Chapter One: The Rise and Fall of the Conservative Republican Majority
In 1969, a year after Richard Nixon won the presidency, Kevin Phillips, an aide to Attorney General John Mitchell, published a book entitled The Emerging Republican Majority. The apparent confirmation of its thesis in 1972 -- not to mention Phillips's proximity to the administration -- eventually landed it on the best-seller lists.
Like other books of its kind, however, it was cited more often than it was read, and its actual thesis has been clouded by its notoriety. Phillips did not argue that Republicans had already created a majority -- in fact, when he wrote his book, Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress, plus the majority of statehouses. What he argued was that the era of "New Deal Democratic hegemony" was over. Phillips predicted that a new Republican majority would eventually emerge out of popular disillusionment with big government programs and the collapse of the Democratic coalition -- a collapse the 1968 candidacy of Alabama governor George Wallace had foreshadowed. And a Republican majority finally did emerge in 1980, but only after the GOP had rebounded from the Watergate scandal.
Our view is that we are at a similar juncture -- but one that will yield the opposite result. We believe that the Republican era Phillips presciently perceived in 1969 is now over. We are witnessing the "end of Republican hegemony." The first signs appeared in the early 1990s -- not merely in Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, but in H. Ross Perot's third-party candidacy and the rise of new kinds of independent voters. The Republican takeover of Congress in November 1994 seemed to show that Clinton's win and Perot's strong showing were flukes. Indeed, many confidently predicted that 1994 heralded the beginning of still another conservative realignment. But the 1994 Republican wins turned out, in retrospect, to be the same kind of false dawn that the Democrats had experienced twenty years earlier because of Watergate.
Ever since 1994, Republicans have lost ground in Congress and in the country. Like the Democrats of the 1970s, they have also begun to suffer serious divisions within their ranks -- from Pat Buchanan on the right to John McCain and Jim Jeffords on the left. Bush's aggressive prosecution of the war against the terrorists in the fall of 2001 lifted him in public esteem and may have delayed a Republican collapse in 2002. But once the clouds of war lift, and Americans cease to focus on threats to their national security, Republicans are likely to continue their slide, and the movement toward a Democratic majority is likely to resume.
The Republican majority that Phillips foresaw represented a "realignment" of American politics. A realignment entails a shift in the political coalitions that dominate American politics and in the worldview through which citizens interpret events and make political judgments. Realignments happened before in 1860-64, 1896, and 1932-36. These past realignments followed or took place during cataclysmic events -- the conflict over slavery and the Civil War, the depression of the 1890s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s -- that polarized the country along either regional or class lines. No similar cataclysm has shaken the political system since then, and as a result, realignments have occurred more gradually, with the fall of a prior majority and the rise of a new one separated by a decade-long transition period. It took from 1968 to 1980 for the New Deal majority to collapse and for a new conservative Republican majority to be born; and it is taking from 1992 until sometime in this decade for the conservative Republican majority to disintegrate and for a new Democratic majority to emerge.
I. HOW REALIGNMENTS WORK
Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called realignments America's "surrogate for revolution." It is a good way to think of them. Realignments respond to the sharp clashes between interests, classes, regions, religions, and ethnic groups brought about by tectonic shifts in the economy and society. In other countries, these conflicts might have led to insurrection and revolution, but with the exception of our Civil War, in the United States they have resulted in changes in party control and the emergence of a new political zeitgeist. The tensions that industrialization stirred within a peasant economy contributed to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but in the United States similar tensions produced the Populist Party, its absorption within the Democratic Party, and eventually the triumph of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt's new Republican coalition, which dominated American politics (with a brief interregnum) from 1896 to 1930. The economic collapse of the 1920s propelled the Fascists to power in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. In the United States, by contrast, the crash of 1929 simply ushered one governing coalition -- Herbert Hoover's Republicans -- out of power, so that another -- Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal Democrats -- could take over.
Realignments take place because a dominant political coalition fails to adapt to or to contain a growing social and political conflict. A political movement like the Southern civil rights movement can precipitate this sort of conflict. So can differing political responses to major changes in the country's economy or position in the world. The Jacksonian Democrats' rise in the 1820s was partly the result of conflict between the farmers of the new frontier states, who demanded easy credit, and Eastern bankers and merchants who wanted the stability of the Second Bank of the United States. The Republican Party was born in 1856 out of the conflict between the free-labor North and the plantation South over the extension of slavery. The McKinley Republicans put the United States squarely on the side of its industrial future rather than its agrarian past. And the New Deal Democrats expanded the scope and responsibilities of the federal government to overcome the inability of modern capitalism, acting on its own, to prevent poverty, unemployment, and incendiary class conflict.
In each realignment, the emerging majority party creates a new coalition by winning over voters from its rival party and by increasing its sway over its own voters, whose ranks have typically increased through birth, immigration, and economic change. In 1896, the Republicans won over Northern workingmen who had voted Democratic in the past, but who blamed the Democrats for the depression and were turned off by presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's agrarian appeal for free silver. The addition of these voters gave the Republicans a solid majority in the North and the Far West. And that majority held until 1932, when anger over the Great Depression drove a number of groups -- industrial workers, small farmers, blacks, Catholics, and Jews -- back into the Democratic Party. Together with the party's existing base in the South, this coalition gave the Democrats an enduring majority, reducing Republicans to their loyal business supporters in the Northeast and Midwest, farmers in the Western plains states, and rural Protestants in the Midwest and Northeast.
