Thursday, August 11, 2005

Realignment? What Realignment?

Over at TPM Cafe, Michael Lind argues that 2004 was a realigning election:

Karl Rove is an evil political genius, but he is a political genius. As he hoped, 2004 was a realigning election like 1896. In 1896, McKinley's victory finished off the agrarian populists and confirmed that the U.S. had entered the urban-industrial era. In 2004, Bush's victory finished off the urban-industrial liberals and confirmed that the U.S. has entered the suburban-service sector era.

Look at the county map at The Democratic Party is not a national party any more. It is an archipelago of inner cities and college towns, allied with the collapsing remnants of the labor-intensive manufacturing sector, embedded in a suburban/exurban nation-state. If a competitive Democratic Party emerges from the ruins of the 1968-2004 Democrats, it will be as unlike today's Democratic Party as the New Deal Democrats of FDR and Truman were unlike the isolationist, agrarian populist Democrats of William Jennings Bryan.

Where to begin? First, as David Mayhew has shown in his book, Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre, the realignment concept just doesn't hold water. In particular, Mayhew notes that since World War II, the incumbent party has held on to power eight times and lost it seven times. As he says, "You can't get any closer to a coin toss than this."

Mayhew also points out that by just about any empirical measure, 1896 doesn't qualify as a realigning election. So if 2004 is a realigning election, it ain't like 1896. And if 2004 is like 1896, it ain't a realigning election.

Second, if, for argument's sake, the concept of realignments is valid, there's little evidence to suggest that 2004 fits the category. Among the various claims about realigning election is that they usher in a new majority party. But 2004 didn't see a change in party control since Bush was reelected.

Third, realignments are also supposed to represent a fundamental shift in the electoral basis of party competition. But 2004 was almost an exact replay of 2000. Few counties saw significant shifts in the vote between 2000 and 2004 and about 90 percent of those who voted in 2000 voted for the same party this time around. With only a few exceptions, Bush's overall vote increase of 3% was pretty evenly distributed across the electorate. No realignment here.

Fourth, Lind's evidence for this realignment is that the Democrats are now isolated into a small number of urban areas. But Lind doesn't seem to realize that trees, mountains, deserts, and farms don't vote, people do. And nearly as many people in live in that blue archipelago as do in the great red sea around them. For the life of me, I don't understand why otherwise intelligent people seem to think that simplistic red and blue maps of county vote winners tell us much of anything about elections. We could have realignment in the direction of the Democrats and those maps would look pretty much the same as they do now.

Fifth and finally, as John Gerring shows in his great book on party ideologies, the Democratic party of FDR and Truman was very much like the Democratic party of Bryan. The big shift in Democratic party ideology did not come until later.

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