The Republicans won a big victory on election day, and congratulations are due. The shift was actually of historic proportions, the biggest since the Truman years. But now the fun starts, analyzing what the results actually mean.
First, one of the hallmarks of this year's campaign on the right was that it was the most "conservative" in a very long time. I use the term here in its most literal sense, to hold on to the past. Both Republications and Tea Partiers went to extraordinary lengths to repudiate the present, cry pessimism on the future, and heartily embrace earlier times.
The evidence was abundant. One of the most common slogans was, "I want my country back," or, to put this another way, "I want my country returned to how it was before". John Boehner's favorite line on the stump was, "Remember when Ronald Reagan was President? We had Bob Hope, we had Johnny Cash. Think about where we are today. We've got President Obama, but we have no Hope, and we have no Cash." Aside from the political content, this was a paean to a lost and dearly missed time. And above all, there was the Constitution, depicted as an unchanging, inerrant document, a missive from the past that should be taken, unaltered, in its original form, rather than being seen as a living document.
It was also just as clear which features of the present, let alone the future, they rebelled against. New technology was okay, and often embraced. These folks had no problems using the internet.
Rather, it was the economic and social shifts of the present that they railed against. It seems like last Tuesday's champions longed for the country when everybody bought American cars, where phone answering services wouldn't dream of asking you to press for English (let alone acknowledging other languages), where Hispanics were a small and quiet minority, and where gays and the disabled, while they existed, did not come out of their closets. Their battle cry, over and over, was a return to a supposedly more homogenous America of years ago.
The political problem with this stance is that it doesn't account for present day reality, and even less so, what is likely to develop in the near future. Ross Douthat, conservative columnist for the New York Times, in a piece just before the elections, noted that Americans were becoming more socially liberal, and more secular. He argued that this was a "significant, long-running shift, pushed along by deeper demographic forces. Reliable conservative constituencies (white Christians, married couples) were shrinking. Liberal-leaning ones (Hispanics, single parents, the unchurched) were expanding." Much of this trend, Douthat noted, was reversed by the two years of the Obama administration, particularly from a positive to a negative view of government, but the social arguments remain valid.
Exit polls confirmed Douthat's prediction. Among black voters, for example, the Democrat's margin over Reps was 82 %, no surprise. But among Hispanics the same party led by 32%, and even among Asians the figure was still high, 18%. Cosmopolitans also backed the Dems, with residents of cities with more than 500,000 people backing them by 32 points.
Republicans had their strengths too, but in very different categories. Whites in the South chose them by a 46 % margin, Americans over 60 by 16 points, the highest of any age group. Among Protestants Republicans led by 22 points, while the figure among the most religious citizens, white born again or evangelical Christians, was a whopping 58%. Residents of smaller municipalities (10,000 to 50,000 population) went Rep by 14 points, rural areas by 28.
What does this mean for our politics? One possibility is a short term move to the right, followed by a longer shift to the left. There is no question that the conservatives (however one defines them) have the wind at their backs right now, and may well enjoy several years of leading powerfully at the polls. But after that new constituencies they have badly alienated--Hispanics only being the largest of these--will profoundly reverse that.
There is historical precedent for this. In the nineteen-twenties the Republicans were riding high, truly the national party. In private conversations, Democratic leaders discussed the possibility that they might command a permanent opposition party.
But in the meantime, local leaders were busy registering millions of first generation voters in the cities and championing industrial workers' rights, building a formidable bloc. When economic catastrophe hit and the government responded well, the country saw, in 1932, one of the great electoral changes in our history. It could happen again.
That is one scenario. Here is another, and I think even more plausible.
On the one hand, this election seems like it was hardly a triumph for the right. Exit polling showed a country very evenly split. On the hottest issue of the campaign, the health care plan, 48 percent of voters opposed it, while 47 percent supported, not exactly an ideological mandate. When asked to choose what they thought Congress' highest priority should be, 39 percent sought a reduction in the deficit, but almost the same number--37 percent--answered, "spending to create jobs".
But whatever view they held, the exit polls also indicated that they were going to hold it fiercely. According to these figures, a record low number of conservatives voted for Democrats and a record low number of liberals voted for Republicans. And a record low number of moderates voted at all, in House races.
This data implies a fluid situation, where neither side dominates, but both sides are agitated advocates. Anything can happen, but it will be ferocious. And what makes this really open to the winds, is the weakness of party affliliation, compared to the last time we saw a situation like this.
When did that happen? Take a look at politics in the Gilded Age, from 1876-1896. You think the flip-flop from 2008 to 2010 was a big deal? Step back and watch this.
Let's start with what the country looked like back then. We were undergoing the greatest technological and economic transformation ever in our history, before or since. Industrialization was changing everything, with new inventions--life-changing ones, like electricity--popping up constantly. Very, very big business was emerging, led by the railroads, and dominating American life. The new rich made more money than ever seemed possible, and the gap between their incomes and the average American's was expanding to obscene differences.
Politics, like in recent years, was anything but stable. Remember how invulnerable incumbents used to be? Not now; not then.
Democrats won control of the House in 1874, lost it in 1880, regained it in 1882, got kicked out again in 1888 and were back on top two years later, in 1890. Republicans held the Senate for almost the full twenty years 1876-1896 (except for 1879-1891), but for most of that time their majority was three or fewer seats, or the same or less than Obama's Democrats hold after the dust just settled. No president from 1876 to 1890 had a majority of his own party in both houses of Congress for his entire term. In the five presidential elections from 1876 to 1892, winners and losers--regardless of party--were separated consistently by 1.4 percent, on average.
But there was one big difference back then: political parties were strong and vital, unlike today. R. Hal Williams, in Realigning America, a history of the 1896 election, accurately pointed out that, at that time, "people were devoted to their political party. It gave them identity....In an extraordinarily mobile society...people moving into new areas could carry with them the party slogans, rituals and identifications they had known back home...Party loyalty was handed down to sons and daughters..." That stabilizing force is gone from present-day America.
Voters today, instead, are unmoored, not bound to any institutions, either government or parties. They are red-hot angry, furiously partisan, and almost evenly divided, with no consensus. None of this is likely to change anytime soon; neither party should feel secure about the future.
Hang on to whatever you can. There's hurricane weather ahead.