The Magazine

Realignment Myths

A lively dissection of confident predictions in politics.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By MICHAEL M. ROSEN
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The battlefield of political prognostication is littered with the remains of once-bold, but quickly forgotten, theories of partisan realignment. No sooner is a “permanent Republican majority” proposed than the predicted majority is overtaken by events, thereby laying the foundation for an “emerging Democratic majority.” The impregnable majority grows bloated and finds itself unable to reconcile its competing internal forces, thus providing the opposition party the means, motive, and opportunity to swipe one or more of the majority’s constituencies and cobble together its own governing coalition.

Close-up from The Lost Majority book cover

In The Lost Majority, Sean Trende lays waste the realignment myth through a convincing, methodical assessment of historical coalition-building and its impact on contemporary politics. Trende characterizes the current situation—where three consecutive “swing” elections portend a staggering uncertainty this year—as “the most difficult political landscape to try to make sense of in decades,” mainly because this represents “a time of near parity between the parties, when either party can enjoy a win, only to see it slip away quickly.” Nevertheless, he advances three interrelated arguments: First, President Obama and the Democrats badly misread the “mandate” that vaulted them into office in 2008, resulting in a dramatic defeat in 2010; second, we shouldn’t expect any enduring Republican or Democratic majorities to emerge anytime soon; and third, the entire concept of realignment should be jettisoned.

As Trende observes, few who witnessed Obama’s triumphant victory speech three and a half years ago could sense that his ambitious agenda would “end up in critical condition less than a year later. Except, perhaps, someone who studied the fragile forces that set Obama’s path toward that stage, decades before the president was ever born.” Indeed, Obama and his team squandered the hard-earned gains that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic Leadership Council had made in peeling off Reagan (or as Trende prefers, Eisenhower) Democrats during the 1990s; i.e., suburbanites, working-class whites, and Southerners. While Obama’s champions heralded his election as ringing in a permanent progressive majority, they ignored the fact that (as Trende puts it) “in the midst of probably the most favorable election year environment for a party since 1952—if not 1932,” Obama won by a smaller margin than George H. W. Bush in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1996.

Little wonder, then, that the Democrats in 2010, after governing for two years from the left, sustained the worst midterm losses of any party since 1938, losing the most seats precisely among those suburban, working-class white, and Southern districts Clinton and company had so assiduously pried from Republican hands two decades earlier. Trende more generally eviscerates the “critical elections” theory propounded midcentury by V. O. Key and Walter Dean Burnham and later swallowed whole by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002). Judis and Teixeira adapt the theory—which holds that parties tend to dominate for 32- or 36-year spans, a claim Trende colorfully derides as “far too subjective to be useful,” possessed of “about as much analytical support as numerology”—to the modern era by asserting, inter alia, that the growth in the Latino voting population will cement Democratic gains for decades.

But Trende dismantles this argu-ment plank by plank, demonstrating that Latino electoral participation has increased only haltingly in recent elections, and even if Latinos vote in higher numbers, any gains Democrats may make by catering to their issue preferences, such as immigration reform, will be offset by losses among other groups, such as working-class whites. (Trende also explains away, in like fashion, similar Judis/Teixeira claims about young voters.) And this marks the harsh mathematical reality of realignment theory: Addition signifies subtraction. Growing your majority too precipitously risks shrinking it rapidly, and there’s no silver bullet to be found. “Each election cycle presents parties with choices,” Trende concludes, “both in how they approach the election and, if they win, how they govern”—choices that can make or break majorities.

Trende displays a discerning eye for detail here and a welcome gift for straightforward, data-driven analysis. And at times, such as in showcasing his encyclopedic knowledge of 19th-century voting trends in Kentucky’s Floyd and Knott counties, or in differentiating between the Scots-Irish Jacksonians of the Upland South and the Lowland Jeffersonians of the cotton-rich “black belt,” he suggests a younger version of Michael Barone, whom Trende quotes repeatedly and reverently, tirelessly plumbing the depths of our rich politico-geographic history.