Sean Trende, the Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics, doesn’t waste his time hunting small game. In The Lost Majority (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), he takes aims at “realignment theory,” which has been a staple of American history and political science lectures for decades. It posits that there is an enduring shift in the major parties’ power relationships every 30 to 40 years. For example, the election of 1896 realigned our politics in favor of the Republican Party; the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 began a new era of Democratic dominance; and so on.
Realignment theory survives, Trende believes, because it’s tidy and well established—not because it explains much. “It’s like looking for Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich,” he said. “If you really want to believe it’s there, you can probably find it there. But you’re probably just confirming your bias.”
Instead of enduring realignments, Trende sees ever-shifting coalitions that continually fracture along new lines and then re-form, as politicians and parties adjust their platforms in the quest to put together a winning coalition. No election is ever a guarantee for either party, and constituencies constantly shift loyalties. As Trende points out, “a political commentator in 1924 could be absolutely sure of three things” about the Democratic Party: “African Americans would never join up with a party that had just deadlocked its convention over whether to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, the Democrats would always have a base in the ‘Solid South,’ and the party was absolutely doomed because New York alone gave Republicans one-third of the electoral votes of the entire combined South.”
Within a generation, all of those certainties were in flux or upended. “These things can and do change on a dime all the time,” Trende said, which is why permanent impermanence—not enduring realignments—is the deepest truth of American politics.
—Theo Anderson, March 6, 2012
One startling claim you make in the book is that the most formidable coalition of the mid- and late-twentieth century was actually put together by Dwight D. Eisenhower, not Roosevelt. Can you explain that?
I think FDR’s coalition starts to fall apart by 1937, with the Roosevelt recession, and then World War II alienates a lot of the white working class. The Italians are mad that we’re at war with Italy. The Irish are mad that we’re allying ourselves with and arming Great Britain. And so we see those groups start to become a swing constituency. Eisenhower’s wins in 1952 and 1956 bear strong resemblance to Nixon’s win in 1972 and Reagan’s win in 1984. It’s probably better to call it the Cold War majority than the Eisenhower majority—this coalition of suburbanites, Southerners and white working-class voters that really dominates the latter half of the twentieth century.
And Ronald Reagan’s presidency marked the end of that coalition?
When Reagan comes in, the Republican Party shifts really hard to the right on social issues—the religious right has increasing influence over the Republican Party and drives a lot of moderate and more liberal Republicans out. And that sets the stage for Bill Clinton’s 1992 win, which really marks the end of the Eisenhower coalition.
You believe that realignment theory led the Obama administration to overreach in its first two years. Explain that.
If you read the newspaper and the opinion magazines after the election, there was this idea that we had hit a realigning phase. There was all this talk of a new New Deal. But if you look very carefully at Barack Obama’s [electoral] map, it looks almost identical to Clinton’s 1996 map. The difference is that Obama runs far worse in Appalachia, and runs better among minorities and especially suburbanites, a group that Clinton brought into his coalition in the 1990s. So Obama’s coalition is deeper than Clinton’s, but narrower, in that he lost Jacksonian Democrats in Appalachia.
I think there was a sense within the administration that we can do things on the scale of FDR. I think that’s why we saw losses on the magnitude that we saw in 2010. There was really an overreach, especially in the early days of the administration, because there was a sense of invincibility that turned out to be false.
I think progressives are probably rubbing their hands in disbelief at the idea that Obama has been too progressive…
It’s not just the type of change, but the magnitude and the speed. If you look at FDR’s first 100 days, he does a bunch of small things that, taken together, add up to big change. Whereas Obama had this giant $800 billion stimulus bill. Now, we can debate about whether he should have gone for $1.2 trillion or $1.6 trillion, but $800 billion was a big, headline number. For people who were just casually following, the news seemed to hearken back to the days when the Democrats were (in many ways unfairly) identified as tax and spend liberals. Even the fight over the healthcare bill—it’s only recently that people started emphasizing that it was originally a Republican bill. And part of that is because Obama and the Democrats needed to get progressives on board and wanted to emphasize the transformative nature of his presidency. So it was sold as a really big deal.
There’s no doubt that there’s plenty of room to President Obama’s left. He’s not Bernie Sanders. But he’s really not in the Clinton tradition either, which was more about playing small ball, and eventually moving some things down the field.
Since your thesis is that coalitions are made up of constituencies that are always shifting their loyalties, let’s talk about some of the constituencies that seem to be in play right now. What about Catholics?
