Dec 6, 2013
The Turning Point
Posted on Feb 22, 2007
All elections are, in some sense, turning points. They register, however murkily, shifts in popular sentiment. But this recent off-year election has excited more than the normal number of pregnant speculations and, of course, put one question in particular in boldface type: Did it signal the end—or at least the beginning of the end—of the conservative counterrevolution that first gained traction with Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980?
A turning-point election is something special indeed. Everything about the country’s political chemistry changes as its geopolitical makeup is reshuffled, as cities, towns and whole regions start voting in a new way. Suddenly, the normal fault lines in political demography no longer apply as ethnic, racial, gender and socioeconomic groups simply stop voting the way everyone expects them to.
Turning-point elections can inaugurate new distributions of wealth and power. Social classes and elites accustomed to rule find themselves struggling to hold on to or compelled to share power they once felt entitled to wield unilaterally. The whole political economy becomes subject to serious reordering. With so much at stake, such elections can ultimately be the occasions for revolutions in the country’s moral tone, its basic cultural and ideological orientation.
Upheavals of this magnitude make up part of our relatively recent history. Here are a few examples: Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania were fiefdoms of the Republican Party, and of the industrial elite which controlled that party, from the end of the Civil War through the stock market crash of 1929; nor did the GOP electorate there consist solely of industrialists and the middle classes. Hundreds of thousands of industrial workers—Italians, Slavs and other immigrants working the steel mills, coke ovens and coal mines—belonged to that cohort of Republican loyalists as well. Then, in four short years, between 1932 and 1936, both city and state became bastions of the New Deal Democratic Party.
As late as the 1929 crash and Great Depression, free market ideology, social Darwinian morality, and the political and social pre-eminence of the country’s business elite made up the legitimate foundations of the republic. Within the historical blinking of an eye, however, that legitimacy vaporized in the presidential election of 1932—replaced by the regulatory and social-welfare state of the New Deal with its ethos of social obligation, economic security and industrial democracy.
Turning-point elections that register—and help usher in—such remarkable transformations are rare in American history. Arguably, there have only been three: 1860, 1932 and 1980. The elections of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan—each in its own way—opened the door to fundamental reform. Clearly the abolition of slavery, the overthrow of industrial autocracy and the triumphant counterrevolution against the New Deal with which these three elections are associated qualify as turning points in the grand sense.
Why Does the Ancien Régime Die?
Rare as they are, one might ask why turning-point elections happen at all. Marking as they do the emergence of a new political order, they are, it seems, brought on by a general crisis in the old order, an impasse or breakdown so severe it can no longer be addressed by the conventional wisdom of the political status quo. The secession of the Southern states in 1860 was, of course, such a crisis. So was the Great Depression. So, too, was the convergence of imperial defeat in Vietnam, the overthrow of the racial order of the ancien régime and the de-industrialization of the American heartland. Secession, depression, defeat, these have been the “big bangs” ushering in new political universes.
Systemwide crises prove fatal, first of all, because they exhaust the repertoire of political solutions available (or imaginable) to the ruling circles of the old order. Elites become increasingly defensive and inflexible, so much so that their actions aggravate rather than alleviate the crisis at hand. In the early years of the Great Depression, for example, Andrew Mellon, President Herbert Hoover’s secretary of the treasury, suggested that the way out of the cataclysm was to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” In doing so, he was falling back on the orthodoxy of his robber-baron ancestors and exposing not only the callousness of the old regime, but its incapacity to do anything constructive about the national calamity.
An exhausted political order does not, however, fall apart and exit the scene simply by virtue of its own downward momentum and social stupidity. Alternatives, embryonic but visible, usually gestate within the old political organism even before its weaknesses become disabling. Before one of the two major political parties emerges to represent a new political dispensation—we are, after all, talking about the United States, where generally everything happens within the claustrophobic confines of the two-party system—battles rage internally for the soul of the party.
So it was that the pre-New Deal Democrats were still run by John Jacob Raskob of the DuPont-General Motors interests and kindred laissez-faire circles among the country’s business elite in the North (together with the Bourbon landlords and new industrialists of the South). But even before the Depression hit, reform-minded elements in the business community and the labor movement were challenging the party’s old guard, coalescing around a program of government regulation, industrial democracy and the development of a mass-consumption economy underwritten by Keynesian-inspired fiscal policy.
