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Sunday, August 30, 2020


R McD offers an interesting comment, the opening sentence of which is as follows: “It seems to me what you’re suggesting is that a quite massive party realignment is in the offing. What this would put in place, were it to occur, would surely be the enthronement of what has been called “the extreme centre” ( Tariq Ali’s phrase, I think).”

I think we may very well be in for yet another massive party realignment and although I cannot foresee what it will be, I think it might be useful to review the changes that have taken place in my lifetime. The first presidential election to which I paid serious attention was the 1948 contest, in which there were four prominent candidates. Harry Truman, who had ascended to the presidency after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, was running for his first full term. The Republicans nominated Thomas E Dewey, the governor of New York. A southern segregationist state’s rights party nominated South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, and a breakaway Progressive Party nominated Henry Wallace, who had been Roosevelt’s vice president before Truman. I was a strong progressive party Wallace supporter, although I must admit that I was attracted more by the folk singers who rallied to his cause then by the details of his program. Truman won a famous upset over Dewey but it was Thurmond’s performance that presaged a major party realignment in the near future. Thurmond won 39 electoral votes, a remarkable showing for a minor party candidate.

Roosevelt and Truman between them won 5 presidential contests in a row, and since these coincided with the first 19 years of my life I grew up taking it for granted that there would always be a Democrat in the White House. Two Eisenhower terms, the Kennedy victory and assassination and Johnson’s victory over Goldwater split the next four elections, but when Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act he famously said that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. His intuition was correct – he just underestimated the loss by a generation. The Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections, and might very well have won all six had it not been for Watergate. The most recent seven elections in my lifetime have been split, four for the Democrats and three for the Republicans, but remarkably, the Democrats have actually won the popular vote in six of those seven elections and regardless of how November turns out, they will undoubtedly win the popular vote this time as well.

When I was young, both the Democratic and Republican parties were uneasy coalitions of political forces not genuinely attuned to one another. The Democratic Party was a fusion of progressive forces grounded in labor union organization and southern segregationists whose base of political strength at the national level lay in their control of Senate committee chairmanships. The Republican party combined Midwestern isolationist farmers and small business support with Eastern internationalist big business interests.

(Interesting personal and political aside: the Midwest faction of the Republican party, led by Sen. Robert Taft, was deeply suspicious of the Atlantic alliance and the internationalist tendencies of the Eastern big business Republicans, but they were, nevertheless, deeply invested in opposition to the Chinese Communists. In 1956 or 1957, I had a date on New Year’s Eve with Sheila Vincent, who was the daughter of John Carter Vincent, one of the State Department “old China hands” whom McCarthy attacked as communist sympathizers. When I brought Sheila home, I met Vincent and we talked for a while. I asked him why it was that the Midwestern Republicans, despite their isolationist tendencies, were so concerned about China and he replied that it was because every Sunday, when they went to their Protestant churches for services, they were asked to contribute to the missionaries in China. This gave them a personal connection to what was happening halfway around the world even though on general principle they were opposed to foreign entanglements.)

When Nixon adopted what he called The Southern Strategy in effect he traded the Northeast for the South, politically speaking. The Democrats responded by embracing the newly enfranchised black Americans, an exchange that, as we have seen, put them on the losing side of presidential elections for more than 20 years.

This is the background and context for the movement to the right that characterized the Democratic Leadership Conference and the successful Clinton campaigns. Over time, in part as a consequence of a political choice and in part as a consequence of a change in the structure of work in the American economy, the Democrats more or less turned their back on the unions and embraced an interracial coalition that traded off working class formally union white workers for college educated upper-middle-class professionals. As we have seen, whatever you may think morally or ideologically of the trade, it was politically a success, and if it were not for the historical peculiarities of the Electoral College the Democrats might have won all of the last seven elections.

Well enough for this familiar stroll down memory lane. If R McD is correct and a massive party realignment is in the offing, how might things shake out over the next four or eight years?

