Houle was looking at election pairs – specifically, elections where the minority party gained in the midterm elections preceding the transformational Presidential election. He then goes on to differentiate between corrective midterms (1966, adjusting for the Goldwater wipeout) and those following a long period of status-quo elections (1930). His theory is that 2008 is looking, historically, like 1932. And this was beforethe financial meltdown made the two years even more eerily similar.
In fact, it could be argued that this election is four years late – imagine what 2004 would have been like without a 9/11 to rally the troops and frighten everyone else. Nonetheless, Houle quotes John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who in 2002 suggested that the United States was undergoing demographic trends that would lead to an Emerging Democratic Majority. In 2006, they revisited their thesis:
Bush’s initial success in waging the war on terror disrupted these trends toward the Democratic majority. American politics became dominated by concerns over national security, an issue on which Republicans had enjoyed voters’ confidence since 1980. Some voters who might have supported Democrats were distracted from economic or social concerns that had favored Democrats. They ignored Republicans’ religious intolerance and indifference to environmental pollution, rewarding Republicans instead for their presumed success in the war on terror. In 2004 George W. Bush won victories in swing states like Ohio, Iowa, and Florida largely because of these voters’ defection. Chief among the defectors were white working-class women voters. In 2000 Bush had won these voters by 7 percent. In 2004 he won them by 18 percent. That year a plurality of these voters identified terrorism and security over the economy and jobs or the war in Iraq as their most important issue.
But there was also evidence of another psychological process, which might be called “de-arrangement.” The focus on the war on terror not only distracted erstwhile Democrats and independents but appeared to transform, or de-arrange, their political worldview. They temporarily became more sympathetic to a whole range of conservative assumptions and approaches. In the past, voters had trusted Democrats to manage the economy, and in 2002 that preference should have been strongly reinforced by a recession that occurred on Bush’s watch. Instead, voters in that election believed by 41 percent to 37 percent that Republicans were “more likely to make sure the country is prosperous.” Recessions could also be expected to reinforce populist perceptions of the economy, but in 2002 the percentage of voters who believed that “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer” hit its lowest level in 15 years. Most interestingly, opposition to abortion also followed the same curve. The percentage of voters who believed that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances” (based on Gallup Poll annual averages) rose from 17 percent, in 2000, to 20 percent, in 2002, and was still at 19 percent in 2004….
In the 2006 election, all the groups that had been part of the emerging Democratic majority in the late 1990s came roaring back into the fold. College-educated women backed Democrats by 57 percent to 42 percent. Single women backed Democrats by 66 percent to 33 percent. And the key swing group among women voters shifted. White working-class women, who had voted Republican by 57 percent to 42 percent in 2004, backed them by only 52 percent to 47 percent in 2006 — a 10-point shift. This movement away from the GOP included a stunning 26-point shift by white working-class women with annual household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000, who went from pro-Republican (60 percent to 39 percent) in 2004 to pro-Democratic (52 percent to 47 percent) in 2006. Postgraduate voters, who are typically professionals, also moved decisively into the Democratic column. In 2002 these voters had backed Republican congressional candidates by 51 percent to 45 percent. In 2006 they backed Democrats by 58 percent to 41 percent.
Minority voters also increased their support for Democratic candidates, largely due to a shift among Hispanics. Hispanics had backed congressional Democrats in 2004 by 59 percent to 40 percent, but in 2006 they supported them by 69 percent to 30 percent. This partly represented a reaction to Republican anti-immigration politics, but it also reflected a shift back to the kind of support that Democrats had enjoyed among Hispanics in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Moreover, each of these groups will likely increase its share of the electorate over the years. Minorities made up 15 percent of the electorate in 1990; they are 21 percent today and are expected to be 25 percent in 2015. Their weight will be much higher in key states like California, Florida, and Texas. In 1970 single women made up 38 percent of adult women; today they are a majority. College-educated women have more than tripled as a percentage of women 25 and older since then, going from 8 percent to 27 percent. Professionals were 7 percent of the workforce in the 1950s; they are 17 percent today and are expected to be 19 percent in 2015. Insofar as they vote at the highest rate of any occupational group, they likely make up a quarter or so of the electorate in many Northeast and far West states.
Add to that the huge shift of young voters in the direction of the Democratic party, and you have a recipe for Republican decline. (Even if they don’t vote as reliably as older voters, young voters do age, and tend to hold their political philosophy as they do.) Finally, an eight year economic clusterfuck (bookended by Enron at the front and nearly everything else at the end) is icing on the cake.
Does this mean that Barack Obama, if elected on November 4th, will realign American politics? Or has the steady realignment of American political philosophies brought us to a place where Barack Obama can get elected?
Probably a little of both. How transformational depends in part on how successful a President Obama would be in pushing a progressive agenda forward. And here, external events will help him.
Which brings us back to Michael Fellman. Writing on The Tyee, Fellman suggests that Obama’s instinctive centrism will be overpowered by events:
Circumstances will drive Obama and the Democratic congress to the left. An interventionist state is returning with a rush; Reaganite, anti-state, deregulated capitalism, it is now clear, is a catastrophe and a dead letter. A new era has begun.
This time the Republicans have adapted to the economic and political sea change even before they have left office. In dire straits, somewhat reluctantly following the British lead, the Goldman Sachs element of finance capitalism that runs the W. treasury has signed on to massive state intervention, and a bewildered Congress agreed. Henry Paulson et al are of course saving themselves through state intervention — Keyensianism in the foxhole — but such rapid reformulation of their self-interest proves my point.
Therefore when the Obama administration deepens this new departure, many influential elements of the Republican Party will not be able to rail against the state as the enemy and the Democrats as high spending state activists.
Fellman points out that even Nicholas Sarkozy – the right’s favorite Frenchman – is embracing a more rigorously regulated version of capitalism. Given the value, going forward, of a unified approach to the economy and regulation, the relatively unified European front on those issues, and Obama’s natural inclination towards consensus, his path will be proscribed, not by obstructions on the right, but by the gravitational pull of the rest of the world moving left. Fellman’s argument, essentially, is that Barack Obama will no longer be pushing a wave of change, but surfing it.
At least that’s the theory.
There is no doubt, however, that just as 9/11 “de-arranged” the political worldview of many in the center left of the political spectrum, the current financial crisis has the potential to do the same to folks who would otherwise tilt rightward.
I think it will, but the notion that this will clear the path for specific progressive policies on healthcare, worker’s rights, the environment, or various forms of welfare and low-income assistance, for example, is by no means guaranteed.