How Much Do We Learn From the First Cut of History?
Although most election narratives mimicked the tendency of journalists to treat campaigns as horse races where issues and historical context were not very relevant, Sidney Blumenthal's work on the 1988 election, Pledging Allegiance (1990), was an exception. Blumenthal characterized the battle between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis as the last election of the cold war. Blumenthal recounted how, even as the Soviet Union collapsed, the cold war had so skewed American politics that the candidates refused to grapple with the emerging issues and held on to outdated rhetoric. Republicans benefited more than Democrats, who couldn't find the right message in the 1980s. Dukakis, Blumenthal wrote, "seemed paralyzed by Bush's cold war barrages."
Game Change offered something fresh to this genre. The book, which sold out on its first day, was based on an enormous wealth of insider interviews where campaign operatives spilled some revelatory information about what had happened. The authors put forth an anthropological exposé of the circus of professional campaign operators who surrounded the candidates and ran the show. The book was a logical culmination of the shift that started with Joe McGinnis. Game Change came full circle from White's examination of Kennedy. Whereas Theodore White had been fascinated by the candidates and their loyal team advisors, the genre had gradually pushed writers into the cold and impersonal professionalized world that candidates stepped into. Read from the perspective of 2010, we can look back at some of the Teddy White–like promise bestowed upon Obama upon his election with more skepticism and doubts.
Yet even with its more cynical look at the election process, Game Change suffered from some of the same limitations of the election narrative genre—rooted all the way back to Teddy White's heroic account—that exaggerate the possibility of change that elections can bring without fundamental reforms in the way that our institutions work. Election narratives are grounded on the same kind of belief about the possible impact of elections—thus their decision to focus so much attention on them above other parts of politics—that usually leaves Americans frustrated after the difficulties of governance begin.
Historians and historical political scientists who write about elections have a different take on elections than most journalists. On the one hand, scholars downplay the notion that the specific candidates and their campaigns have as big an impact on the outcome as journalists suggest. While the election narratives stress the horse race between candidates, scholars point to broader forces that move the electorate at the ballot box. Indeed, in the most recent election, a majority of political scientists agreed that President Bush's abysmal approval ratings combined with the poor economic conditions dictated that almost any competent Democrat would have won.
On the other hand, scholars have also been more interested in how institutional pressures will limit new presidents rather than seeing elections as moments of great opportunity. Without fundamental reforms in government, presidencies don't vary as greatly as we think. For example, the enormous role of private money in the election process means interest groups will be as influential in new term as they were during what preceded.
Public opinion scholars have also demonstrated how voter preferences don't shift as suddenly as election narratives suggest. There aren't many "game changes" in the electorate. Indeed, many political scientists no longer accept the concept of realigning elections, which had once been a staple of historical research. For many decades there was a body of scholarship claiming that certain critical elections produced realignments of political power and new sets of policies (such as 1896 or 1932). In a trenchant critique of this literature, Yale University's David Mayhew debunks almost every classic example of elections that were said to have resulted in such changes.
As President Obama finishes his second year, he and his staff would do well to catch up on what the social scientists have been saying about politics in addition to the books about his campaign. Though certainly not as engaging, their work offers great insight into the constraints of governance that he has faced. When Obama abandoned government reform upon taking office he ensured that he would have to struggle against the many structural factors that social scientists have been writing about, such as Senate rules that require sixty votes on all legislation or the revolving door between Congress and K Street.
The election narrative will always have a central place in the canon of political history. After all, what can be more dramatic than men and women competing for the most powerful office in the world. Whom voters pick to be president matters, as many people believe that the post-9/11 world could have been very different had Al Gore been president.
But each election does not remake American politics. Sometimes we need to step back from the play-by-play to better understand the rules of the game. Mythologizing elections causes us to forget the difficult playing field that new presidents will encounter and shifts us away from the macro-forces that shaped election outcomes. Unless we put presidential election in their proper context, the nation will continue to subject itself to the frustration that inevitably comes from realizing that exciting candidates who claim a mandate to change politics very often can't deliver.