09 November 2008

Realignment? Don't Hold Your Breath

The question you hear this week is whether Senator Obama's victory demonstrates a large-scale political realignment in process. Ive been asked this myself, and the obvious answer is: it's too soon to tell. It's fair to ask how soon we can tell, so let me give you a ballpark figure. If the Democratic party can win three presidential elections in a row, then you can call it a realignment. If voters aren't ready after four or eight years of President Obama to run back to the other pole, but will put in his handpicked (or not) successor -- someone certain not to be the by-then elderly VP Biden -- then I'd concede that there's been a significant shift in the electorate.

Three straight presidential wins is a fair benchmark. Back in the 19th century, the Republicans locked themselves in charge with six straight wins from 1860 through 1880. A Democrat won in 1884, but while Grover Cleveland won twice, he lost in 1888 only to come back in 1892. Then the GOP won another four in a row from 1896 through 1908. While many historians consider 1896 a "critical election," you can argue that there was no Democratic dominance to overturn. Woodrow Wilson won for the Democrats in 1912 and 1916, but Republicans got back in for another three elections from 1920 through 1928. It's not until FDR blasts through with four straight wins on his own from 1932 through 1944 that you can say there was a decisive shift in the Democrats' favor. Harry Truman made it five in a row in 1948, and the fact that the Republicans could only manage two in a row on the strength of Dwight Eisenhower's popularity in the 1950s shows that it was still the "New Deal" Era. This primarily Democratic epoch wasn't truly defunct until the GOP got its three straight in the 1980s thanks to Reagan and the elder Bush. That Bill Clinton couldn't transmit his success to Gore shows that Reaganism was still dominant, as it may still be despite present appearances. We should know for certain in 2016. As I said, don't hold your breath.

2008 does still seem like the end of an era, however. Along with what I wrote Tuesday about the neat Chicago-to-Chicago continuity from 1968 to now and the appearance of closure, it's also been pointed out to me that we may also have ended what might be called the post-Vietnam era. Three times in a row, you'll note, a Vietnam veteran has been defeated in a presidential election. To date, no Vietnam vet has become President. Maybe that's a consequence of the 'Nam vet stereotype, and maybe it reflects the still-disputed legacy of the war, since both Senator Kerry and Senator McCain have had their heroism questioned. If Obama serves two terms, any Vietnam vet who aspires to succeed him will most likely be McCain's age now, or only slightly younger. It's probably significant, too, that now the public image of the Vietnam vet is not the crazy man of exploitation cinema, nor Rambo, but a white-haired, rather doughy looking old man. We may have a generation for whom Vietnam and its attendant domestic conflicts are irrelevant, which would explain the apparent mass disinterest in William Ayers' potential influence on Obama.

The American Bipolarchy may operate according to a predictable cycle, or it may have identifiable rules that would allow you to verify a "realignment," but those aren't the only rules for determining whether the nation has changed. Rather than wait for more elections, we ought to look around us and listen if we want proof of change, both that which Obama promises, and that over which he has no power. In that latter realm, people needn't wait for change, but can go ahead and try to do it themselves.

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