The Catholic vote has remained split because of a growing Latino Catholic vote, which is more Democratic than the white Catholic vote. I mean, John McCain won the white Catholic vote by a pretty decent margin—that’s another one that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago, for a Republican to win the white Catholic vote and lose the election by a large margin. I think that’s exactly what’s going on with the debate over birth control. The GOP is making a play for white working-class Catholics there.
But isn’t that a dangerous game? Doesn’t it threaten to alienate women?
Absolutely. I mean, if the Republicans are in charge after the 2012 elections, other than repealing the healthcare bill, they’re going to have a hard time governing. Their coalition has different fractures than the Democrats but they’re just as numerous and just as serious. If they make a play against birth control they alienate not just women, but upper-middle-class men aren’t going to be happy about that either. So, again, there are serious cracks playing out in the Republican primaries right now between its upscale base and its increasingly downscale base. That’s the story between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
What about Libertarians? They usually give their support to the GOP, but they have some common ground with the Left on civil liberties issues. Is there any chance Democrats could pick up some of that vote?
One area where there’s no doubt that Barack Obama has been right-of-center is on foreign policy. It’s shocking to me. It blows my mind. In terms of keeping the Libertarians in the Republican camp, Obama has been the Republicans’ best friend, and, in a lot of ways, indistinguishable from George W. Bush. Again, it’s shocking to me. If you follow the Libertarian blogs, there was kind of a movement in 2008 to support Obama because of the Bush administration’s atrocious record on civil liberties. But they’ve kind of abandoned Obama—they see it as, if everyone is going to be bad on civil liberties, they’re going to vote Republican on fiscal issues.
African Americans give Democrats’ ninety-plus percent of their vote. But as you say, they were once a solidly Republican constituency. Do you see any chance of the GOP winning a larger share of that vote?
People forget about this, but the whole animating theory behind Bush’s 2000 campaign—the compassionate conservatism—was an attempt to peel away another 10 percent of African American voters, which would put the Democrats in deep trouble. The problem is that the GOP just has such an atrocious record on civil rights issues, and everyone knows it. Republicans try to talk their way around it, but the record kind of speaks for itself. So they can’t make that sale. Now, maybe 20 or 30 years from now, if there’s an extended time of good behavior by Republicans, and the Democrats are perceived as taking the African American vote for granted, you might see a change.
But I thought it was very disheartening for Republicans in 2006 when Michael Steele, in Maryland, did hardly any better than George Allen did in Virginia among African Americans. Two very different campaigns with very similar results. So it’s very tough for Republicans.
What other constituencies do you find interesting?
The Latino vote is a big story. That’s more fertile ground for Republicans in the immediate to long term than African Americans. When you control for ideology and income, the Latino vote is actually similar to the white vote in terms of breakdown between Republicans and Democrats. So as the Latinos become increasingly integrated into the country, and make more money, and move up the socio-economic ladder, I think the tendency will be for the Latino to follow the trend of the white working class. But who knows?
What’s happened to the white working class and its role in American politics?
The white working class, for the first time since it became a factor in the late 1800s, doesn’t have a natural party. Both parties make their play, but it’s not really where they focus. That’s very interesting. It’s really the first time you can say that.
Because it’s a shrinking constituency?
They were large enough in 1984 that they could have swung the election to Mondale. But they’re just not big enough anymore to be a dominant force in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. So, instead of being where American politics is centered, they’re shrinking into being just another client group that swings between the parties.
That seems especially true given the recent declines in union membership.
Unions were a prime carrier of information from the Democratic Party to workers, and as unions have shrunk there’s no one else to pick up that role. That’s definitely hurt the Democrats with the white working class.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the current election cycle?
One point that’s worth noting is what an interesting election it will be if it’s Romney and Obama, because Romney continues to play well in the suburbs, which is where Obama needs to pick up strength. But he’s the worst possible candidate for the white working class, which is the constituency that’s been incredibly resistant to Obama. So it’s almost like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object—neither should be able to win, but one of them has to. So if it’s Romney and Obama I think you could have a very unstable electorate that could fracture in any number of ways, just because their strengths and weaknesses are oddly so similar. Romney is economically the one percent. Democrats will portray him as a corporate raider. And culturally, Obama is the one percent. So it’s going to be a fascinating election between those two, if that’s what it turns out being.