After starting strong, I haven’t been blogging too much lately. The conventions and a slew of developments in the Presidential race have given me plenty to say, but school has a funny way of stealing the free time I would use to write about such things. I reclaimed a little bit of that free time today, though, and I thought I’d use it to discuss a topic that has always intrigued me: political realignment.
Since the early 1980’s, the lines of demarcation in American politics have been pretty distinctly drawn. After Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the Republicans defined themselves as a culturally conservative party with a strong preference for deregulation and supply side economics. They have not budged from such stances, and some would argue they have become progressively more entrenched in them. The Democrats, meanwhile, have sometimes struggled to define themselves. The resounding defeats of Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 led some to question the strongly left-wing stance of the party, which led to the nomination and eventual election of the centrist Bill Clinton in 1992. The party thrived during the 1990’s, but began to meander again in the 2000’s. It was only with the election Barack Obama in 2008 that the Democrats found definition again, this time as a distinctly center-left party with ideological leanings somewhere between the parties of Mondale/Dukakis and Clinton.
The 2012 Presidential race is being run along those lines. Mitt Romney, the Republican, is running a campaign that is, by most objective measures, very conservative. His economic policies are some of the most conservative in recent memory, while he is holding the party line on social issues. Obama, meanwhile, is maintaining his standing as a relatively progressive candidate while alsoportraying himself as a pragmatist who is willing to compromise when necessary.
Thought Romney’s message has been very conservative, he has received a great deal of criticism from the right for not being conservative enough. Take, for instance, the following quote from Rush Limbaugh:
“If Obama wins, let me tell you what it’s the end of: The Republican Party. There’s gonna be a third party that’s gonna be oriented toward conservatism. I know Rand Paul thinks libertarianism. And I know if Obama wins, the Republican Party is gonna try to maneuver things so conservatives get blamed….The only problem is, right now Romney’s not running a conservative campaign. But they’re gonna set it up to say, ‘Well, the right sat home,’ or, ‘The right made Romney be other than who he is.’ They’ll try to deflect the blame, but they got who they want.”
The same sentiment has been echoed by talk-show host Laura Ingraham and a number of grassroots groups on the right. Now, it’s always possible this is just talk. People like Limbaugh and Ingraham are known for saying things like this. What if the Republican coalition is really fracturing, though? Political realignment happens, and after thirty years under the current order, we could be due for a shift. Consider the coalitions that comprise the current parties:
Republicans: middle-class “values” voters, libertarians, business elites
Democrats: college-educated voters, unions, African-American and Hispanic voters, conservative “Reagan Democrats”
Now, it’s important to recognize that these are just general trends. There are plenty of African-American and Hispanic Republicans, while there are plenty of business elites who back the Democrats. Demographically speaking, though, these are groups that lean heavily a certain way. Each party has been able to appeal to these groups in a certain way, and in doing so build an effective coalition.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the right gets frustrated enough to start their own party. We can assume it would align pretty closely with the Tea Party movement, so we’ll call it exactly that: the Tea Party. The Democrats and Republicans would continue to exist, but with an altered coalition. Here’s how I see things shaking out:
Tea Party: values voters, libertarians
Republicans: business elites, former Reagan Democrats, some college-educated voters
Democrats: unions, African-Americans and Hispanic voters, some college-educated voters
Values voters and libertarians are not a perfect match – true libertarians are not comfortable with socially conservative causes like same-sex marriage bans, while social conservatives are not as adamant about economic libertarianism. Each side would be able to overlook these differences and maintain a strong coalition, though. The Republicans would return to their pre-Reagan focus on business first, while likely softening their stance on social issues to attract the portion of college-educated voters who are socially progressive but lean right on economic issues. The Democrats, after losing their conservative wing, would define themselves as a true left-wing party, most likely in the image of Europe’s Labor parties. They would retain a large portion of the college-educated voters who have supported them historically, while maintaining their historic support from minority groups.
Who would benefit from this situation? In the short-term, it would provide a major boost to the Democrats. They would likely retain most of their existing coalition while the Tea Party and Republicans sorted out their differences and defined themselves. As time went on, though, the Republicans would pick off the conservative portions of the Democratic Party and help stabilize the new system. While no party would dominate, the Republicans would become very powerful. As the relatively moderate group sitting between a left- and right-wing party they would be the the tie-breakers on most issues. The leverage they gain from negotiating with both parties would provide them with strong standing to push through their own legislative priorities.
While it would be born out of some of the worst excesses of American right-wing extremism, such realignment could be one of the best things to happen to the country’s political system. Two parties can hardly capture the ideological diversity that exists in the electorate, and more defined parties would help that flourish. In addition, the presence of a centrist party may help limit some of the vicious partisanship that has defined American politics in recent years. The need for cooperation among at least two parties would also help eliminate gridlock and prevent legislation from stalling out in Congress as it does now.
I’m not sure this realignment will happen, but it is a distinct possibility. One that I hope will come true.