In 1969, a year after Richard Nixon won the presidency, Kevin Phillips, an aide to Attorney General John Mitchell, published a book entitled The Emerging Republican Majority. The apparent confirmation of its thesis in 1972 -- not to mention Phillips's proximity to the administration -- eventually landed it on the best-seller lists.
Like other books of its kind, however, it was cited more often than it was read, and its actual thesis has been clouded by its notoriety. Phillips did not argue that Republicans had already created a majority -- in fact, when he wrote his book, Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress, plus the majority of statehouses. What he argued was that the era of "New Deal Democratic hegemony" was over. Phillips predicted that a new Republican majority would eventually emerge out of popular disillusionment with big government programs and the collapse of the Democratic coalition -- a collapse the 1968 candidacy of Alabama governor George Wallace had foreshadowed. And a Republican majority finally did emerge in 1980, but only after the GOP had rebounded from the Watergate scandal.
Our view is that we are at a similar juncture -- but one that will yield the opposite result. We believe that the Republican era Phillips presciently perceived in 1969 is now over. We are witnessing the "end of Republican hegemony." The first signs appeared in the early 1990s -- not merely in Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, but in H. Ross Perot's third-party candidacy and the rise of new kinds of independent voters. The Republican takeover of Congress in November 1994 seemed to show that Clinton's win and Perot's strong showing were flukes. Indeed, many confidently predicted that 1994 heralded the beginning of still another conservative realignment. But the 1994 Republican wins turned out, in retrospect, to be the same kind of false dawn that the Democrats had experienced twenty years earlier because of Watergate.
Ever since 1994, Republicans have lost ground in Congress and in the country. Like the Democrats of the 1970s, they have also begun to suffer serious divisions within their ranks -- from Pat Buchanan on the right to John McCain and Jim Jeffords on the left. Bush's aggressive prosecution of the war against the terrorists in the fall of 2001 lifted him in public esteem and may have delayed a Republican collapse in 2002. But once the clouds of war lift, and Americans cease to focus on threats to their national security, Republicans are likely to continue their slide, and the movement toward a Democratic majority is likely to resume.
The Republican majority that Phillips foresaw represented a "realignment" of American politics. A realignment entails a shift in the political coalitions that dominate American politics and in the worldview through which citizens interpret events and make political judgments. Realignments happened before in 1860-64, 1896, and 1932-36. These past realignments followed or took place during cataclysmic events -- the conflict over slavery and the Civil War, the depression of the 1890s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s -- that polarized the country along either regional or class lines. No similar cataclysm has shaken the political system since then, and as a result, realignments have occurred more gradually, with the fall of a prior majority and the rise of a new one separated by a decade-long transition period. It took from 1968 to 1980 for the New Deal majority to collapse and for a new conservative Republican majority to be born; and it is taking from 1992 until sometime in this decade for the conservative Republican majority to disintegrate and for a new Democratic majority to emerge.
I. HOW REALIGNMENTS WORK
Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called realignments America's "surrogate for revolution." It is a good way to think of them. Realignments respond to the sharp clashes between interests, classes, regions, religions, and ethnic groups brought about by tectonic shifts in the economy and society. In other countries, these conflicts might have led to insurrection and revolution, but with the exception of our Civil War, in the United States they have resulted in changes in party control and the emergence of a new political zeitgeist. The tensions that industrialization stirred within a peasant economy contributed to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but in the United States similar tensions produced the Populist Party, its absorption within the Democratic Party, and eventually the triumph of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt's new Republican coalition, which dominated American politics (with a brief interregnum) from 1896 to 1930. The economic collapse of the 1920s propelled the Fascists to power in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. In the United States, by contrast, the crash of 1929 simply ushered one governing coalition -- Herbert Hoover's Republicans -- out of power, so that another -- Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal Democrats -- could take over.
Realignments take place because a dominant political coalition fails to adapt to or to contain a growing social and political conflict. A political movement like the Southern civil rights movement can precipitate this sort of conflict. So can differing political responses to major changes in the country's economy or position in the world. The Jacksonian Democrats' rise in the 1820s was partly the result of conflict between the farmers of the new frontier states, who demanded easy credit, and Eastern bankers and merchants who wanted the stability of the Second Bank of the United States. The Republican Party was born in 1856 out of the conflict between the free-labor North and the plantation South over the extension of slavery. The McKinley Republicans put the United States squarely on the side of its industrial future rather than its agrarian past. And the New Deal Democrats expanded the scope and responsibilities of the federal government to overcome the inability of modern capitalism, acting on its own, to prevent poverty, unemployment, and incendiary class conflict.
In each realignment, the emerging majority party creates a new coalition by winning over voters from its rival party and by increasing its sway over its own voters, whose ranks have typically increased through birth, immigration, and economic change. In 1896, the Republicans won over Northern workingmen who had voted Democratic in the past, but who blamed the Democrats for the depression and were turned off by presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's agrarian appeal for free silver. The addition of these voters gave the Republicans a solid majority in the North and the Far West. And that majority held until 1932, when anger over the Great Depression drove a number of groups -- industrial workers, small farmers, blacks, Catholics, and Jews -- back into the Democratic Party. Together with the party's existing base in the South, this coalition gave the Democrats an enduring majority, reducing Republicans to their loyal business supporters in the Northeast and Midwest, farmers in the Western plains states, and rural Protestants in the Midwest and Northeast.
Majority coalitions are not necessarily homogeneous. They are like old cities that are periodically rebuilt. They may be recognizable by their newest buildings and streets, but they also contain older structures and streets. Similarly, a new majority coalition is distinguished by a set of leading constituencies, but also includes other groups that have traditionally supported that party and still find more reasons to support it than the opposition. At the heart of the New Deal were Franklin Roosevelt, New York senator Robert Wagner (the author of the National Labor Relations and Social Security Acts), and trade unionists like the Clothing Workers president Sidney Hillman, but it also included white Southern conservatives who had voted Democratic since before the Civil War and were typified by Roosevelt's first vice president, Texan John Nance Garner.
Realignments have been accompanied by the creation of a new dominant political worldview or zeitgeist. Like the coalition itself, a worldview is made up of heterogeneous elements, but it also has a leading set of ideas. The leading New Deal Democrats -- Franklin Roosevelt rather than Garner or brain truster Rexford Tugwell rather than brain-truster-turned-critic Raymond Moley -- held a far wider view of government's economic responsibility -- and of what government could do -- than did the Coolidge-Hoover Republicans. A Republican of the 1920s could not have conceived of, let alone condoned, the federal government paying the unemployed to go to school or to paint a mural. The New Deal Democrats also took a far more favorable view of labor unions and a far more skeptical view of business than did contemporary Republicans. But of course not all Democrats who voted for Roosevelt subscribed to these ideas about unions and government, just as, later, not all Republicans who voted for Reagan would support his ideas about banning abortion or reinstituting school prayer.
There is, finally, a kind of metaworldview that has distinguished the two parties. From Andrew Jackson through Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, Democrats have defined themselves as the party of the average American and Republicans as the party of the wealthy and powerful. The Democrats have not necessarily stigmatized the rich and powerful, but they have insisted that their priorities lie elsewhere. The Whigs and their successor, the Republicans, have been more consistently sympathetic to business and the wealthy. They have not defined themselves solely as the party of business, but they have defined America's interests as identical to those of its business class. Even when they have appeared to cast their lot rhetorically with the average American, as Reagan or former congressman Jack Kemp did, they have done so in a way that identifies the worker with the executive and the member of the middle class with the member of the upper class. They hav...
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.