Majority coalitions are not necessarily homogeneous. They are like old cities that are periodically rebuilt. They may be recognizable by their newest buildings and streets, but they also contain older structures and streets. Similarly, a new majority coalition is distinguished by a set of leading constituencies, but also includes other groups that have traditionally supported that party and still find more reasons to support it than the opposition. At the heart of the New Deal were Franklin Roosevelt, New York senator Robert Wagner (the author of the National Labor Relations and Social Security Acts), and trade unionists like the Clothing Workers president Sidney Hillman, but it also included white Southern conservatives who had voted Democratic since before the Civil War and were typified by Roosevelt's first vice president, Texan John Nance Garner.
Realignments have been accompanied by the creation of a new dominant political worldview or zeitgeist. Like the coalition itself, a worldview is made up of heterogeneous elements, but it also has a leading set of ideas. The leading New Deal Democrats -- Franklin Roosevelt rather than Garner or brain truster Rexford Tugwell rather than brain-truster-turned-critic Raymond Moley -- held a far wider view of government's economic responsibility -- and of what government could do -- than did the Coolidge-Hoover Republicans. A Republican of the 1920s could not have conceived of, let alone condoned, the federal government paying the unemployed to go to school or to paint a mural. The New Deal Democrats also took a far more favorable view of labor unions and a far more skeptical view of business than did contemporary Republicans. But of course not all Democrats who voted for Roosevelt subscribed to these ideas about unions and government, just as, later, not all Republicans who voted for Reagan would support his ideas about banning abortion or reinstituting school prayer.
There is, finally, a kind of metaworldview that has distinguished the two parties. From Andrew Jackson through Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, Democrats have defined themselves as the party of the average American and Republicans as the party of the wealthy and powerful. The Democrats have not necessarily stigmatized the rich and powerful, but they have insisted that their priorities lie elsewhere. The Whigs and their successor, the Republicans, have been more consistently sympathetic to business and the wealthy. They have not defined themselves solely as the party of business, but they have defined America's interests as identical to those of its business class. Even when they have appeared to cast their lot rhetorically with the average American, as Reagan or former congressman Jack Kemp did, they have done so in a way that identifies the worker with the executive and the member of the middle class with the member of the upper class. They have shunned any evocation of class conflict or class resentment.
One indication that a realignment is imminent has been the rise of third parties that defy the existing political consensus. The Liberty and Free Soil parties of the 1840s arose because both the Democrats and the Whigs were unwilling to oppose slavery. The Progressive Party of 1924, which ran Robert La Follette for president and received a respectable 16.6 percent of the vote, pointed to rising disillusionment by farmers and industrial workers with the two major parties' support for laissez-faire economics. And in 1968, Wallace's third party arose because neither the Democratic nor the Republican leadership were willing to oppose the civil rights movement. Sometimes, the revolt against the prevailing worldview occurs within the opposition party itself. In 1928, Al Smith, a "wet," a Catholic, and an advocate of liberal reform, challenged the prevailing consensus; Barry Goldwater did so in 1964; and George McGovern in 1972. The opposition gets clobbered, but it does surprisingly well among constituencies that would become the heart of a new majority. Smith was routed by Hoover nationally, but he ran unusually strongly among urban Catholic voters, who had deserted the Democrats in 1896, but would return in the 1930s. Goldwater was also routed, but he created a new Republican base in the Deep South. And McGovern, as we shall soon see, tapped into the source of a future Democratic majority -- one just coming into view now.
Realignments used to occur every thirty-two to forty years. By this count, a realignment should have occurred between 1968 and 1976. But the realignment cycle coincided with the business cycle. Both the realignments of 1896 and 1932 were precipitated by depressions. After World War II, Keynesian fiscal policy didn't eliminate, but did reduce, the downward trajectory of the business cycle. And by eliminating massive depressions, it made it less likely that political realignments would occur exactly on time and as dramatically as before. That didn't lead to the end of realignments, but to a transitional period between the end of one majority and the beginning of another. This transition period created illusions of party dealignment and permanent equilibrium, but finally culminated in a new majority. The realignment of 1980 was prefaced by a twelve-year transition in which the old Democratic majority splintered, and the coming realignment is being preceded by a period of transition that began in 1992 in which the Republican majority has disintegrated.
II. THE COLLAPSE OF NEW DEAL LIBERALISM
In the sixties, two clear signs that a conservative Republican realignment might be imminent were Goldwater's nomination in 1964 and Wallace's independent campaign in 1968. In 1964, Goldwater directly challenged the New Deal and Cold War worldview that had united Republicans like Nixon and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller with Democrats like John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Arizonan and his conservative supporters opposed the New Deal welfare state, including social security and the minimum wage; they favored the rollback rather than containment of Soviet communism; and they rejected a commitment to racial equality, even opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that guaranteed blacks equal access to public facilities. In the election, Goldwater was routed in the North and the West, but carried five Deep South states that had not backed the Republicans since Reconstruction (see chart). County by county, the pro-Republican shifts were phenomenal. For example, the average county in Mississippi moved Republican by an amazing 67 percentage points in 1964, while the average Louisiana county increased its Republican support by 34 points over 1960. These Deep South states would become bulwarks of the new conservative Republican majority.
