The Magazine

A Temporary Majority

The problem Democrats can’t solve.

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By JAY COST
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A tradition after each national election, presidential or midterm, is for the pundit class to pontificate on whether and how the results point to a realignment. This exercise dates back at least to the publication of The Emerging Republican Majority by Kevin Phillips in 1969, and it continues to this day. Now, of course, the hot topic is the so-called emerging Democratic majority, dominated by young people, nonwhites, and upscale social liberals. Pundits across the political spectrum are offering free advice to the Republican party on how to change its ways lest it face extinction at the hands of this “coalition of the ascendant.”

Obama's supporters

In 2012’s Lost Majority, Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics ably deflates the logic behind realignment theories, arguing that they are a poor way to understand the ebb and flow of electoral politics. More often than not, the game is to highlight evidence that happens to support our theory while overlooking inconvenient data that cut against it.

The conventional view of American political history divides it into periods of partisan dominance: The GOP dominated electoral politics from about 1865 to 1932, the Democrats from 1932 to 1968, and the Republicans again from 1968 to about 2006. This, however, is simplistic. In fact, the periods of genuine dominance have been much briefer: Republicans dominated from about 1894 to 1910, then again from 1918 to 1928; Democrats dominated from 1930 to about 1946, then again from 1960 to 1968.

And even during these briefer periods, caveats abound. The Republicans of the early 20th century were divided along ideological lines, as conservatives battled progressives. The drubbing the GOP took in the 1922 midterm was one of the worst blowouts in history, and hardly consistent with a theory of party dominance. As for the New Deal coalition, it began to fracture as early as 1938, giving way to a “conservative coalition” of Republicans and Southern Democrats who held the balance of power for most of the next generation. And during the Republican majority that was supposed to “emerge” after 1968, it was the Democrats, not the GOP, holding the House of Representatives for the next quarter-century.

And sure enough, the Republican party of 2013 holds more House seats, governorships, and state legislatures combined than it has controlled in a very long time. That is hardly a recipe for irrelevance.

The biggest problem with realignment theories is that they often fail to extend their analysis much beyond demographic characteristics, and so implicitly assume that people vote, robot-like, according to the color of their skin, age, geography, or religion. They thus fail to anticipate change. A demographic-based theory of electoral alignment formulated in 1961 (after John F. Kennedy won more than 70 percent of the Catholic vote) would have had no capacity to anticipate the sea-change among Catholics that began as early as 1968 and continues to this day.

When we look beyond demographic characteristics, we discover that majority coalitions inevitably depend on how well the party they empower governs. If that party does a good job, it will hold the coalition together, at least for a while. If it governs poorly, the other party is in prime position to poach a critical mass of voters. And since the 1830s, no issue has mattered more to the question of “Who governs?” than the performance of the economy.

Each of the past periods of party dominance, such as it was, began because the other party had failed to govern, and ended when the new majority party could govern effectively no more. The economy was central in each instance. The Panic of 1893 ushered in the GOP, and the Panic of 1907—combined with rampant corruption and inability to enact sensible tariff laws—ushered it out starting in 1910. The social and economic tumult after World War I brought the Republicans back to power, and the Great Depression swept them out once again. The Great Depression ushered the Democrats into a majority, and the postwar labor strikes ended their grip on power.

The central question for any majority party is can it govern well, especially on the economy? From this perspective, it is clear that neither party has the edge moving forward. Over the last 12 years, economic growth has been stagnant, and neither party has proven itself capable of turning things around.

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