Will 2008 Be A Re-Aligning Year? Part I of V

I ran this series at Race42008.com and TheNextRight.com (my usual haunts) that I thought I would re-publish here, where I believe the readership would especially enjoy the series.

We begin our exercise with four maps.



Obviously these are maps of South Carolina, and they represent four different elections. Take a look at them closely, and decide for yourself what the similarities are, if any. We’ll return to them in a bit. Ever since I saw the first map and the last two maps earlier this year, the idea for this post has been percolating in my mind. They’re part of the reason that I don’t think the 2008 election will be a re-aligning election. Rather I think that 2008 will represent the continued aftershocks of the basic alignment we began entering in 1932, and which solidified in 1938. We will return to this shortly.


Theories of re-alignments

Much commentary has focused on the idea of the 2008 election as a re-aligning election. Yet there seems to be no consensus on what a re-alignment is, or how it can be pulled off. In this post, I’ll explore four different theories that have been put forth as to why 2008 will be a re-aligning election and why I believe that each is incorrect. (1) The simplest theory of a re-aligning election is the landslide election. Chris Bowers at OpenLeft seems to imply that the landslide win in Congress, followed by a landslide win at the White House, would be a re-alignment:

If Democrats were to gain only five more points on this map, an entirely doable proposition given the overwhelming Democratic advantage among fundraising and volunteers, and this is a realignment map. At that point, Democrats would win over 400 electoral votes, something we have not accomplished since 1964.

(2) Other theories emphasize that inorganic nature of re-alignment, as if it is something made by particular powerful Presidents. Chris Bowers urges a Clinton-Obama ticket because it is the only way to “achieve a realignment.” (emphasis mine). Presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama echoed Bowers’ theory on realignment, as something that is made by a sufficiently persuasive President, Target=”_blank”>when he discussed Reagan’s transformation of the nation’s politics. Likewise, Paul Krugman is just one of many who refer to Reagan’s transformation of the nation from a liberal country to a conservative country.

(3) Michael Barone does not use the term re-alignment, and perhaps doesn’t believe that 2008 will be re-aligning. He nevertheless envisions a potential “redrawing of the map” in 2008 (and has had such visions repeatedly).

(4) John Judis and Ruy Teixeira take a somewhat different view of things. They argue that we’re in the midst of a more long-term realignment, where the center shifts to the Left. As they argue: “The 2006 election represented a shift in American politics, away from the right and toward the center-left, on a range of issues that go well beyond the Iraq war, corruption, and competence.” In Judis and Teixeira’s view, we are in the midst of a realignment such as the Republican realignment of the 80s and 90s, and perhaps even the Democratic realignment of the 30s.

Problems with re-alignment theory

I am less certain. Part of my disagreement flows from the disagreement above: whether you think an election is a re-aligning election depends largely on what your definition of a re-alignment is. Even political scientists don’t agree on the definition. Some, such as Poole and Rosenthal (on whose NOMINATE program I based my Master’s Thesis – you really should check out their page here), argue that there has only been one re-alignment, culminating in the 1890s. Others, espousing the more “classical” view if you will, see roughly a 30-to-50-year cycle to realignments, with re-alignments having occurred in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, and 1932. Under this theory, assuming that there was a re-aligning election in 1968 or 1980, we are due (or even past due) for a new alignment.

But there are many problems with even this view. The early alignments are not re-alignments as they are understood today. They represent not so much re-alignments of the citizenry as they do from the serial extinctions of non-Democratic-Republican/Democratic parties, until the Republicans (or Unionists as they were often known at the time) finally set up a permanent competing party.

1896 certainly wasn’t a re-alignment in the sense that 1932 was; after all, the Republicans went from winning the Presidency in 7 of 9 elections from 1860-1896 to winning the Presidency in 7 of 9 elections from 1896 to 1928. The difference was that Republicans only narrowly won most of the first set of elections and rarely held Congress in that time period, while they routinely won large majorities in the latter elections and almost always held Congress. Still, that is quite a different matter altogether than the 1932 election, where Congress switched more-or-less permanently to the Democrats, who also proceeded to win five elections in a row (though one could argue that the “real” New Deal re-aligning election occurred in 1958). Indeed, some take the opposite view from Poole and Rosenthal, and consider the 1896 election not to be a realigning election at all. Some, such as my old professor David Mayhew, have argued that 1876 was actually the re-aligning election.

And when exactly did the last realigning election occur? Or did it ever? Was it 1968, when Republicans began their stretch of winning seven of ten elections, and but for some fairly out-of-left-field events (Watergate, Perot) might have won all ten (yes, I know that some exit polls showed Perot in 1992 drawing disproportionately from Bush, but that is a subject for another post)? 1980, when Reagan showed a true-blue conservative could win? 1984, when he won his landslide? 1994? Or are we still in the New Deal alignment? A case can be made for all of those propositions.

And what of the role of luck (and I don’t necessarily mean good or wished for luck, just things entirely outside of a party’s control) and poor candidate decisions plays? Had Hitler waited a year and a few months to invade Poland, Roosevelt may well not have been re-elected in 1940. If Huey Long’s doctors hadn’t butchered his treatment, Roosevelt might not have lasted that long (Long’s strategy was to run a third-party candidate in 1936 to split the left-liberal vote and get a Republican elected, then run himself in 1940), and then we might now talk about how things swiftly reverted back to the alignment of the 1896-1928. Had the economy not showed weakness in 1948, Truman might not have been re-elected, and the Jeffersonians might have re-asserted themselves in the Democratic party. Had the recession of 1981-1982 lasted a few months longer, we’d be talking about the swift end of Reagan’s accidental Presidency (as many Democrats expected would be the case after the 1982 midterms). Had Al Gore spent a little more time campaigning in New Hampshire in 2000 . . . well, you get the idea.

At any rate, enough theory for now. Let’s examine the various theories of re-alignment in turn.

(tomorrow: The Landslide Theory of Realignments)