On The Realignment Question

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"On The Realignment Question"


There’s a debate afoot on the internet on the subject of whether the Democrats’ sweeps in 2006 and 2008 amount to a “realignment” in American politics. You can see John Judis argue the affirmative case, or else Scott Winship or Larry Bartels for the negative.

Overall, I find it a bit difficult to take sides in this debate because I find David Mayhew’s argument in Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre to be extremely persuasive. The crux of the argument is that 2008 can’t be a “realignment” election because there’s really no such thing. Not, of course, that the elections of 1932 and 1820 and the rest didn’t happen, or that they weren’t significant in their way. But that it’s not possible to define the “realignment” property in any kind of rigorous way and show that it’s shared by the various elections at hand.

Indeed, I think that if you look at the evidence Judis presents, it’s clear that the term “realignment” obscures more than it reveals in this context. Winship and Bartels argue, persuasively, that 2008 did not resemble 1932. And Judis agrees that 2008 did not resemble 1932. Thus, rather than get into a metaphysical debate about whether the definition of mandate can be extended so as to encompass both 2008 and 1932, it’s better to just talk about 2008.

What I take Judis to be arguing is that the main demographic trends in the country are favorable to the Democratic Party’s cause. And that seems indisputably right. John McCain got strong support from people who are likely to die in the near future. Democrats got strong support from growing demographic groups — racial and ethnic minorities. But the important thing to remember is that there are no guarantees here. If the Democrats do stuff and become hugely unpopular, the growing Hispanic share of the population won’t save them — Hispanics will swing to the GOP. But conversely, while hubris is a problem it can’t be emphasized enough that moderation and “caution” aren’t genuinely any safer. The main determinant of the party’s fate in 2010 and 2012 won’t be whether or not bills passed in 2009 were popular in 2009 it will be conditions in 2010 and 2012. If the Obama/Pelosi/Reid troika seems successful to people — defined primarily in terms of GDP and income growth, but also accounting for scandal or foreign policy debacles to perhaps play a role — then Democrats will continue to prosper. If they seem like failures, they’ll be punished. If conditions in the country had been better in 2006 and 2008, then the GOP would have done better in 2006 and 2008 and Karl Rove’s talk of a “rolling realignment” would look smarter.

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