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Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On | The Nation

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Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

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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.

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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...

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.

With Vietnam as an accelerator, but by no means the only one, Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall, shattered into a thousand fragments, and has never been put back together again. American politics was increasingly defined in racial and group victimization terms: Enter socioreligious issues as decisively important determinants of electoral politics.

These developments were less of a problem for the Republicans than for the Democrats. With all their internal tensions, Republicans have long been sociologically more homogeneous than their opponents. This homogeneity has been further reinforced with the gradual, and in the nineties much accelerated, realignment of Southern whites toward the GOP. But at the same time, the nonpresidential realignment of 1994 and after was more broadly felt in the mountain West (where Democratic officeholders are in danger of becoming an extinct species) and the Midwest. Of all major groups abruptly shifting to the GOP in 1994, young and middle-aged white males (30-44) led the parade. If we consider that Southern whites have a higher level of religious intensity than people in other parts of the country, that youngish white males may feel threatened by affirmative action programs, that they may also be threatened by pressures from their female counterparts to break the glass ceiling and that they hold liberals in the federal government responsible for promoting these threats to their socioeconomic opportunities and cultural values, it is not difficult to see why the Republican Party would become their party of choice.

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.

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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