Political realignments are momentous shifts in the balance of power between political parties that give one party and ideology a long- lasting dominance. According to George Packer, such realignments occur far more often in the minds of partisans than in reality.
In the past century there have been only two realignments—one in 1932, the other in 1980. The first brought Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats to power, and liberalism dominated until the late ’60s. The second brought Ronald Reagan and the Republicans to power, and conservatism retains its grip on our political institutions, if not on electoral majorities, to this day. “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket,” Eric Hoffer, the author of The True Believer, wrote. By the early 1970s, the New Deal coalition of urban machines and interest groups was becoming a racket, symbolized by piles of uncollected garbage in the streets of a nearly bankrupt New York City. Sure signs of degeneracy in the Reagan revolution appeared in the late 1990s, when Tom DeLay’s K Street Project erased the line between governing and big-money lobbying. The next step is dissolution, but the end of Hoffer’s life cycle can drag on for agonizing years.
Packer says that realignments occur when traditional politics are manifestly not working–when government fails to address chronic social ills. They are precipitated by the “rising activism of popular movements—industrial workers, evangelical Christians—pushed the parties toward new ideological commitments.” And while realignments come from tectonic shifts, they aren’t inevitable.
They’re subject to a combination of elements, including chance—more like a hurricane than the coming of spring. No one can know whether 2020 will bring the realignment that some people on the left expect. In the years since 2008 many things have changed, including three big ones. First is the lingering hangover of the Great Recession, with increased economic divisions, leaving Democratic voters impatient with the kind of incremental reforms that Hillary Clinton campaigned on in 2016 and hungry for more ambitious policies. A second is the coming to political age of Millennials—the most powerful generation since the Boomers, and far more left-wing than their elders. The third is Donald Trump.
Since getting elected, Trump—by being true to himself every minute of his presidency—has pushed educated women, suburban voters, and even a small percentage of his white working-class base toward the Democratic Party. His hateful rhetoric and character are making Americans—white Democrats in particular—more rather than less liberalon issues of immigration, religion, and race. Last November, nonwhite voters made upa record 28 percent of the midterm electorate, and 38 percent of young voters. At the same time, the Republican Party has built its ramparts around the diminishing ground inhabited by older, whiter, more rural, less educated Americans. These are the kind of changes that could bring a new Democratic coalition to power for years to come.
Given the accuracy of the above paragraphs, a realignment would certainly seem possible, even highly probable. So why does Hacker tell us not to get our hopes up?
There are still a lot of people living back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the red fields of the republic roll on under the night. Since progressives, especially younger ones, and especially the hyperpoliticized partisans on Twitter, rarely talk to people who don’t think like them, they stop believing that such people still exist, at least not in meaningful numbers—sooner or later they’ll have to die out. And yet, year after year, those nearly extinct Americans keep showing up to vote, and often win.
The ability to usher in lasting change–or even short-term change–ultimately depends upon political leadership. Hacker reminds us that leadership isn’t synonymous with ideology or policy.
Campaigns tell stories, and in politics as in literature, style matters as much as plot. Roosevelt and Reagan, ideological opposites, both won by speaking in a way that gave Americans a sense of dignity and belonging and made them hopeful. They didn’t win by haranguing the public. They didn’t win by implying that anyone who disagreed must be either stupid or venal. They didn’t assemble majorities by degrading Americans into identity blocs. They didn’t force their party to pledge allegiance to the most extreme positions, or turn politics into a joyless exercise in orthodoxy. They hammered their opponents, but they did it with a smile.
In other words, the message is important–but the messenger is even more important. I hope the primary electorate understands that.