I think its getting safe to say its just about over. Barack Obama, barring some major surprise, will almost certainly be the next president of the United States. As a student of historical cycles, I’m trying to figure out what it means.
It’s been a weird election. For all the vitriol that has been thrown back and forth, these two candidates are actually not that far apart on policy. The are very different on taxes, but neither was likely to see his plan passed, anyway. They are different on health care, but both have interesting plans. On other issues, like foreign policy, global warming, energy, immigration, even social issues, they probably would have governed relatively similarly, even if their campaign rhetoric suggested otherwise. Remember, John Kerry asked John McCain to be his running mate, so he can’t be that far from the center.
It may be a groundbreaking election, and not just because Obama is an African-American. That’s nice, but I never really felt that was as much of as a barrier as other people thought. I actually believe that the average American has been ready to elect a black president for a while, it’s just that the right candidate hadn’t come along.
Instead, I think we should take note of the fact that Obama is from the North. He is likely to be the first president elected from the North since John Kennedy in 1960. Not only is he from the North, but he is from a big city in the North. In addition, he is likely to win with 51% or more of the vote, a feat accomplished by only two Democrats since the Civil War, FDR and LBJ.
And so I ask myself, could this be a watershed election that has ushered in a new Democratic, blue state era? Or is it a blip created by special circumstances, after which the south, plains and Rocky Mountain west will regain their dominance? I don’t know the answer, of course, and won’t until the 2016 election. Please indulge me as I think this through.
From 1800-1860, US presidential politics was dominated by the party of the South, the Democratic Party. The coalition was southern planters, yeomen farmers and northern Irish Catholics. During this period, the opposition party, the Whigs, only elected two presidents, for one term each. (Maybe you can throw John Quincy Adams in there as being a proto-Whig, too.)
From 1860-1932, US presidential politics was dominated by the party of the North, the Republican Party. The coalition was northern businessmen, northern protestants, and eventually, many northern industrial workers. During this period, the Democratic Party elected only two presidents, for two terms each.
From 1932-2008, US presidential politics has been dominated by the party of the South, but in a more complicated way than in the era before 1932. From 1932-1968, the Democrats, the party of the South, northern Catholics and northern academia, won every election but two. Two candidates, FDR and LBJ, were able to win national landslides in a way that hadn’t occured before 1932. It should be noted that the Democratic Party before 1968 was much different than it is today. It was a mix of Southern segregationists, northern union workers and progressive intellectuals. The Republican Party was much different then, too. It was a coalition of fiscal conservatives, social progressives and moderate midwesterners. It was more likely than the Democrats to oppose foreign interventionism and to promote desegregation.
Starting in 1964, the Republican Party saw an opening to exploit the inherent contradictions within the Democratic Party coalition and began to appeal to southern conservatives. While the GOP got crushed in 1964, Richard Nixon won narrowly in 1968. The GOP was then able to win large national landslides in 1972 and with Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and even with the first Bush in 1988. On the congressional side, the Democrats were able to maintain their dominance with southern conservatives and northern liberals in the same party until the GOP won a national landslide congressional election in 1994, sweeping out a huge number of southern Democrats.
The return to regionalism began under Bush in 2000. In that year, a bunch of northern conservative Senators from the class on ’94 were swept out of office, replaced by conventional liberals. Cultural issues became the primary dividing line, with states like West Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky moving firmly into the GOP camp, but with the GOP losing any chance to win states like California, Illinois, Vermont and Maine that used to be classic Republican states.
When Bush won in 2004, it looked as if the GOP had built a realigned, dominant coalition of social, economic and defense conservatives dominating the south, plains and Rocky Mountain states. Just as Karl Rove had planned. And who knows, if the Iraq War and the economy had gone well, and if Bush had responded strongly to Hurricane Katrina, it might have been. With a moderate like McCain as the standard bearer, the GOP would have even stood a chance of expanding its reach into the upper midwest.
That said, it would make sense for a northern party to regain the upper hand. The first southern era was 60 years. The first northern era lasted 72 years. The second southern era has lasted 76 years now, so perhaps the blue states are due.