Likewise, several years before President Lyndon Baines Johnson abdicated the presidency in 1968 and long before Ronald Reagan’s 1980 triumph, the Barry Goldwater right wing of the Republican Party overthrew, at least temporarily, the Rockefeller moderates who had made their peace with New Deal liberalism and controlled the party since the end of World War II. Goldwater’s vitriolic victory and presidential nomination at the 1964 Republican Party convention made clear that this was far more than an intramural squabble. It pre-figured the end of the New Deal order and signaled that a minority within the Grand Old Party was already prepared to wage an uncompromising struggle against apostates from the conservative credo.
Turning-point elections then are not natural events like hurricanes or tsunamis, occurring in the course of some impersonal cycle of political evolution. Old political orders are supplanted by a willingness to risk party disunity in order to achieve some higher purpose.
When Does the Bell Toll—and for Whom?
Turning-point elections have invariably been presidential elections. (Two others are often included on the short list by scholars—Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828 and William McKinley’s in 1896.) This is commonsensical enough. A vote for a president is, after all, a more straightforward national referendum than voting for hundreds of congressional representatives and senators.
Of course, in everyday life, things seldom prove quite so straightforward. While it is convenient to bookmark change according to the year in which a new president takes office, some of the most decisive changes in political demography and geography, in public policy, in the balance of power or in the moral-ideological profile of the new order have come in subsequent elections, both presidential and off-year.
This is more than an academic point at the moment, because 2006 was, of course, a midterm election. Does this automatically disqualify it as a turning-point one, or can a congressional election measure up too? The short answer is: sometimes.
Arguably, to take one example still in memory, 1966 might be seen that way. Although President Johnson and the Democrats had won a staggeringly overwhelming victory in 1964, the subsequent off-year vote for Congress demonstrated a significant shift to the Republicans in the South and parts of the West, regions that were absolutely critical to the dominance of the old political order.
Southern disaffection with the Democrats had, in fact, already been apparent in the 1964 presidential primary campaign of Alabama’s notorious segregationist governor, George Wallace. It would make itself felt decisively in the presidential election of 1968 when the combined votes for Republican candidate Richard Nixon and Wallace, running on a third-party, states-rights ticket, would account for 57 percent of the popular vote, sending Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic Party to an unexpected defeat. (Indeed, historians might have landmarked 1968 as a turning-point election except for one thing—Watergate—which functioned as a kind of seven-year political coitus interruptus.)
Sometimes, however, off-year elections that looked significant at the time—for example, the Republican capture of both houses of Congress in 1946—end up leaving the political fundamentals intact. In that case, the New Deal order would remain hegemonic for another quarter-century or more.
So too, a mere shift in presidential party affiliation need augur little. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided for two terms in the 1950s, but never thought to challenge the fundamentals of the New Deal. Indeed, it was an Eisenhower era bon mot that Social Security constitutes the “third rail” of American politics, that tampering with it would be an act of political suicide.
Similarly, Democratic President Bill Clinton served twice but accepted the basics of Reagan-era conservatism, memorialized in his boast (which was also a confession) that the “era of big government is over with.” Eisenhower was a Republocrat, Clinton a Democratan. If anything, their administrations indicated just how firmly entrenched the political order of the moment remained, so solidly it could be entrusted to the putative opposition.
What, then, about 2006? At first blush (and lacking a crystal ball), it would certainly be safer to conclude that it wasn’t a turning-point election. The Democratic congressional victory was a slim one, particularly in the Senate; but even in the House, the present 31-seat margin conceals a remarkable number of extremely close individual races that were, in the end, Democratic victories. Moreover, the media, before and after the election, have made much of the fact that a significant number of Democratic winners in both houses belonged to the “Blue Dog” wing of the party; that they were recruited by the party’s leadership and won exactly because they were social conservatives, Republican-lite candidates, only make-believe Democrats.
Nor did the victorious Democrats display a coherent programmatic alternative, however much they emphasized their opposition to Bush administration foreign and domestic policies and the atmosphere of sleaze that surrounded the White House. Differences within the Democratic Party on many issues were visible for all to see.
It would, however, be a gross exaggeration to see in those tensions an embryonic Goldwater-style civil war pitting one form of political economy and worldview—say that of the Democratic Leadership Council—against an insurgency ready to break with the past. There was no Goldwater-like faction armed with its own ideological vision and itching for a fight. You would have to throw into this mix the open question of whether the prevailing political order—the one presaged by Goldwater and inaugurated by Ronald Reagan—actually verges on a more general crisis of legitimacy, the sort of systemwide breakdown that has, in the past, opened the door to something truly new.
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