The front-loaded primary regime produced its expected result by the first week in March: George W. Bush and Al Gore wrapped up the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. But they did so under circumstances no one had anticipated. The insurgent candidacy of Republican Senator John McCain, who appears to have won more than 5 million votes, eliminated any possibility of a coronation for either front-runner. It also left a notably disturbed political atmosphere in its wake.
There are lessons to be learned from this unexpected turbulence. The context of politics in 2000 should have produced clear sailing for the establishments of both parties; the country is at peace and the sole superpower in a post-Soviet world, while the recent growth in the US economy comes close to breaking all-time records. The reason it did not do so seems to me to lie in the hollowing out of the political system’s legitimacy among the American people at large. In this year’s primary season the establishments got their way in the end, as they usually do. But there is surging discontent just below the surface. There is a widespread demand for something else, a pervasive if still diffuse demand for major reforms that the existing order cannot and will not deliver. The unsettling extent of this demand is the more striking since Peace and Prosperity have been so barely able to contain it.
One might be led to think that a political realignment in the country is imminent. In the short term, however, this is unlikely. The cycle of upheaval at rare but recurrent intervals, followed by a relatively stable politics as usual, exists for several reasons. One of them is the constitutional order itself, which places huge barriers to comprehensive policy change in “normal” political time. Another is the normal centrism of the US electorate. On the ideological plane, government is perceived in conservative terms, but operationally, there is a liberal mode that favors continuation of domestic programs that only Big Government can provide. And there is no sign that the public at large has any interest in having this contradiction resolved. Both the fate of the Clinton healthcare program in 1994 and the fallout from the government shutdown by Republican “revolutionaries” in late 1995 are reflections of this fact of American political life.
Moreover, since the late sixties, elections have been candidate-dominated affairs, with parties playing far less of a role than they have in living memory. This has led to a situation in which, of the thirty-two years since 1968, divided government has prevailed in all but six of them. That’s quite possible again in 2000. House elections in the aggregate are close these days, but with not more than 10 percent of the seats competitive, control of the House could go either way regardless of whether Gore or Bush wins the presidency. In the Senate, the combination of cash, media access and incumbency should keep the upper chamber in Republican hands.
History tells us that economic concerns often play a major role in realignments, when they do occur. The long New Deal era arose out of the bankruptcy of an earlier business hegemony over national political and economic life. That realignment shifted the presidential wing of the Republican Party toward the New Deal, at least in principle, for a third of a century, until the right captured it with Barry Goldwater in 1964. At the same time, the cold war was under way. So long as the Soviet Union continued to exist, bipolar superpower antagonism worked to sustain the size and scope of federal government power, and of presidential power, far beyond historically traditional levels and well after the Depression was a fading memory. In the intense crisis of the late sixties, cold war liberalism was shredded, along with traditionally accepted political inequalities and structures of (white male) elite power pretty much across the board. The civil rights revolution, the organized feminist and gay movements, and many other less visible demanded more or less fundamental change in how civil society was put together and, thus, how social and political power was to be allocated.