In the 1964 Democratic presidential primaries and running as an independent candidate in 1968, Wallace challenged the consensus of both parties even more brazenly by advocating racial segregation. He waged an openly racist campaign that appealed to white Democrats who had been alienated by the civil rights movement and by the ghetto riots, which had begun in 1964. Wallace linked race to a cluster of concerns about the welfare state, taxes, spending, crime, local political power (blacks had already run for mayor in Cleveland and Gary), and the power of the federal government. This explosive cluster of issues, which had opposition to civil rights at its core, split the New Deal Democratic coalition. Phillips described this process in The Emerging Republican Majority:
The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it. Democratic "Great Society" programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation. The South, the West, and the Catholic sidewalks of New York were the focus points of conservative opposition to the welfare liberalism of the federal government; however, the general opposition...came in large part from prospering Democrats who objected to Washington dissipating their tax dollars on programs which did them no good. The Democratic Party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many...to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few.
In the 1968 election, Wallace got 13.5 percent of the vote nationally, and forty-six electoral votes from five states in the Deep South. In twenty-four additional states, he got more votes than the difference between Nixon and Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, Wallace's campaign for president as a Democrat was cut short by an assassin's bullet. When the Democrats nominated McGovern, who endorsed the civil rights movement agenda on welfare and crime, as well as on school integration, Nixon inherited Wallace's vote.
In forty-five of fifty states, Nixon's vote in 1972 closely matched the sum of his and Wallace's vote in 1968. (The exceptions were Maine, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.) In some states, including seven in the South, it looked as if Wallace's votes had simply been transferred to Nixon (see chart below).
On the presidential level, Nixon's victory in 1972 was equivalent to Roosevelt's landslide in 1932 and seemed to augur a new conservative Republican majority. But there was one important difference: in 1932, Democrats won the White House and the Congress, while in 1972, Nixon and the Republicans were not able to win the Congress. Democrats retained a 57-43 edge in the Senate -- even picking up two seats from 1970 -- and a 244-191 advantage in the House of Representatives. Republicans failed to take the Congress partly because opposition to civil rights was not sufficiently strong in the North and Far West to overcome the voters' commitment to Democratic economics. Liberal Democrats defeated Republicans in Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, and Maine.
Republicans failed to win support in the South below the presidential level. If political position alone had mattered, the South would probably have gone solidly Republican in Congress in 1968 or 1972. Many of the Democrats it elected, such as Mississippi senator James Eastland or Arkansas Senator John McClellan, espoused exactly the same positions as the most conservative Republicans. But Southern voters, still mindful of the Republican role in the Civil War and Reconstruction, were not willing to support the creation of local Republican organizations. While the Republican Party had established a strong presence in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, it could not recruit viable candidates in most of the South. In 1972, Democrats controlled 68 percent of both the Senate and House seats in the South, and virtually all the state legislative positions.
To make matters worse for the Republicans, Nixon became embroiled in the Watergate scandal, which led to his resignation and cast a pall over Republican candidates in the 1974 and 1976 elections. The scandal was, of course, the result of Nixon's malfeasance, but it would not have become so public or led to his resignation and to Republican defeats if congressional Democrats and the national press (whom Nixon had alienated) had not been determined to do Nixon in; or, for that matter, if the Democrats had not had control of congressional investigating committees. The Watergate scandal did not simply weaken the Republicans; it happened in part because of the party's relative weakness -- because a realignment had not yet occurred.
Yet while a Republican realignment had not occurred, the Democratic majority was already unraveling. Even in the shadow of Watergate, Democrat Jimmy Carter barely eked out a victory over Gerald Ford in 1976. And while the Democrats held sixty-two seats in the Senate at the end of that year, fourteen of those senators were conservative Southern Democrats. When Carter tried to get Congress to enact the Democratic agenda of progressive tax reform, energy conservation, and consumer protection, these Southern Democrats joined their Republican counterparts to block his initiatives and to pass measures such as a reduction in capital gains taxes that would ordinarily have reflected a Republican majority.
III. THE TRIUMPH OF REAGAN REPUBLICANISM
In 1980, the Republican majority finally came to pass. Reagan won a landslide in the electoral college. He won the entire West, the South except for Carter's Georgia, and the Midwest except for Vice President Walter Mondale's Minnesota. The Republicans won a majority in the Senate and established parity in the South. The Democrats narrowly retained a majority in the House, but only because congressional results were lagging the general Republican trend in the South. Seventy of the seventy-eight Southern Democrats in the House were conservatives who would support Reagan's program and allow the Republicans to pass their legislative agenda of regressive tax cuts and reductions in social spending during Reagan's first term. In 1984, Reagan would do even better, winning 59 percent of the popular vote and every state but Minnesota and the District of Columbia against Mondale.
Two main factors propelled the Republicans into a majority. White opposition to civil rights continued to be a major factor in Democratic defections to the Republican Party. The cluster of issues that Wallace had evoked had, if anything, expanded, for now they included busing and affirmative action. As politicians were quick to understand, evoking any part of this cluster called up the whole and created a ready-made constituency among angry downscale whites who would otherwise have been expected to vote Democratic. By the time Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, it wasn't necessary any longer for politicians to make explicit racial appeals. He could use traditional code words such as state's rights, as Reagan did in his opening September campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, or could champion one of the issues at the margins of the racial cluster such as "law and order," "welfare cheating," or even capital punishment.
