Are We living Through a Liberal Realignment?

Probably, but not certainly.

There is a general sense of change in the air, but such feelings or moods are inherently unreliable. In every presidential election year, lots of commentators get over-excited about the idea that it is a crucial election. Every U.S. presidential election matters a lot in absolute terms, because the power of the office is so enormous, but some elections are a lot more important than others because they signal the start of a multi-decade period of dominance for one party or the other. This might very well be one of them.

It seems to me that conditions are set up for major change this year. Here’s why:

1. We’re due. If you start the clock at 1968, we’ve had Republican dominance at the presidential level for about 40 years. The prior period of Democratic dominance lasted from 1932 to 1968, or 36 years. The period of Republican dominance that preceded this lasted from 1896 to 1932, or 36 years. In the modern American context, the typical duration of these shifts is, maybe not coincidentally, about equal to the working lifetime of an adult.

There’s nothing magical about this duration, and two data points don’t prove anything. But there is something to the folk wisdom of a pendulum that swings back and forth between left and right. There have been groups, tendencies or interests that crudely correspond to what we mean today by left vs. right, conservative vs. progressive or whatever you want to call them in every reasonably representative government that I can think of all the way back to the democracy in Athens. This ought to be a clue that there will never be some ideological battle of Armageddon in which one side or the other achieves final and complete victory (and that we probably wouldn’t want such an outcome anyway).

In extremely rough terms, this dynamic appears to function pretty reliably. When one group first achieves dominance, it begins by fixing problems created by predecessors. The programs put in place tend to work well, but as the initial problems are (partially) solved the inherent contradictions and assumptions of the new governing coalition begin to become more prominent and create problems of their own; corruption becomes more endemic; the existing coalition is locked in to constituencies that shrink while the out-of-power ideologues can be more flexible about building a more future-oriented coalition; and so on. The electorate switches horses, and the cycle starts again.

2. We’ve had a failed presidency. While one can make the argument that the public is deluded (though I don’t), George Bush is leaving office with abysmal public regard. His approval is at the level of Carter or Hoover.

3. If the current bail-out efforts don’t prevent an economic catastrophe, we will have the precipitating event of an economic crisis. In my view, this would make a liberal realignment all but certain.

None of this pre-ordained, and often recognition of historical patterns is the first step to changing them. Currently, Republicans seem to be refusing to play the sap in this drama. I have enormous policy disagreements with McCain (though I doubt he’s losing a lot of sleep over this), but it’s hard not to credit him for running a tactically ingenious campaign. Given the underlying conditions, the fact that he is competitive is extremely impressive. In the end, though, conditions will likely, though not certainly, overwhelm campaign tactics. These conditions are so favorable for any Democrat in 2008, that if Obama fails to become president, he ought to return to the University of Chicago and start teaching college classes on how to lose elections. Meanwhile, the (appropriately, in my view) much-maligned Bush administration seems to be making heroic efforts to prevent the financial crisis from becoming an economic crisis, rather than simply watching this happen. Betting on all this working to maintain Republican political dominance indefinitely, however, is betting against the house.

Nothing is written in the stars. Each prior realignment worked somewhat differently, and each has had differing levels of intensity. It’s entirely possible that Democrats could win in 2008, but do so badly that a conservative administration and president find themselves back in power by 2016. Unanticipated events could intervene is historically unprecedented ways. Anything could happen.

But how should conservatives react to realignment if it occurs? First, by adopting more critical distance between the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Politicians are in the business of winning elections. When you get past all the fancy talk, Republicans will move to the center in a realigned world, replicating something like the Rockefeller Republicans. Get used to the kind of alienation that liberal activists had for Clinton-style triangulation. The faster we can see the hidden advantage of no longer having to defend everything George Bush has done, the faster, we can develop a successful reform program. Second, by returning to the intellectual spadework of the 1950s – 1970s in order to develop relevant solutions. Prepare for lots more vigorous debate about the way forward. This is healthy, and should be encouraged. A leading indicator of progress will be the ability to win the allegiance of younger people. Third, by not trying to plan out some new coalition or “roadmap to victory” over the next X years. Just focus on identifying and solving real problems. Inevitably, conservative return to influence will be predicated on mistakes by the governing coalition anyway.