Friday, November 05, 2004


In the 36-year political cycle, the last significant political realignment took place in 1968 with Nixon's hugely successful Southern Strategy and the beginning of the "culture war." Before that it was FDR's election in 1932, ending the era of "laissez-faire" capitalism. Now, in 2004, there has been another major shift in American politics. The revolution has manifested itself in a number of ways.

First, the large gains made by Republicans in the Senate represent Southern and Western states "realizing" that they are indeed heavily conservative and electing Republican senators. The previously Democratic seats in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and, notably, South Dakota are now in Republican hands. The Democrats picked up seats in liberal Illinois and moderate Colorado. Essentially this is just a recalibration, finding the new equilibrium after the rigidity of career Democrats has been eliminated.

One consequence of this is that if the country is split down the middle, the party with more states will dominate both the Senate and the Electoral College.

Second, we had the largest percentage turnout in recent memory. This is important on its own, but also as a sign of the political tensions that have lead (and are leading) to the current realignment.

Third, whichever party lost in this election was going to need to be restructured in some form. Unfortunately, the neo-conservative paradigm has been vindicated. Had Bush lost, we might (might!) have seen a return to a more traditionally conservative, more libertarian Republican party (i.e. something the Democrats can deal with, and also something to which most Republicans would be more amicable. Bush's relationship with the Republicans is probably as tenuous as Clinton's was with the Democrats. He keeps them in power, but they'd prefer someone more traditionally conservative.)

But, the Democrats lost. What does this say about the viability of the Democratic party? In 2000, they lost by 300 votes in Florida and won the popular vote by half a million. In 2004 they pulled out all the stops, called in every favor, and lost by 3,000,000 votes.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about what the Democrats should do.

Slate gives a run-down of the less banal answers:

William Saletan thinks that Democrats need to present their ideas, not in terms of Kerry's plans, but in terms of values, a la Clinton. Robert Wright agrees. Chris Suellentrop is pithy:

My take on the election: Vision without details beats details without vision.
Timothy Noah decides he does not know.

Some say the Democrats should become extremely socially conservative (i.e. racist and anti-homosexual.) Some say the party should take a hard left and install Howard Dean as DNC chair.

So who's right?

This is where the bit about realignment comes in. Since 1992 we've seen two things. First, the Democrats can only elect a candidate when that candidate is not a traditional liberal. Clinton's Third Way stressed personal responsibility and social opportunity and was a refreshing economically conservative diversion from the typical liberal shtick. Gore and Kerry, both traditional liberals, failed (even if by a small margin.) On the other hand, the Republicans can only elect a candidate when that candidate is not a traditional conservative. George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole both failed miserably, while Bush the younger has had success (even if by a small margin.) Neither party truly wants to accept the new paradigm, neo-liberal vs. neo-conservative, because of the rigidities of power that exist in each party's leadership.

Perhaps this is going out too far on my limb, but I think that this alignment is where we can find the new equilibrium and furthermore that the current political tensions are the friction that results from re-equilibrating the political landscape.


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