Saturday, November 06, 2004

PolySighers in the News

Both myself and Jack Pitney are quoted in the following NYT piece. I should also add that Sean "History Will Track You Down" Wilentz needs to chill out.

November 7, 2004

Can History Save the Democrats?

LITTLE more than a month before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln stood at the east portico of the Capitol and delivered his second inaugural address. It was a brief speech with a distinctly religious message: he twice cited biblical verses, and made a dozen references to God, most strikingly in assessing the opposing sides in the Civil War.

"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other," Lincoln said. "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

The address was roundly criticized in some newspapers for overstepping the bounds separating church and state. But Lincoln was using God to debunk government-by-God.

Now, with George W. Bush's re-election, God and a newly triumphant Republican president are once again in the headlines. And there are signs that the present national divide, between the narrow but solid Republican majority and a Democratic party seemingly trapped in second place, may be hardening into a pattern that will persist for years to come.

Democrats, especially, are left to wonder: What will it take to break the pattern - an act of God?

History suggests several possibilities for a major reshaping event - a national calamity, a deep schism in the ruling party, the implosion of a social movement under the excesses of its own agenda or the emergence of an extraordinary political figure.

Lincoln became president and the Republicans first took national power when the Democrats tore themselves and the nation apart over slavery and secession. Another national trauma, the Great Depression, produced a sweeping realignment in favor of the Democrats and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Religious revivals and movements have also gusted periodically through American politics, sometimes reshaping the landscape as they go, said Susan Jacoby, author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism." But she said it was not easy to find a historical blueprint for the current situation, with the religious right forming the core of Mr. Bush's majority.

The closest parallel, Ms. Jacoby said, might be the Christian temperance movement. It eventually "defeated itself," she said, with the absolutism of Prohibition, which spawned outlandish bootlegging and crime problems and made lawbreaking fashionable. The Depression eventually pushed joblessness and poverty ahead of temperance on the social agenda.

Even so, Ms. Jacoby said, that religious-political movement, smaller than the one swelling behind Mr. Bush, took decades to play itself out, and was not linked to a single party, as the Christian right is now. "What we have today is an unprecedented situation in American history, in terms of the willingness of a large number of people, backed up by the president, who want to infuse more religion into government," Ms. Jacoby said.

Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, saw two instances in history when the American electoral landscape resembled that of today. "They are kind of scary examples," Professor Wilentz said. "One is 1860, and we know what happened after that one, and the other was 1896, the McKinley-Bryan election."

That contest, which seemed to herald a new era of Republican dominance, also started a chain of events that led to a disastrous schism in the party. William McKinley, a conservative Republican, defeated William Jennings Bryan, a populist Democrat, and won the first clear popular majority in 24 years. He beat Bryan even more soundly in 1900, but less than a year later, he was assassinated.

His death was a tragedy and a fluke, Professor Wilentz said, but it changed the course of political history. Had McKinley not been killed, Marcus A. Hanna, the political handler who was as instrumental to McKinley's success as Karl Rove has been to Mr. Bush's, would have pursued his dream of "creating a Republican machine that would go on forever," Professor Wilentz said.

Instead, Theodore Roosevelt became president, and pursued progressive policies at home and power projection abroad. "What followed shifted the Republican Party in a direction it had not planned to go, and created the groundwork for 1912 and eventually the New Deal," Professor Wilentz said. When his successor, William H. Taft, turned back to conservatism, Roosevelt ran against him in 1912 on the Progressive, or Bull Moose, ticket, and split the Republican Party, yielding the White House to the Democrats and Woodrow Wilson.

"One can't imagine what American history might have looked like had McKinley continued to the end of his second term," Professor Wilentz said.

Similarly, George Wallace stormed out of the Democratic Party in the 1960's over desegregation and states' rights, and took many conservative Southerners with him, weakening the party's hold on a region that has since turned solidly Republican.

A split like those could happen again. The war in Iraq could become so unpopular that it would dog Mr. Bush and the Republicans the way that the Vietnam War did President Johnson and the Democrats. Fault lines are already visible in the Republican party between social and fiscal conservatives, and they could split open.