The power of these issues was reinforced and supplemented by the stagflation of the late 1970s. Though stagflation first appeared during the 1973-75 recession, it had persisted during the Carter administration and was peaking on the eve of the 1980 election. As the economy slid once more into recession, the inflation rate in that year was 12.5 percent. Combined with an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent, it produced a "misery index" of nearly 20 percent. The stagflation fed resentments about race -- about high taxes for welfare (which was assumed to go primarily to minorities) and about affirmative action. But it also sowed doubts about Democrats' ability to manage the economy and made Republican and business explanations of stagflation -- blaming it on government regulation, high taxes, and spending -- more plausible. In 1978, the white backlash and doubts about Democratic economic policies had helped to fuel a nationwide tax revolt. In 1980, these factors led to a massive exodus of white working-class voters from the Democratic ticket. These voters had once been the heart of the New Deal coalition, but in the 1980 and 1984 elections, Reagan averaged 61 percent support among them.
In some working-class areas, race seemed like the predominant consideration. In these areas, the old Wallace vote transferred to Reagan. For instance, white working-class Lorain County, to the west of Cleveland, had once been solidly Democratic. But Nixon got 40 percent of the vote in 1968, with Wallace taking another 10. In 1980, Reagan won the county with 50 percent -- exactly the sum of Nixon and Wallace's vote. White working-class Jefferson County, just south of St. Louis, had been staunchly Democratic before 1968. But in that year, Nixon had got 38 percent and Wallace 20 percent. In 1980, Reagan won the county with 52 percent.
Blue-collar Macomb County, just north of Detroit, had been the most Democratic suburban county in the country in 1960, going 63 percent for Kennedy in that year; in 1968, it had given 30 percent of its votes to Nixon and 14 percent to Wallace; in 1980, it gave 52 percent to Reagan. Then in 1984, it rewarded Reagan with a whopping 66 percent. In trying to discover why Macomb's disaffected Democrats had voted for Reagan, pollster Stanley Greenberg uncovered a cluster of issues at the center of which was racial resentment. "Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives," Greenberg wrote afterward. According to Greenberg, Macomb's disaffected Democrats saw the federal government "as a black domain where whites cannot expect reasonable treatment." This view "shapes their attitudes toward government, particularly spending and taxation and the linkage between them....There was a widespread sentiment, expressed consistently in the groups, that the Democratic party supported giveaway programs, that is, programs aimed primarily at minorities."
Other voters appeared to be moved primarily by doubts about Democratic economic policy. Wallace had made little headway among these voters, but they still went for Reagan in 1980 and 1984. For instance, five counties in Pennsylvania (Carbon, Erie, Lackawanna, Luzerne, and Northampton) backed Humphrey in 1968, while giving Wallace less than 5 percent of the vote. But in 1980, all except for Lackawanna went for Reagan, including predominately rural Carbon County (52-41) and blue-collar Erie (47-45). Reagan would carry these counties by similar margins in 1984. Reagan also won support from moderate Republicans who disagreed with his social conservatism and his rejection of environmental regulation and conservation, but nonetheless believed that Carter had proven incapable of managing the economy. Bergen County in northern New Jersey, just outside of New York City, and Montgomery County in Philadelphia, housed lawyers, doctors, bankers, and stockbrokers who had voted Republican for most of the twentieth century, but they were moderates who had balked at supporting Goldwater in 1964. In 1980 and 1984, however, they were back in the GOP fold, voting overwhelmingly for Reagan.
Two other factors contributed to Reagan's and the Republicans' victories in 1980 -- and in the next two general elections. Just as many Americans believed Carter and the Democrats had become incapable of managing the economy, many Americans also began to doubt Carter and the Democrats' leadership in foreign policy. During Carter's years, Soviet allied regimes took power in Angola, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Nicaragua and seemed on the verge of taking power in El Salvador. In 1979, the Khomeini regime in Iran, which had overthrown the shah with Carter's tacit support, took over fifty Americans hostage, creating a daily visual reminder of America's impotence. Of course, some working-class Democrats had begun to harbor doubts in the early 1970s about the Democrats' willingness to stand up to Soviet communism and third world radicalism, but the events of the Carter years convinced voters who were worried by Reagan's missile-rattling anticommunism that it was nonetheless time for a change.
Reagan and the Republicans were also able to draw on some voters' discomfort with the counterculture of the sixties, including feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, decriminalization of drugs, and sexual freedom. As early as 1966, Reagan, running for governor of California, had successfully singled out the "filthy speech movement" (a successor to the "free speech movement") in winning blue-collar votes. In 1972, Nixon had campaigned against "acid, amnesty, and abortion," a slogan he borrowed from McGovern's Democratic critic Senator Henry Jackson. These appeals exploited the generation gap between parents and children, but also the gap between the blue-collar and middle-class taxpayers who funded universities and the long-haired upper-middle-class students who attended them.
