Realigning American Politics: Towards a Mass Party of the Center

US President Barack Obama speaks on the fiscal cliff on December 21, 2012 in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Wa
US President Barack Obama speaks on the fiscal cliff on December 21, 2012 in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Like a fog slowly clearing, we can perceive the slow-motion realignment of American politics towards a mass party of the center. This emerging formation, the Clinton-Obama remaking of the Democratic Party, will almost certainly dominate politics and policy at the federal level and in most major states for the long-term. If this is the new reality, the left had better adjust its sights. Above all, let's stop the furious agonizing about an ultra-right, Christian Right, Tea Party, Koch-Brothers-and-Karl-Rove take-over: it ain't happening, get over it, move on.

The mass party of the center, birthed 20 years ago by Bill Clinton triangulating his way into a "socially-liberal" version of neoliberalism (or what used to be "liberal Republicanism" in the days of Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney) has been brought to fruition by Barack Obama's savvy Chicago apparatchiks. Consider what they have achieved:

The Democratic Party has won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections;

It has reduced the Republican Party to a pathetic replica of the pre-New Deal Democrats, relying on white votes in the Solid South and the rest of rural America where Dixie flags and country music dominate, along with poverty and nativism (with the obvious difference that the Obama machine is making that America a lot less solid);

At the presidential level, Democrats now have a lock on nine of the top 15 states defined by GDP (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, Maryland), and of the remaining six, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia are turning blue, while Texas and Georgia alone remain deep red (North Carolina seems to be the purple wild card right now);

Forget states, whole regions are gone for the Right. Except when they get lucky or run RINOs, the entire Northeast is Democratic, as is the West Coast. Since Reagan, their white hope has been the Midwestern heartland, but Obama again shut them out of every Midwestern state other than the traditionally borderish Indiana and Missouri.

Anyone can read these numbers. Indeed, the Democratic tilt of major states, regions, the cities, and most of suburbia has been growing ever more obvious for some time, but no one has had the nerve to call it a realignment. Why not? What is realignment, anyway, and why should you care?

The term derives from the eminent political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, who argued long ago that the American political system since the 1790s has pivoted on a handful of "realigning" elections, when huge swathes of the electorate moved in one direction, undergirding long-term majorities for one party -- Republicans after 1896; Democrats after 1936, and so on.

For decades, the not-so-New Right has pursued its own realignment, and rightward-trending and just trendy pundits have bought into their propaganda that the big shift was about to happen. In fact, it was always just about to happen, whether in the defection of the vaunted Reagan Democrats to the Gipper, or Rove's grand plan to sew up Latinos and so-called "soccer moms." But at no point has the U.S. ever come close to a lasting realignment to the Right. Each of their big victories -- in 1984, 1994 and 2004 -- was followed immediately by sharp defeats (losing the Senate in 1986; Clinton's crushing Dole in 1996; the Democratic sweep of 2006). Now, in the aftermath of Obama's sequential system-wide victories, encompassing every region and popular vote majorities, we see the real realignment towards a socially progressive, center-right, post-Fordist party, with one foot in neoliberal orthodoxy (think Summers and Geithner), and the other in what's left of the "functionally social-democratic" base (think Ohio and Michigan, where nationalizing the auto industry in 2009 secured national victory in 2012).

So where does that leave those of us who define as left, whether in, out, or in-denial regarding the Democratic Party? Begin with a basic premise: the tectonics of generational and demographic change have decisively moved U.S. politics to a new kind of center, commanded by those who now lead the Democratic party. Carefully marshaling an array of constituencies, from Ph.D.'s to janitors, these new men and women of power have decisively trumped the ultra-right's hopes of rolling back the twentieth-century's progressive gains. And with powerful financial machines of their own and nationwide networks of personal loyalty, the Obamaites have also largely displaced the older party and union structures that got out the Democratic vote. Remember the "Friends of Bill" back in the 90s? They were merely the precursors of the thousands of dedicated organizers recruited into Obama's permanent campaign since 2006.

Is there any room for the left as we have known it, other than as dutiful acolytes, tiptoeing around the table of power, or impotent critics, standing on the sidelines? Certainly Occupy points the way to how savvy, spectacular protest can galvanize the national discourse, but surely we can do better than that. What would an American Left look like? That's the real question. Stay tuned.