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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.

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