In the 1980 election, Reagan and other conservative Republicans were able to pick up votes from antiabortion Catholics in many former Democratic strongholds. But the most important defection over values came from white Protestant evangelicals in the South. These voters made up about two-fifths of the white electorate in the South and about one-seventh of the white electorate elsewhere. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, who identified himself as a "born-again Christian," won 52 percent of their vote.
In the late seventies, however, many of these voters began to desert the Democratic Party. The impetus came partly from leaders like the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Angered by the Carter administration's refusal to grant tax-exempt status to segregated Christian academies and by Democratic support for abortion rights, they turned to the Republicans, who, for their part, began to court them actively. Reagan won 63 percent of their support against Carter in 1980 and then 80 percent against Mondale in 1984. By the late eighties, the Protestant evangelicals had become the most important single group within the Republican Party in the South, while also contributing to Republican support in the Midwest and the plains states.
Reagan's Republican coalition drew together all these voters -- from the Midwestern blue-collar Democrats that Scammon and Wattenberg had written about (who were now dubbed Reagan Democrats) to the traditional farm-state Republicans to Northeastern moderates. But Reagan's primary political base was in the Sunbelt states stretching from Virginia down to Florida, and across to Texas and to southern California. Many of these states had been the center of resistance to racial integration; they contained the bulk of the nation's Protestant evangelicals; and they were home to many of the country's military bases and defense installations and factories. While some moderate Republicans in the Northeast were put off by the conservatives' call to roll back communism and to hike military spending, these positions were extremely popular in defense-heavy states such as Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas and in southern California. While the Republican Party still lagged in the South for historical reasons, Reagan's appeal was unmistakable. Reagan won 61 percent of white Southern voters in 1980 against a Southern candidate and 71 percent in 1984 against Mondale.
Reagan Republicans incorporated the views of the Goldwater Republicans -- they wanted to roll back communism, dramatically increase military spending, eliminate government intervention in the market, and end support for racial equality. Like Goldwater, Reagan adopted Andrew Jackson's antistatist populism to justify an attack on government environmental, consumer, and labor regulations. But the Reagan Republicans abandoned Goldwater's opposition to the basic New Deal programs of the minimum wage and social security and focused instead on the social welfare programs like Johnson's Great Society that had been adopted after the 1930s or that had been greatly expanded in the sixties and seventies -- programs that they insinuated were aimed primarily at minorities. (Reagan would rail against the "welfare queen" in Chicago who had "eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve social security cards" and whose "tax-free income alone is over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.") In that way, Reagan, unlike Goldwater, could appeal to white working-class Democrats outside the Deep South.
Reagan also adopted the social agenda and rhetoric of the newly formed religious right. He supported a constitutional amendment banning abortion (though he had signed the nation's most permissive abortion law as governor of California); he called for restoring school prayer to the public schools; and he counseled abstinence ("just say no") to restless teenagers. Reagan and the Republicans put forth an older ideal of the churchgoing American family in which the husband was the sole breadwinner, in which women knew their place, and in which children went bowling and to church socials. This ideal was, of course, irrelevant to a growing number of Americans, but it also had wide appeal among what was then a growing constituency of politically active evangelicals.
Not all Republicans embraced all the tenets of this worldview, but then, majority coalitions are never homogeneous. The New Deal Democrats included Northern blacks and Southern whites, Wall Street investment bankers and Detroit autoworkers, Protestant small farmers from the Midwest and Catholic machine politicians from the Northeast. Despite their disagreements with each other and with some Roosevelt administration policies, these groups each saw reasons to remain within the coalition. Similarly, the conservative Republican coalition that Reagan forged contained disparate parts. Wealthy suburbanites from New Jersey's Bergen County might find little in common with the white parishioners at a small Baptist church in rural Southside Virginia; an unemployed Chrysler worker in Macomb County might also find little to share with Walter Wriston, the chairman of Citicorp. But in the early eighties, they all found sufficient reason to support Reagan.
This coalition was strong -- strong enough, in fact, to carry a much weaker candidate, George Bush, to victory in 1988. Bush, who could not conceal his Eastern prep school pedigree, lacked credibility among the downscale Democrats who had backed Reagan. But, trailing by 17 percent in the polls on the eve of the Republican convention, Bush defeated Dukakis by calling forth the cluster of issues around race and the counterculture, as well as by criticizing him on foreign affairs (in which Dukakis had no experience). The Bush campaign repeatedly attacked Dukakis for having furloughed a black convict, Willie Horton, who subsequently attempted murder, and for vetoing a state bill requiring Massachusetts schoolteachers to lead their students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Like Reagan, Bush got the support of white working-class voters, beating Dukakis 60-40 among that group. In the South, Bush won 67 percent of white voters. And he did even better among evangelical voters than Reagan, winning 81 percent of white Protestant evangelicals. But this election was to be the last clear triumph for the conservative Republican coalition that Goldwater had first assembled in 1964 and that Reagan had finally consolidated in 1980.
