Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On | The Nation


Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

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Ever since the Civil War the Democrats have, to a much greater extent than Republicans, been a collection of peripheral out-groups. The identity of these groups has changed over time, naturally; but the party's cohesion problems have remained a leitmotif of its existence. Many in the twenties, viewing the overall scene of the time (including the disastrous Democratic convention of 1924), could see scant prospect for such a collection of oppositions ever to take power in any foreseeable future. The Depression and subsequent mass rallying of the poorer half of the population around FDR's banner welded these groups together and added reinforcements to them, as organized labor became for the first time a significant force in US politics. But the party's underlying cohesion problems notoriously remained, as attested by the success of the conservative coalition in Congress between 1939 and 1964 in blocking further policy advances. The disintegrations of the late-sixties crisis and after have again brought this problem center stage.

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Walter Dean Burnham
Walter Dean Burnham, professor of government at the University of Texas, specializes in the study of American politics...

The eclipse of the old party system, with its capacities for retail politics--actually contacting voters personally rather than through TV spots--has also been associated with turnout decline. While this decline from the sixties to the nineties has occurred across all economic/occupational strata, it is heavily concentrated toward the bottom. In general, for every percentage point of decline that occurs in the highest occupational strata (professionals, managers, etc.), the decline in the manual-labor and service categories is more than 3.5 points. We have heard much about "Reagan Democrats" in the lower reaches of the socioeconomic structure, but far less about the heavy dropout concentrated in the same general quarters. But this skew is linked to and reinforces the Democratic Party's tendency to "go hunting where the ducks are" and to concentrate on wooing and winning parts of the "real" middle class. The end product of this has thus far been the Clinton Administration, which is what would historically be called liberal Republican.

We may put all the above in more concise terms. The modern Republican Party is in comparative terms a true conservative party, divided as it is between those who care more about economics and those with traditional conservative social values to defend. It is an antistate party. The Democrats, on the other hand, have had to do the work elsewhere performed by parties of the left and left-center, there being no such thing as a clearly organized left in American politics. They are cast in the role of a pro-state (or at least pro-government-programs) party. But they are also a pro-out-group-claimant party, and, as they have so often found, this leaves them vulnerable to Republican attack in the name of the "silent majority," as Nixon used to call it. The Clinton-era response to this vulnerability has been effective in presidential elections (though not, starting in 1994, in Congressional or most state elections)--but only because of the storm and stress that afflicted incumbent George Bush in 1992. And it is noteworthy that with all the "triangulation" toward the center, Clinton was unable even in 1996 to win a majority of the total votes cast. Political America today remains to a striking degree the one that Ronald Reagan helped so much to create.

But today is not always. While critical realignment will not be part of this year's picture, since such massive upheavals in the political order require major stimuli that break up an existing order and produce political upheaval, things have a habit of changing quite radically in short periods of time.

The currently blocked system seems to be on, or approaching, its last legs. Its equilibrium becomes more unstable--hence, vulnerable to sudden and explosive overthrow--with every election. We have abundant evidence, at least ever since a 1991 Kettering Foundation focus-group survey, that very large parts of the electorate believe their votes to be meaningless. From Ross Perot's huge showing in 1992 to the Republican "earthquake" of 1994, and on to the persistent increase in the number and proportion of American adults who have opted out of the electoral market altogether, the public has been sending clear signals to that effect. A very important feature of American politics that goes back a long way is that Americans deeply resent any development that they see as voiding the meaning of their participation in elections. Repeatedly, this resentment has suddenly flared up to a blinding intensity. And it is probably the most significant single theme that unites the political riptides that have marked our politics over the past decade. The primary campaigns of 2000 reveal that it is alive and well.

What might it take to produce a progressive realignment? Thoughts turn to the economy. Unless we assume that we have at last repealed the laws of economic gravity, the stock market will at some point fall. In varying ways, depending on their position in the class structure, a lot of people will then be a lot poorer than they are now. Imagine further that when this happens, Republicans are in charge. Unlike under the normal pattern of divided government, given the right conditions of high political temperature and pressure, Democrats might then sweep to power and fashion a new (or recalibrated) political order. This would lead to a positive and proactive role for the federal government in managing the political economy's collective affairs.

Does all this suggest that 2000 will not be an "important" election? By no means. It always matters who wins a presidential election, and 2000 is no exception.

But look for a combination of political decisions and economic and/or threatening global stress to trigger a genuine political explosion relatively soon--perhaps toward the end of this new decade, perhaps a bit sooner or later. Meanwhile, status is quo.

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