabee, in the hope that he can relight the evangelical fire. That is not likely to happen. It would be foolish to dismiss the Republican party's prospects altogether. In certain contingencies - if the Democrats were tarred by major scandal, if al-Qaida struck again in the United States, or if the country found itself at war with Iran - the "Grand Old Party" could still theoretically recover. The chances are, however, that 2008 will be a Democratic year.
Will it also be a year of realignment, a "critical election"?