Sunday, November 11, 2012

2012 Election Marks a Political Realignment

Here's more along the lines I argued the other day, at the Los Angeles Times, "Nonwhite voters and cultural shifts make 2012 election pivotal":
The 2012 election marked the point at which a new American electoral coalition solidified its hold on politics, one built on the country's growing nonwhite population and on cultural changes that have given younger voters of all races a far different outlook on political issues from that of their elders.

The impact could be seen not just in Obama's reelection and Democratic successes in the Senate, but also in statewide referendums on same-sex marriage in which advocates of equal rights for gays and lesbians unexpectedly won four out of four. In 2004, conservatives put marriage referendums on the ballot in hopes of boosting their prospects; just eight years later, the political impact had completely reversed.

If the new coalition holds, future historians will look back at this campaign as one, like Franklin D. Roosevelt's in 1936 and Richard M. Nixon's in 1972, that marked a long-term realignment of the nation's politics.

If it holds. One enormous difference separates Obama's reelection from Roosevelt's and Nixon's: Those were landslides; Obama won narrowly. Millions of votes remain uncounted, but the president's victory margin probably will be about 2.5 percentage points. Nor did he succeed in carrying large numbers of House candidates into office with him.

That difference measures the enormous weight of a poor economy, which pulled down Obama's prospects and imperils the support he assembled.

"One way to interpret this involves changing cultural values and demographics. When those things come together, you get these pivot elections, and that's what this was," said UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck.

But "the economy is a huge thing here," she added. The economy this year grew just fast enough for a candidate with the advantage of incumbency to win. "If it doesn't grow more quickly, the Republicans will win in 2016," she said.
As noted, the thing about realignments is that the evidence for them is in future elections. If the GOP takes back the presidency in 2016, or even 2020, the current Democrat resurgence will look like a function of a particular time and a particular candidate --- not a long term secular trend toward large-state progressive governance. It sure does look like something deeper and structural, no doubt. But Republicans still control the governorships in a majority of the states, and they retained control of the U.S. House of Representatives. We won't be seeing Democrat Party hegemony in government, which is the true hallmark of realignment. And we're still too polarized around competing conceptions of the role of government in society. That's quite different from the years of the New Deal realignment, where government continued to expand even during the 1950s under President Eishenhower.