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.