As I have already suggested, I think if Biden wins a big victory his instinct will be to move to the center while agreeing to, if not actually pushing, a number of economically and socially progressive measures designed to get America out of the depression it is now falling into. He will try to marginalize the Republicans and turn them into a permanent minority party with a shrinking popular and state political base. It may take the Republicans more than the next four years finally to be quits with Trump, but eventually they will shake loose from him and attempt to reconstitute themselves as a serious national party. If the progressive Democrats can build a strong multiracial coalition of working-class men and women joined with that segment of the upper-middle-class that is prepared in effect to betray its class interests by throwing in with the workers, then we might once again see a real progressive Democratic Party. We might very well lose a number of northeastern states that we now count on but at the same time we would have a serious shot at recapturing portions of the South while holding on to the West Coast. If they could build strength in the Latinx community, the Democrats might be able to retake Texas which, along with California and New York could form the basis for a winning coalition.

I rather think I won’t live long enough to see all of this play out but we may be able to discern the beginnings of it as early as 2021.


TheDudeDiogenes said...

I wish I could believe that things were looking up for Biden, but after this summer, I just can't.

Eric C said...

"I rather think I won’t live long enough to see all of this play out but we may be able to discern the beginnings of it as early as 2021."

"We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution."
Lenin, January 1905

Eric C said...

Oops, that should have been:

"We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution."
Lenin, January 1917

The Tsar abdicated in March 1917, just 2 months later.

Unknown said...

I wondered about that.

R McD said...

Thanks for finding some merit in my earlier comment. I'll now try another:

Wrt the political parties as fusions, it seems to me that the Democratic party is still an amalgamation, a somewhat loose amalgamation of parties—district parties of various sorts, state parties, and regional parties each oriented around the several sorts of electoral competitions that go on, all of which can only with some difficulty be got to act somewhat in unison to try to capture the Presidency. No surprise, then, that ‘the democratic Party’ was and is a "weak party," rather incapable of enforcing party discipline. I see the Republicans as having been quite the same sort of coalition of electoral convenience until quite recently. But maybe with the coming of Trump, we’ve seen the emergence in the USA of what has been termed a “strong party’ of the sort that was more frequently encountered in Europe? That would be both its strength and its weakness. For in the American context, maybe enforced party discipline results in the loss of some of those components that can sometimes coordinate their political activities as parts of a weak party. {The same sort of thing can be seen in today’s Britain, perhaps. The Tories began to expel, one way or another, their so-called Wets. Johnson has followed up on that Thatcherite approach by expelling those Tories who opposed Brexit. And the Labour Party is perhaps on the way to expelling the Party’s left wingers by, for one, weaponising anti-Semitism.}

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Not at all related to the point of this post, but why, Prof, the adoption of the Woke-ism "Latinx", when "A scant 3% of Latino adults use the term 'Latinx'" (and 76% have not even heard of the term)?

Unknown said...

Simple, DudeDiogenes, because I am clueless.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I am leery of placing parties on a continuum. But, when you look at statistical methods that place elected officials and parties on a left-tight spectrum we find that the democrats are, and have been for several cycles, a left of center party. The Democratic Party distribution look like a bell curve where the right tail barely touches the center line. (The method is called dw-nominate)

This should not be surprising since the Dixiecrats left ages ago. Similarly, the republicans shed their liberals (northeastern) following the Reagan era realignment. The myth bi-partisanship derives from Dixiecrats voting with republicans on desegregation, and liberal republicans voting with the democrats on education and environmental issues.

The predominant reality of party politics since Reagan is the rightward shift of the Republicans to where they now occupy the space reserved for fascists. The mainstream polisci notion of a political party is a coalition of disparate groups that have some core common agreement on issues and an understanding that if a group gives on one issue it will get support on others. The Democrats have been a weak party because they lost their union base, and compromised with the republicans in the new-liberal era. It was not a weak party under FDR - everybody knew where it stood.

The Democrats are picking up the vast majority of voters under 30 (men and women) who have not been major players until 2018. Dems are also picking people who were republican learners. These folks have been cross pressured for a long time - many who think small gov’t is a good principle also were pro-environment, gay marriage, etc. and They contributed to the wave in 2018. So the Dems pick up suburban, educated women and a lesser number of men, a solid majority of Hispanic voters. Add in the NE and west-coast liberals along with the Black vote and here we are.

I think the real issue will center around how well the dems can integrate the progressive cohort. A party that stands for economic and health security, racial justice and systematic reform of policing, and the green new deal, and delivers will, I think, be something like the reincarnation of the party of FDR. If they can’t get together on these issues, a centrist democratic/republican coalition and a progressive party will likely enter the lists with the fascists.

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