2008: The fifth 'pivot point' in US history?

Karl Smyth
2 November 2008

Given that the barriers of race and gender have been progressively eroded throughout the prolonged campaign season, many people have argued that this year's general election is something extraordinary by most measures.

For Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, however, the 2008 election represents a potentially profound turning-point in American history.

As Richard Reeves reports, the New York Historical Society recently hosted a conference entitled "Do Elections Matter?" To kick-off the event, Amar put forth his thesis that the United States has experienced four "pivot point" elections in the 219 years since the founding fathers forged the country's constitution: 1800, 1860, 1932, and either 1968 or 1980.

In each case, Amar argued, socio-historical forces conspired to ensure that the outcome of each election shaped the direction of the country and the dynamics of its politics for generations to come.

For example, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams in 1800, and over the next six decades the foundations for the Democratic Party in its current form began to emerge; Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860 marked the beginning of Republican dominance well into the next century; FDR and the socialist New Deal Democrats set the agenda for much of the post-War era; finally, Nixon's presidency (or Reagan's, depending on your personal perspective) coincided with a golden era for conservatives, which now appears to be steadily waning.

A crucial catalyst to these elections all having the impact on the direction of American society  that they did is that they all occured against a backdrop of three important trends: economic decline, over-reactive wars, or a climate of paranoia based on perceived enemies abroad which subsequently results in the repression of civil liberties at home.

As Amar points out, these very issues resonate as strongly in this year's election as the four pivot point elections that preceded it--given the recent economic meltdown in Wall Street and looming recession on Main Street, the high cost and unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars amongst the general public, and the repeal of a number of civil liberties via legislative measures, deemed necessary as part of President Bush's ‘War on Terror'. Consequently, in years to come we may expect to see the 2008 presidential election prove as influential an electoral event as these aforementioned elections.

While Amar's thesis is intriguing--if perhaps a little too quick to dismiss victories from figures such as Wilson, Carter and Clinton as arberrations simply because they polled below the 50 percent threshold--it also reflects a belief increasingly expressed by members of the media and academia alike that this year's election will bring a pronounced and quite profound sea-change in the social and political landscape in American culture.

More significantly however, in contrast to what Democrats and many members of the media may say, Amar's thesis suggests that this seismic historical shift will not nescessarily be on the condition of an Obama victory on November 4th.

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