Charismatic Politics

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott discusses the arrest and search for fugitives at a news conference in Houston, Monday, Dec
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott discusses the arrest and search for fugitives at a news conference in Houston, Monday, Dec. 19, 2005. Abott sais that Texas authorities have captured 13 fugitives wanted for violent crimes in Louisiana after they applied for federal aid as refugees from Hurricane Katrina. (AP Photo/Dave Einsel)

At one time in American history, political parties were strong forces, a fundamental part of one's identity. The story goes about a man shaking William Jennings Bryan's hand after one of the Great Commoner's speeches. "When you ran for president in 1896 I rode ten miles on the back of a mule to hear you speak", the man explained. "Thank you," Bryan replied. "Then, when you ran in 1900 I rode twenty miles to listen." The former candidate mumbled his thanks. "Why then in 1908, when you ran again, I actually rode thirty miles on the back of a mule to hear you." Truly humbled, Bryan expressed profound gratitude. "And if I weren't a Republican," the man cheerfully added, "I would have voted for you."

Thus, throughout most of the twentieth century, parties were important institutions in America, and commanded loyal support. When I grew up you could walk into a voting booth and just swing a single lever to vote the entire party line. Now, instead, we have entered what I call the Era of Charismatic Politics, where personalities determine elections, rather than parties. This changes the landscape, and helps us understand what is to come.

First, the Democrats have no lock on future presidential elections. Put another way, it is not yet clear if the winning side in 2008 and 2012 was an Obama coalition or a Democratic coalition. The first coalesced around a particular candidate in a particular year; the second links the electorate to a party.

We have seen this difference before: one of the chestnuts for historians and political scientists used to be: when did the New Deal coalition emerge? For years the answer was imply "1932", but then Samuel Lubell pointed out that the real breakthrough came in 1928, when the twelve largest cities switched from Republican to Democrat. Lubell's famous expression was, "Before there was a Roosevelt Revolution there was an Al Smith Revolution." Later scholars, however, discovered that while city dwellers voted for Smith, they did not change their party affiliation until 1932. Earlier they had chosen Smith the person, now they joined not just Roosevelt but his party as well, a stronger and more lasting bond.

Charismatic politics also explains the 2014 elections. If voters respond to a specific person not to parties, and they become disillusioned with that leader, allegiance to a larger institution can't soften the blow.

As an indication of what could happen, look at Hispanic voters, one of the linch pins of the last two presidential victories. Yet in 2014, when Obama became diminished, so did Hispanic support for the Democrats. In Texas, Hispanics gave incoming Republican governor Greg Abbott 44 percent of their votes, compared to 38 percent for Rick Perry in 2010. Even in Kansas, Sam Brownback, a very strong conservative, got 47 percent of the Hispanic vote this year, compared to 46 percent for Paul Davis, the Democrat.

Thus, given the shift to charismatic politics, the Democrats could be quite vulnerable. If they don't have a powerful candidate to rally voters -- whether in 2016 or beyond -- they could well lose.

Right now Hillary Clinton is the "in" candidate, with the potential to win a charismatic race. But just to play a long shot, if Rand Paul overcomes staunch neocon opposition to get the Republican nomination, he could instead become the face of new politics, getting youth and minority votes while winning white males because of his Tea Party roots.

The main point is that unlike party politics, with deep, long holding allegiances, charismatic politics is ephemeral, as fleeting as last year's top recording artist. It is not just the presidential race of 2016 that is up for grabs, it is American politics in a volatile time.