Another realigning event could be the emergence of a paladin in the Democratic Party, a charismatic or heroic figure who could rise above ordinary politics, reinvent the party's popular appeal and break through the Republican fortress to capture some of Mr. Bush's support. Given the modern political realities - no Northern Democrat has won an absolute majority of the popular vote since F.D.R. - "that hero better have a drawl," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Or, as occurred in the early 20th century, new waves of immigrants entering the electorate could tip the scales heavily toward one party or the other.

Such tectonic shifts, though, are rare - or at least, shifts that are sustained for more than an election cycle or two. Bill Clinton was a charismatic Democrat who managed to win the White House for two terms, but afterward it slipped back to the Republicans; Dwight D. Eisenhower broke a 20-year Democratic monopoly in 1952, but John F. Kennedy retook the White House in 1960.

Not every nation-shaking event alters the political landscape. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Philip Klinkner, a professor of government at Hamilton College, said the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, do not seem to qualify as a realigning event. Though Mr. Bush made a point during the campaign of telling voters how much Sept. 11 had changed him, there was little sign that the attacks had a significant effect on voting patterns this year, Professor Klinkner said.

"It is really incremental movement," he said of Mr. Bush's re-election. "The correlation between the vote in 2000 and 2004 was about as high as any pair of elections since the late 19th century. Essentially, Bush did 3 percentage points better this time, and he did so everywhere."

Nonetheless, Bruce E. Cain, the director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said there was no doubt that Mr. Bush had himself remade the political equation, ensuring Republican dominance "for the foreseeable future."

Call them cultural, values or religious issues, Professor Cain said, they have fallen overwhelmingly into Republican hands. The Democrats are still capable of winning the presidency if the Republicans trip up, but they are decidedly on the wrong side of "the dominant paradigm" in American politics, he said.

"Bush has done what no religious leader in the past has been able to do," Professor Cain said. "He has united the Protestants and the Catholics."

That Mr. Bush won by a relatively narrow margin matters little in a historical context, Professor Cain and others said. Lincoln, who oversaw the most radical political break in American history, was elected with just 39.8 percent of the popular vote in 1860.

Yet David R. Mayhew, a professor of political science at Yale, cautioned against reading too much into any of the numbers. Mr. Bush's victory could be seen as extraordinary - the first time a president won re-election after failing to win the popular vote in his first term - or as commonplace, since two-thirds of presidents who have sought re-election have won.

"I think this is mostly an ebb-and-flow election," Professor Mayhew said.

Professor Wilentz of Princeton said that even if the 2004 victory was an incremental one, that should not comfort the Democrats. He said Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush now have a chance to do what Hanna and McKinley never did: Lay the foundation for lasting Republican dominance.

"The Republicans are basically unchecked," Professor Wilentz said. "There is no check in the federal government and no check in the world. They have an unfettered playing field."

Until the next act of God, that is.


Anonymous said...

This idea that the Democrats must put a Southerner on the top of the ticket to win anything is nonsense.

Check out this post over at MyDD:

The Return of the Blue and the Grey
by Chris Bowers

He shows that Kerry "did exceptionally well in the non-southern battleground. [The Democrats] gained absolutely everywhere besides the South," including in states like Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Maine, and Washington, and Virginia.

These states are either more solidly blue (PA, MI), have moved from toss-ups to solid blue (OR, WA), or are moving from red into the toss-up category (CO, NV, OH, VA).

The author optimistically suggests that the Democrats may be moving toward a post-New Deal non-Southern winning coalition. Democrats would be far better off with a Midwesterner or a Westerner on the ticket than a Southerner, since Democrats can't win there no matter who is on the ticket. And there is no evidence that Northeasterners hurt anywhere except the South.

salas said...

The Republicans have so dominated the recent elections that the break in politics no longer falls between the Republicans and the Democrats, but between the Neo-Conservatives and the Reagan Conservatives.

Specter's announcement that their would be no pro-life 'litmus test' for Supreme Court Justices and that evangelicals would not be in charge of this administration, and his apology for making those remarks a day later, show that the lines of battle are drawn.

Hopefully the Dems can use this time on the sidelines to rebuild the party from the bottom up.