IV. THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN MAJORITY
What doomed the Republican majority was the uneven growth of the Reagan economy. The Midwest -- hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs -- never fully recovered from the 1982 recession. The trade deficit climbed in the mideighties, creating a widespread impression that the United States was losing ground to its economic rivals. Then in 1990, the country fell into recession. In technical terms, the recession lasted barely a year, but unemployment remained stubbornly high for another five years. This economic slowdown, along with the specter of international decline, removed an important prop from under the Republican majority. Specifically, it discredited the argument that Republicans would manage the economy better than Democrats -- which was, after all, the reason many moderate Republicans had voted for Reagan in spite of their distaste for his agenda on social issues and the environment. Along with the business scandals of the late eighties, it also rekindled suspicions among white working-class Democrats that Republicans favored the wealthy.
In 1986, Republicans lost control of the Senate, and in 1988, Dukakis, perhaps the dullest Democratic candidate since John W. Davis in 1924, scored surprisingly well in the industrial Midwest, winning Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa while barely losing Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. Dukakis also did impressively well in some upscale moderate Republican counties. California's San Mateo County and Santa Clara County (the site of Silicon Valley) had voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, but Dukakis won them both easily in 1988. Then, in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that states could limit access to abortion, sowing fear among many women voters that a Republican would eventually overturn Roe v. Wade. That year, Democratic candidates for governor in New Jersey and Virginia both won strong support in upscale suburbs -- and were elected -- by attacking their opponent for his opposition to abortion.
But the coup de grâce to the Republican majority was delivered in 1992 by Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot. Perot's challenge to Bush was a lot like Wallace's challenge to Humphrey. Perot claimed to be nonpartisan, but almost all of his closest aides and a large majority of his backers were former Republican voters. According to the National Election Study, over 70 percent of Perot voters had voted for Bush in 1988. And in one postelection poll, 62 percent of Perot backers said they had not only voted for Bush in 1988 but also for Reagan in either 1980 or 1984. Just as Wallace had represented a dissident faction within the Democratic Party, Perot represented a dissident outlook among Republicans and among renegade Democrats who had previously voted for Reagan and Bush.
Perot's outlook was a direct repudiation of the conservative Republican worldview. He rejected the triumphalism of their outlook -- "it's morning in America," Reagan had proclaimed in 1984 -- warning instead that America was in economic decline. He blamed the Reagan and Bush tax cuts for creating record budget deficits. He rejected Bush's continuing preoccupation with resolving the Cold War, putting forth instead a more narrowly focused economic nationalism. He rejected the religious right's intolerance and its crusade to ban abortions and restore prayer in public schools. Perot got 18.9 percent of the vote to 43 percent for Clinton and 37.4 percent for Bush. Perot didn't win any electoral votes, but he got more than the difference between Bush and Clinton in forty-seven states.
Clinton's campaign drew on several distinct political strands to weave together what would later become a new Democratic worldview of progressive centrism. With the economy faltering, Clinton tapped the Democrats' New Deal legacy to promise new jobs and greater economic security; he invoked Democratic populism, promising to "put people first" and flaying Bush and the Republicans for favoring the rich; and he sounded sixties-era commitments to protect the environment (reinforced by his choice of Al Gore as running mate) and to defend women's rights and civil rights. He was, in these respects, similar to other liberal and New Left Democrats of the seventies and eighties. But Clinton's campaign also reflected a decade-old effort to create a new post-New Deal, postsixties Democratic politics.
In the early eighties, several Democratic politicians, including Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas and Colorado senator Gary Hart, argued for a "neoliberal" focus on encouraging economic growth rather than redistributing existing wealth. In 1985, after Mondale's landslide defeat, two Democratic congressional staffers, Al From and Will Marshall, founded the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), aimed at creating a new politics that could appeal to middle-class suburbanites and Southerners. The DLC preserved the Democratic commitment to civil rights, but it advocated "inoculating" Democrats against the cluster of issues with which Republicans had made covert racial appeals. The DLC proposed welfare reform; it urged Democrats to be tough on crime and to support the death penalty.
In 1992, Clinton, who had been chairman of the DLC two years before, sought to mute the older liberal and New Left message with the centrist lessons of the neoliberals and the DLC. After Clinton and Gore got the nomination in July 1992, the campaign unveiled a commercial declaring, "They are a new generation of Democrats, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. And they don't think the way the old Democratic Party did. They've called for an end to welfare as we know it, so welfare can be a second chance, not a way of life. They've sent a strong signal to criminals by supporting the death penalty. And they've rejected the old tax-and-spend politics."
This eclectic worldview resonated among voters and drew together the rudiments of a new coalition. White working-class voters, who had embraced the Republicans in hopes that they could restore prosperity or put blacks in their place, gave a slight plurality of their votes to Clinton in 1992. Nationwide, over 90 percent of formerly Democratic counties like Carbon and Erie -- where Wallace had never been an attraction, but which had embraced Reagan in the 1980s -- went for Clinton. Missouri's Jefferson County, a Wallace stronghold that Reagan and Bush had carried in the eighties, also went for Clinton. So did Monroe County in Michigan, a heavily white, working-class suburb south of Detroit, which had gone solidly Reagan. Los Angeles County, where the aerospace industry was suffering, had gone for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, but went for Clinton by 53-27 percent, contributing to Clinton's 14 percent margin over Bush in California. Moderate Republicans who had overlooked Reagan's and Bush's commitments to the religious right in the hope that they could restore prosperity now abandoned the Republicans over their social conservatism. Clinton, for instance, won Pennsylvania's Montgomery County, and California's historically Republican Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
The 1992 election demonstrated that the old conservative era was over: without California, and without moderate Northeasterners and Reagan Democrats, the Republicans simply could not command a consistent political majority in the country. And yet 1992 didn't demonstrate a new Democratic majority, either. In fact, Clinton didn't get significantly more votes than Democrat Michael Dukakis had received in 1988. He won because many erstwhile Republicans and Reagan Democrats voted for Perot rather than for Bush. For them, Perot represented either a protest against Bush's brand of Republicanism or a way station between their apostasy and their return to the Democratic fold.
