Will this year see a political realignment?

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Is it too soon to ask whether or not this could shape up as a realigning election? What will the two political parties look like after this year? Will a third party be able to seize on the dissatisfaction with the two nominees of the major parties? The short answer to the first question is: Yes, it is too soon. It is impossible to know now if the candidacy of Donald Trump will be a blip on the GOP radar, akin to Goldwater's 1964 campaign, or will provoke a realignment as did Reagan's defeat of the establishment of his day. We do know the Democratic Party establishment held off the challenge to its control, but can the establishment do it again in four years or eight?

It is never too soon to refresh our memories about how and why parties realign. And, of course, we start with the notable fact that the founding fathers were averse to the idea of political parties, or faction as they called it, believing it would destroy our nascent democracy. I love the U.S. Constitution as much as the next guy, but those who attribute quasi-divine qualities to the text or to those who framed it misunderstand the history of the thing itself: Despite their efforts to so spread out the manifestation of diverse interests through divided branches of government and between the state and federal governments, and thus prevent the formation of parties, before the ink could dry on the text, two parties had formed -- the Federalists who supported ratification of the Constitution and the Anti-federalists who opposed it. Thomas Jefferson famously observed that because the question was ratification, the two parties would more properly be called the Rats and Anti-rats. This same Thomas Jefferson, however, vanquished the Federalists in 1800, leading the renamed Democratic Republican Party to victory, and the Federalists never really recovered, making a last show of pro-British sentiment in advance of the War of 1812 with the Hartford Convention, but vanishing into history, in large part because the Anti-federalists learned they could live with the document. The lesson of this first realignment? A party can win the argument and still lose the long-term political fight if it lacks leadership. Translated for today: Do not under-estimate Trump's ability to appear like a leader even if his policy ideas are gibberish.

The next major realignment came with the division within the Democratic-Republican Party between the supporters of President John Quincy Adams and the more small "r" republicans backing Andrew Jackson. Jackson won out, claiming control of the party, and his opponents formed the Whig Party, a more pro-business party, opposed to executive power. Had he lived, the Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton would have sympathized with the Whig's pro-business stance but been befuddled by their opposition to a strong executive, unless of course he thought this was not a principled stance and merely a function of the fact that Jackson was the executive. The verdict is out on this last: The Whigs who made it to the presidency were not particularly strong leaders to begin with, not compared to the likes of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The lesson of this second realignment? There are no permanent victories: The "Era of Good Feeling" -- when there was one party (and when the dreams of the founders seemed to be coming to fruition) -- quickly returned to the historical norm of one faction battling another. Lesson for today: This could be a bad year for the GOP, but do not plan their funeral yet.

Clay and Webster were the true leaders of the Whigs, but the party split over slavery, and Millard Fillmore introduced a strong nativist spirit into the party. Meanwhile the Democratic Party managed to waffle on the issue of slavery just enough to stick together. The Republican Party emerged in the 1850s, organized around the principle that slavery should not be further extended into the territories of the West. This transition -- the collapse of the Whigs, emergence of the Republicans and the persistence of the Democrats -- was quick. In 1852, Democrat Franklin Pierce took 51 percent of the popular vote, 86 percent of the electoral college, while the Whig Winfield Scott managed only 44 percent of the vote and 14 percent of the electoral college. Four years later, the Democrat James Buchanan managed only 45 percent of the popular vote, but took 59 percent of the electoral college, while the Whig Fillmore garnered only 21 percent of the vote and 3 percent of the electors. The emerging Republicans took 33 percent of the popular vote and 30 percent of the electoral college. The lesson from this realignment? Moral clarity, even in the face of a categorical issue like slavery, is no guarantee of political longevity. Sometimes, fudging an issue works too. There is also a second, related lesson: Demographics cannot be ignored. The Republicans became dominant in the part of the country where the population was growing. They would control the White House with two exceptions (Cleveland and Wilson) for the next 80 years. Applied to today's situation, well, neither party really speaks in moral language anymore, but the demographics are with the Democrats.

The realignment wrought by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 harkened back to the Jacksonian Revolution in terms of ideology: The business class, always the most powerful in a free society, had left other important social objectives undefined and unmet. They then proceeded to make a hash of things. The progressive movement organized the other social forces to enact a new social contract that defined and met those alternate objectives. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained all this in The Age of Jackson. The lessons from the FDR realignment are, first, that the ascending party needs to address injustices one at a time to maintain political capital and keep control of both the White House and the Congress and, second, that the American people do not want to be told there is nothing to be done, which is how the GOP's commitment to laissez-faire economics was understood. Here, I think the lesson is that Hillary Clinton needs to do more than simply fret that the economy of the Midwest centered on manufacturing is gone: She needs concrete proposals to address the economic needs of the working class. More on this Monday.

Realignments since 1932 have been on a smaller scale, in part because FDR's long presidency made the core of the New Deal untouchable and because Harry Truman was able to devise a bipartisan foreign policy consensus that lasted for 40 years. In the 1960s, the Democrats began losing the South after passing the Civil Rights Act, a loss that was briefly arrested in 1976 when Jimmy Carter ran for the presidency, but became complete by the end of Ronald Reagan's second term. In the 1990s, California, with its enormous population and consequently large congressional delegation, became one of the bluest states in the country after Republicans alienated Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in that state. In 2008, Barack Obama assembled a coalition of minorities, suburban women, and affluent whites that remains the core of the Democratic Party.

The sands of political life shift all the time, blown by strong personalities, policies that succeed or fail, and the vagaries of fate. This year, it is impossible to imagine a GOP blowout, but it is possible that they could suffer a defeat of Goldwater proportions. Conversely, this could be another close election as three of the last four were: 2000, 2004, and 2012. Demographics are important but they are not to be confused with destiny. Personality helps, but without successful policies too, it fades over time. And great policies still need to be sold to the American people. One thing is clear: It is going to be one hell of a ride.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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