View from Here
Every presidential election year, seemingly, is the most important election of our lifetimes. So we often heard this time. And this time, it wasn’t true.
This was a confirmation election. The nation is gradually setting off on a course originally charted in 2008.
Some of my view on this grew out of reading Kevin Phillips, who became well known among politics watchers more than 40 years ago for his book prescient The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he argued that as the 1932 election marked a political and philosophical turnaround in American politics, bringing in not just overall Democratic dominance but an ascendant New Deal and liberal tilt to politics generally, so was 1968, albeit in more subtle ways, a pivotal year. With hindsight, you can that Phillips was clearly correct. A new Republican coalition, with social (sometimes religious), economic and other components, enough to win national elections, was forming. By the mid-60s the forms of liberalism started in the 30s were reaching political exhaustion – going as far, at least, as most people in the country would want them to go – and a reaction to that, an alternative view of politics, policy and government, set in. The most immediately visible and obvious result of that was the flip of the South from Democratic to Republican, a move starting in 1968 and confirmed in the 1972 Nixon landslide. The old South has been mostly Republican since.
And politics for many years after had a Republican tilt, extending and growing over time. It was not a totally smooth or uninterrupted extension. Watergate led to Democratic wins in Congress in 1974 and the presidency in 1976, and the Clinton presidency came during that period too. But even Clinton famously declared that the era of big government was over. The idea of small government and balancing the budget (even during periods which neither happened, even during times of unified Republican control) took off as a major philosophical point. The weight of political discourse had changed.
Over time, the Republican and “conservative” (it should be referred to in quotes) dominance began to grow, change and extend. To be a conservative Republican in Congress, one of the dominant members in the Republican-led House, for example, is a very different thing than it was in the 80s or even the 90s. It has become a lot different, traveled a long way from conservative Republicanism as it was in 1968 or 1972. It has drifted to where its policy points, one by one, are broadly unpopular. And it has allowed Democrats and President Obama to run as simply supporting the idea of community, something considered broadly mainstream not long ago.
In 2008, a new coalition capable of winning national elections was emerging out of this. That coalition, which includes many of the fastest-growing parts of American society (most famously in recent months the Latino vote, but other components as well), is now a functional basis for a long-running coalition that can take Democrats and liberals to wins for quite a few election cycles to run, as long as the Republican coalition remains in the pattern started in 1968. Younger voters are more Democratic and more conventionally liberal. The existing Republican coalition is in numerical decline. It will continue to decline over the next decade.
The 2008 election demonstrated this and marked a break. 2010 was a reaction to that – no major change in American history has ever come without a significant reaction in opposition. But 2012 reinforced the larger trend line.
What does this translate to? It doesn’t necessarily mean, and probably doesn’t, the reinstallation of the New Deal approach to the world. Times change and new approaches are needed. The new Democratic or liberal world view hasn’t fully cohered yet (though it seems to be on its way), and we don’t yet know where it may lead over the next decade or two. Nor does this suggest that Republicans ought to give up their core principles – they won’t succeed by becoming faux Democrats (as Democrats have never had lasting or broad success by becoming faux Republicans). But some major rethinking (not simply “rebranding” or less incendiary rhetoric) will be needed before serious rebuilding can begin.
In any event, the news out of this election is that we’ve entered a new era. The conversations are going to be different. Ways of looking at our society are going to change. And the last two presidential election years have pointed the course.
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