The indications are there, but most pundits are hesitant to acknowledge it.
The evidence is both aggregate and anecdotal:
• According to the UPI, the Republicans beat the Democrats in the elections by a margin of about 53-47%.
• An article in the New York Times reports that Democratic analysts looking at post-election data say minority turnout was respectable, but the GOP won over white moderates who were essential to the success of Bill Clinton.
• Another article in the New York Times details interviews done with many voters, both Democrats and Republicans, who increasingly like President Bush.
Yet conservative analysts are wary. Andrew Sullivan says “The margin is still only 53-47, and demographic trends favor the Democrats.” In the Weekly Standard, David Brooks is a bit more upbeat: “The Republicans should not read a radical ideological mandate into the results….But there is a trend here.” Even Karl Rove, who should be giddy, is circumspect. “This is part of it” Rove said to Time magazine. “It’s not going to be a dramatic realignment of American politics in which one day it’s deadlocked and the next day it’s a blowout.”
Rove can be forgiven because he was probably trying to follow Bush’s “no-gloat rule.” But we are very likely headed for a realignment. And it will be a dramatic one, or what in political science is referred to as a “critical” realignment.
A realignment occurs when the voting patterns of a significant segment or segments of the population change. The result, according to political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, are that “majority parties become minorities; politics which was once competitive becomes noncompetitive or, alternatively, hitherto one-party areas now become arenas of intense partisan competition.” There are two types of realignments. A gradual realignment is one that usually occurs over a generation, as one group of voters die out, and another, with different voting habits, come of age. This is the type of realignment that began in the 1960s and ultimately led to the election of Ronald Reagan.
The other type is the aforementioned critical realignment. They usually occur over a brief period, one or two elections. They are caused by a major crisis that influences a large segment of the population to alter its voting patterns. Further, as Burnham states, such realignments “are marked by ideological polarizations and issue-distances between major parties which are exceptionally large by normal standards.” Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition, which was precipitated by the Great Depression, is the classic example of a critical realignment
We are likely in the midst of another one. First, there is the crisis, that of 9/11. This event has redefined much of the political landscape, focusing most of America’s attention on the issues of terrorism and national security.
Second, the “issue-distances” have strong potential to become huge. With a very few exceptions, the Republicans now stand for a strong defense, the doctrine of preemption, and a willingness to take unilateral action. The image of the Democrats is muddled. Many support the war against Saddam. But many others oppose such a war, dislike preemption, and insist that all action must be taken through the United Nations. And the signs are that they will continue in that direction: the ascendancy of Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader, Al Gore’s trending away from centrism, and Tom Daschle’s “where’s Osama?” carping.
The only major uncertainty is the direction the voters will go. Is the trend of the white moderates only temporary? Or is it the beginnings of a long-term trend? Current circumstances point to the latter. Since the war on terrorism will likely continue for a number of years, so will the aforementioned issues that divide Republicans and Democrats. Next, moderate voters appear to identify warmly with President Bush. If Bush prosecutes the war against Saddam successfully, that emotional tie to such voters will only grow stronger. Ultimately, we will know that Bush’s leadership has resulted in a realignment if either many independent voters register as Republican, or they lean much more heavily toward Republicans, or some combination of both.
Earlier this year, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixerira published a book about how current demographic trends were leading to an “emerging Democratic majority.” But 9/11 has so altered the American politics, and Bush’s leadership has proved so effective, that after the 2004 election we will probably be talking about the “established Republican majority.”
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