Clinton, alas, didn't grasp how tenuous his victory was. Convinced that he was the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt, and that his first year should be comparable to Roosevelt's "First Hundred Days," he proposed a comprehensive national health-insurance plan. (He even called it a campaign for "health security," consciously evoking the language of FDR's signature achievement.) Republicans and business opponents of the plan were able to discredit it by stoking popular anxiety about Democratic "tax and spend" policies. Clinton further antagonized his white working-class supporters by championing causes like the admission of gays into the military. And to make things worse, he hadn't yet delivered on his promise to bolster the economy, which did not really begin to grow strongly until the spring of 1996.
In November 1994, Democrats paid a dear price for Clinton's miscalculation, as Republicans won the House and Senate for the first time since 1952. Yet the Republicans failed to understand the basis of their victory. Even though the Republicans had campaigned on an apolitical antigovernment platform designed to appeal to Perot voters, they portrayed the 1994 election as the dawn of a new conservative era. Lobbyist Grover Norquist wrote, "Winning control of the House of Representatives is as historic a change as the emergence of the Republican Party with the election of Lincoln or the creation of the Democratic Party majority in the 1930-1934 period with the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt." Former Bush administration official William Kristol said, "The nation's long, slow electoral and ideological realignment with the Republican Party is reaching a watershed."
But the Republicans' victory in 1994 turned out to be similar to the Democratic congressional victory in 1974 and presidential victory in 1976. It represented the Indian summer of an older realignment rather than the spring of a new one. For one thing, some of the GOP's gains reflected completion of the old Republican majority -- not the formation of a new one. In the House, twenty-one of the fifty-eight new Republican seats were from the South, including Kentucky and Oklahoma. In the Senate, half of the net gain of eight seats were from the South. These new Southern seats were simply the final step in the South's partisan realignment dating back to Goldwater's run in 1964, rather than a new Republican breakthrough.
And it soon became clear that the new Republican Congress had no greater mandate than Clinton had had two years earlier. Once in power, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans, after briefly adopting some of the good-government reforms in the Contract With America, began trying to complete the "Reagan revolution" that they had promised their business and religious-right backers. They introduced measures that would virtually have eliminated government regulation of the environment and workplace health and safety and would have threatened medicare and medicaid. They passed a huge cut in capital gains taxes. And they tried to do away with the Department of Education, a Christian-right bugaboo, and to ban abortion and reinstitute school prayer. The result was a massive backlash among voters in the North and West, who wanted no part of such aggressive conservatism, and a renewed mobilization effort by Democratic interest groups, particularly the AFL-CIO. Indeed, for the AFL-CIO, the Democratic losses in 1994 were instrumental in provoking a revolt against its president, Lane Kirkland, and his replacement by a new leadership explicitly committed to using labor's clout to defeat Republicans and elect Democrats. In the 1996 elections, Bill Clinton routed Bob Dole by hitting the Republicans on medicare, education, and the environment, and Democrats in the House and the Senate began to recoup the losses they had suffered outside the South.
More important than the actual wins, though, was the way Democrats had won. In 1996, Democrats continued to win among moderate, well-to-do voters who had supported Reagan and Bush. For example, Bush had won New Jersey's Bergen County in 1988 by 58-41 percent; in 1992, he edged Clinton there by 2 percent. But in 1996, after the Republican takeover of Congress, Bergen County threw its support to Clinton by a substantial margin -- 53-39 percent. Four years later, it would back Gore by 55-42 percent. Reagan Democrats also continued to desert the Republicans. Bush narrowly won Michigan's Macomb County in 1992, by 42-37 percent, but Clinton would win it by 49-39 percent in 1996, and Gore would take it by 50-48 percent in 2000. (Nader would get 2 percent in Macomb, bringing the potential Democrat total to 52 percent.) Clinton won California, the linchpin of the conservative Republican majority of the 1980s, by 13 percent in 1996, and Gore would win it by 12 percent in 2000, despite never having campaigned there. The old conservative Republican majority was finally, and very clearly, dead.
V. AN EMERGING DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY?
But what will take its place? Among those for whom the present is always the future, it's become popular to predict that the current rough parity between the parties, with third parties and political independents tipping the balance one way or the other, will continue indefinitely. But the rise of third-party candidates like Perot and Ralph Nader have usually foreshadowed a partisan realignment; after one election, most of their supporters settle back into one of the two parties. (That Nader tipped the election to Bush will, after all, quite likely discourage future third-party bids from the left.) As for the increased importance of independents, that's a bit murky, too. Yes, there are more of them: according to the University of Michigan's National Election Studies, voters who are willing to identify themselves as "independent" have increased from 23 percent in 1952 to 40.4 percent in 2000. But while independents are making a political statement of a sort, they do so not with a single voice and not in a way that finally affects the two-party system itself.
