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.”
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.
For the 55 years following World War II, the American economy grew like gangbusters. Real GDP growth averaged 3.6 percent per year, and it was this fantastic expansion that created the modern middle class. However, since the recession of 2001, the economy has been in stall speed, more or less. Growth has averaged just 1.6 percent since then, and real incomes have stagnated as paychecks have not kept pace with the rising cost of health care, education, and energy.
This state of affairs shows no signs of change. Indeed, the most recent GDP number is inconsistent with where the economy should be at this point in the business cycle. We should be hitting 3 percent growth or higher, not saddled with a modest contraction. And let us not forget the second-order effects that such weak growth has on our politics. Without growth, there is no way for the United States to meet its social welfare obligations, which has in turn sparked the extremely divisive and unpredictable battle over the budget deficit.
If the Democratic party cannot bring about improvement in the economic numbers, it will not retain control of political power. It is as simple as that. No enduring majority coalition has been able to hang on to power for very long amid such widespread disappointment over the economy. And the warning signs are already there for the Democrats, if they care to look: The historically small numbers of Democrats in the House of Representatives, governorships, and state legislatures, plus the fact President Obama won fewer votes in 2012 than he did in 2008, are all signals that public patience with the party has its limits.
What’s more, the Democratic coalition is bound to have trouble doing what is necessary to grow the economy. The party of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s was a party of farmers and industrial laborers who depended on private-sector economic growth, so the Democrats of that era focused their efforts accordingly. But today’s Democratic party has many powerful constituents within it who are isolated from the ebbs and flows of the private economy. Upscale social liberals in the Northeast and Pacific Coast are so well off that they are basically recession-proof. And, what’s more, the position of the farmer-industrial working class has been usurped by unionized government workers and far-left gray-collar labor unions like the SEIU, which are more interested in expanding government than the economy.
All of this raises the key question: Can the Democrats keep these groups happy and grow the economy? The evidence to date suggests the answer is no. Witness the Democratic opposition to opening up domestic energy production, which would have been a no-brainer 50 years ago. Witness the party’s stimulus bill of 2009, which focused more on political patronage than economic growth. Witness the party’s continued efforts to push for a cap and trade system, which would kneecap economic growth. And above all, witness Obamacare, a vast regulatory system that saddles businesses with even more burdens. The Democrats have proposed all of these things since 2009, when they were voted into office to jump-start the economy.
Looking back over the last decade, it is hard to conclude that American politics looks as it did in the first decade of the 1900s or the 1930s, when one party had a decisive advantage. Instead, it looks much more like the period from 1876 to 1894, or 1966 to 1982. These were times of great social and economic tumult. The public responded back then much as it has recently, changing the partisan composition of government time and again in the hope of finding some combination of leaders who can manage the affairs of state.
As long as so many in the country are so deeply dissatisfied with the state of the union, neither party’s position is secure. And it is an open question whether the Democrats of 2013 even have the capacity to address our most pressing problem, continued economic weakness.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.