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The Best Laid Plans...

On political events and realignments.

10:35 AM, Dec 31, 2010 • By JAY COST
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As legend has it, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillian was once asked what he most feared, to which he responded, "Events, dear boy, events."  That, essentially, is the point that the enigmatic but always insightful "Karl," who regularly blogs at HotAir's GreenRoom, made in response to my item last week about Hispanics and the supposed "emerging Democratic majority," which has by now become the Godot of political-demographic trends.  My point last week was that Hispanic voters right now tilt squarely albeit not overwhelmingly to the Democratic side, but with care and consideration the Republicans can make inroads with this bloc of voters.  My broader point has long been that realignments are notoriously tricky to predict, and that the "emerging Democratic majority" argument is over-simple. 

It is here that we turn it over to Karl:

Those propagating or buying this thesis rely heavily on demographics because they are at least somewhat predictable. Yet discussions of realignment frequently leave out the role of historical events.

Anyone looking US history would surmise that events like the Civil War, the Great Depression and the capture of the liberal establishment by the New Left in the late 1960s to mid-1970s had a little something to do with major political realignments. It is understandable that people are loath to discuss “unknown unknowns.” Pundits and analysts cannot foretell the future, but it is foolish to invest in theories based on demographics without recognizing that historic unknowns are likely to significantly influence the outcome.

Indeed, the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis does not even account for at least one major “known unknown.” Given the current political environment, it is a very fair bet that in the US will ignore its debt problems until they mushroom into a crisis. We may not know exactly when this will occur, but it will be all the more shocking the longer it is downplayed by the governing and chattering classes.

The debt crisis has a potentially profound effect on political alignment in this country. It will almost certainly result in a downsizing and restructuring of the government in its current form at all levels. It will likely weaken the public employee unions that provide the funds and the footwork for the Democratic Party.

This is an excellent observation.  Major realignments in this country have typically been precipitated by significant events: the Civil War, the Panic of 1893, and the Great Depression being chief among them.  Even the most recent realigning pattern -- the transformation of the South from a one-party Democratic bastion into a two-party battleground -- has its roots in events, namely the economic transformation of the Sun Belt combined with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Karl concludes by noting that much will depend on how the Democratic party will react to our impending debt crisis.  I think this is a terrific point, and I'd like to expand on it.  Scanning history, it is pretty clear that it's not just events, but whether and how parties respond to events, that make for realignments.  In the various realigning events throughout our history, you usually see that one party is somehow constrained in its behavior.  For whatever reason, one party was unable to hold its old voters -- so either it had to find new voters or (in the case of realignments that reduced it to minority status) suffer a new, diminished fate.  For instance, Grover Cleveland and the Democrats took the blame for the Panic of 1893 while Herbert Hoover and the Republicans caught the heat for the Great Depression.  Those events boxed in the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, preventing them from building a majority coalition for a generation.

Importantly, the reverse is also true: realignments do not happen when parties respond effectively to the challenge of events.  And indeed, there have been quite a number of would-have-been, could-have-been, should-have-been realignments that turned out to be...well...duds!  These were instances when events intervened, but the threatened party reacted adeptly to the challenge and retained its electoral position.  As we are about to witness the most Republican House of Representatives since the one elected in 1946, it's appropriate, I think, to reflect on why that election was not a realigning one, despite the fact that many pundits at the time did indeed believe it would be.  The experience of the 80th Congress elected that year should serve as a cautionary tale to prevent Republicans from engaging in the kind of triumphalist thinking that has gotten Barack "I Trump You" Obama into such political trouble. 

In 1945-46, the country was having difficulty in the reconversion from a wartime to peacetime economy.  Organized labor had generally refrained from striking during the war, but now that the conflict was over they were striking all across the country to boost wages, undermining the efforts of the Truman administration to prevent a wage-price spiral.  Worse, there was a growing sense that the Soviets had gotten the better of the United States after World War II, and the country was entering the early stages of the "Red Scare."

The Democrats took the blame for all of this, including the rising Soviet threat.  After all, the march of the Russian Communists happened on the party's watch, and, what's more, domestic Communists had more or less been in the Democratic coalition since the 1930s, largely via the Congress of Industrial Organizations (which of course is part of the AFL-CIO today).  Republicans sensed an opportunity and ran hard that year on the Red Menace, and they scored huge.  The 80th Congress, elected in 1946, sported a whopping 246 Republicans, more than any since 1928.  But it wasn't just the number of Republican representatives elected, but where they came from that was so noteworthy.  The pickups weren't really in the traditional swing areas of the Midwest -- those were already Republican heading into 1946.  Instead, many of the pickups came from the big urban centers -- Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, New York City.  The full Philadelphia delegation that year was actually Republican for the first time in a decade.  Much of this GOP success in the cities was attributable to the Catholic vote, which was staunchly anti-Communist. 

Yet what's most memorable about the 1946 election is that it wasn't a harbinger of a post-New Deal realignment.  Two years later, the Republicans were swept out of power as thoroughly as they had been swept in, and apart from a brief and bare majority at the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, they wouldn't recapture a House majority until they were led by a guy named Newt.  What happened?

One major reason for the GOP's failure to retain the majority was the response of the Democratic party to the results of 1946, wherein the party moved quickly to outflank the GOP on the Communist issue.  It's no coincidence that Americans for Democratic Action -- a liberal interest group that was resolutely anti-Communist -- was founded in January 1947 just as the 80th Congress convened.  President Truman fought the Republicans tooth and nail on domestic politics over the next two years, but on foreign affairs he and the Republicans, led by Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, hammered out a bipartisan policy that would remain in place more or less for the next quarter century.  What's more, under the advice of his political counselors, he also went after Henry Wallace, the former cabinet secretary and vice president whom Truman had fired after he publicly promoted a soft stance on the Soviets.  Wallace's third party candidacy in 1948 was just what Truman needed to push most of the Soviet sympathizers out of the Democratic coalition, thus undermining one of the major Republican arguments from 1946.

So Karl is right.  Events have long been the critical ingredients in realignments, and what also matters is how the parties react to events.  It's often been the case that seemingly realigning events turned out to be non-starters because the parties responded effectively.  What's noteworthy about the country's three big realignments is how at least one party was boxed in by circumstances, unable for whatever reason to adapt to the political, economic, or social changes forced upon it.  When a party enjoys more room to manuever, as Truman and the Democrats had in the 1940s, it's a pretty safe bet that it will figure out some sort of strategy.

I think there are two big takeaway points here.  First, Republicans need to be ready for the intervention of events, especially our impending debt crisis, which could very well make or break the long-term prospects for Republican governance.  Second, and just as important, they have to be prepared for the Democratic response to those events.  The big mistake of Obama and his Democratic allies in the last two years, I think, was their failure to appreciate fully that 2008 was not the final American election, nor was it the end of the Republican party.  Instead, the GOP had an opportunity to respond, and it did so effectively in the 2010 midterm.  Republicans, now that they have regained a share of power, need to appreciate that the Democrats are going to try just as the GOP did to master the events of the next two years, and that Barack Obama cannot be underestimated like the pundits counted Harry Truman out after the 1946 elections.

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