In the South after 1960, many former "yellow dog" Democrats who couldn't reconcile themselves to registering Republican described themselves as independent. But, as far as election arithmetic is concerned, they have been reliably Republican voters. In the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Far West, many voters now identify themselves as independents as a protest against the venality and corruption they see in Washington and in party politics. But although they occasionally vote for an independent candidate -- as Minnesotans did for Jesse Ventura in 1998 -- they usually support candidates from one of the major parties. Indeed, when the new independent vote is broken down, it reveals a trend toward the Democrats in the 1990s and a clear and substantial Democratic partisan advantage. The National Election Studies show that about 70 percent of independents will say which party they are closer to, and, once these "independents" are assigned to the party they are closer to, Democrats enjoy a 13 percent advantage over the Republicans, which is close to the advantage Democrats enjoyed among the electorate in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The Democratic leanings of the new independents are even clearer if one looks at the states that boast the highest percentage of independents. Ten of the top fifteen -- Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington -- are solidly Democratic, two -- Arkansas and New Hampshire -- are swing states, and only three -- Alaska, Montana, and North Dakota -- are dependably Republican in national elections. Thus, a close look at today's independent voters suggests that the most likely successor to the dying Republican majority is another major-party majority -- a new Democratic majority.
There is also a striking analogy between the period from 1968 to 1976, which preceded the birth of the last realignment, and the period from 1992 to the present. The Wallace defection of 1968 had a similar effect on the Democratic Party that the Perot defection of 1992 had on the Republican Party. Nixon and Clinton were both transitional presidents who maneuvered amidst shifting coalitions. Nixon had to face a Democratic Congress, and Clinton after 1994 a Republican Congress. Both were capable of sharp turns in their political outlook that bedeviled their supporters -- Nixon on China and wage-price controls, Clinton on government itself ("the era of big government is over") and on the provisions of welfare reform. Both understood that they were on the verge of assembling new political majorities, but both were prevented from doing so by scandals. These scandals were partly the result of their own misdeeds or misbehavior but also of a fierce political opposition that was determined to undermine them.
Both men unwittingly inspired a political revival among their opponents -- the Democratic congressional victories of 1974 and 1976 and the Republican congressional victory of 1994. By leaving a trail of scandal behind them, they also made it difficult for the men who tried to succeed them. Both Ford and Gore had to overcome problems of political trust that they were not principally responsible for creating. If not for Watergate, Ford -- indeed, almost any Republican candidate -- would have been elected president in 1976. And if not for the shadow of the Clinton scandals, Al Gore would almost certainly have defeated George W. Bush. According to Gore pollster Stanley Greenberg's extensive postelection poll, lack of trust in Gore was the single most important factor dogging his candidacy and seriously hurt him among voters that had begun moving Democratic in Clinton's successful 1996 campaign.
There are even remarkable similarities between Carter, who won in 1976, and George W. Bush, who won in 2000. Bush, like Carter, is a relatively inexperienced governor who was elected president on a platform that stressed character rather than program, and who took office amidst growing divisions within his own party and an opposition determined to foil him. And Bush, like Carter, will have to face a sputtering economy that could easily be the final catalyst for a new realignment.
There is also an analogy between the South's role in the conservative Republican realignment and the North's role in this new realignment. Just as the Democrats' continued hold on Congress depended on the partisan loyalty of Southern Democrats, the Republicans' narrow 221-213 margin in the House depends on the partisan loyalty of about thirty moderate Republicans -- ranging from Maryland's Connie Morella to New York's Peter King -- who often vote with the Democrats. These House members generally represent districts that strongly backed Clinton in 1996 and Gore in 2000, but they continue to be reelected based on their personal popularity. In the absence of strong provocation -- a conflict with their leadership, the recapture of the House by the Democrats -- they are unlikely to switch parties, but once they retire, they are likely to be replaced by Democrats. In the Senate, one Republican, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, did leave the party in May 2001, turning the Senate itself over to the Democrats.
But the most important arguments for a new Democratic majority do not rely on analogies. A look at the voting patterns for president and Congress during the 1990s clearly indicates that while the conservative Republican majority was crumbling, a new Democratic majority was germinating. It would include white working- and middle-class Democrats, such as those from Lorain or Jefferson counties, who have returned to the Democrats in the nineties because they (or their progeny) believe the Democrats are more responsive to their economic situations. They are responding primarily to the Democratic Party's Jacksonian and New Deal past -- its commitment to economic security for the average American.
But it would also include three groups of voters who clearly appeared in George McGovern's loss to Richard Nixon: minority voters, including blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans; women voters, especially single, working, and highly educated women; and professionals. While the ranks of white working-class voters will not grow over the next decade, the numbers of professionals, working, single, and highly educated women, and minorities will swell. They are products of a new postindustrial capitalism, rooted in diversity and social equality, and emphasizing the production of ideas and services rather than goods. And while some of these voters are drawn to the Democratic Party by its New Deal past, many others resonate strongly to the new causes that the Democrats adopted during the sixties. These new causes help ensure that these groups of voters will continue to support Democrats rather than Republicans, paving the way for a new majority.
Copyright © 2002 by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira