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The Lost Majority

The Lost Majority

By Sean Trende - January 3, 2012

The following is an abridged version of the introduction to "The Lost Majority" (Palgrave Macmillan) by Sean Trende, which goes on sale today.

This book makes three interrelated claims. First, that the 2010 midterm elections were a result of Barack Obama and the Democrats misreading both their mandate and how they had been brought to power, imagining a realignment in 2008 when, in fact, none had occurred. Second, that the emerging partisan majorities described by theorists from both parties are mirages. Third, that the entire concept of realignments/permanent alignments, which underlay much of the misbegotten analysis of the 2008 elections, is bankrupt and should be abandoned.

The first claim is explored largely in parts I and II. Here, the book explores the sudden demise of Obama’s seemingly impregnable coalition. Too much analysis has focused on short-term explanations for the downfall, such as the economy, the health-care bill, and the Tea Parties. These explanations dodge the more fundamental question: If Obama had really assembled an FDR-like coalition on the basis of a campaign promise for an aggressive, activist government, why was he unable to overcome these forces, especially the latter two? Analysts have struggled to answer this question because they fail to question their ingrained assumptions about how Obama’s political coalition came to be in the first place. Press hype aside, Obama’s winning coalition was not something that sprung Athena-like from David Axelrod’s brow. Rather, it was a descendant of Bill Clinton’s successful coalition, a coalition premised on moderate progressivism and fiscal rectitude. Obama’s failure to continue that centrist tradition, combined with some bad luck, brought about the Democrats’ defeat.

But the problems with the dominant narrative go deeper than a failure to understand the nature of Obama’s majority. When discussing Obama’s win in 2008, analysts frequently threw about the terms “Reagan majority” or “New Deal coalition” in ways that evinced a very shallow understanding of how those coalitions came about, and how they ended. In order to give a proper context for the politics of the last decade, this book therefore begins by urging us to unlearn much of our understanding of the politics of the last hundred years. Part I begins by exploring the early seeds of the New Deal coalition, which were sown in 1920. In that year, Republicans brought together an incredibly broad winning coalition. But as we’ll see again and again in this book these “coalitions of everyone” that form from time to time are unstable, and tend to break down quickly. Over the course of the 1920s, various components of that Republican coalition became dissatisfied with the GOP, and flirted with the Party of Jackson. FDR emerged as the one politician, possibly in all of America, who could fully take advantage of the missteps made by Republicans throughout the 1920s and create a broad coalition based upon these disenchanted Republican groups.

Far from creating an enduring, dominant coalition, however, FDR’s choices sparked the exit of the South, the oldest component of the Democratic Party, beginning in the mid-1930s and continuing throughout the mid-to-late twentieth century. Other actions by Roosevelt and his successors alienated the white working class and the West. In other words, the Roosevelt coalition did not dominate American politics into the 1960s, as many claim. It ceased functioning in 1938 and fell apart during the 1940s. America entered a period of unsettled politics, with congressional majorities swinging wildly, and with both parties capable of winning the White House.

The Reagan coalition did arise from the ashes of the New Deal coalition, but it formed much earlier than most realize. It was the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 that helped stabilize the unsettled politics that arose in the wake of the New Deal’s demise, creating a coalition that was probably the most successful in American history. From 1952 through 1988, the Eisenhower coalition lost only three presidential elections, two by the narrowest of margins. While Democrats held Congress for most of this time, Republicans effectively controlled that body through a coalition with Southern Democrats. As the Democrats continued their leftward shift, and as the country chafed under a prolonged existential threat from the Soviet Union, the Eisenhower coalition enjoyed an extended lifespan unequalled in American history.

In other words, the “Reagan coalition” is better understood as the “Eisenhower coalition,” and Reagan’s presidency marked the end of a period of Republican dominance, not the beginning. The Republican Party’s rightward shift came just as the issues that had perpetuated the Eisenhower coalition were losing salience, and at the same time that Bill Clinton was pulling the Democratic Party back toward the center. These dual shifts formed the basis for a new coalition, which was actually beginning to form in the Reagan years. The “Clinton coalition” took the existing Democratic base of minorities, liberals, and the remaining Southern Democrats, reestablished the Democratic Party’s connection to working-class Americans, and pulled suburbanites loose from their Republican moorings. After a rocky start that gave Republicans complete control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Clinton righted the ship. By emphasizing minimalist programs like school uniforms and health-insurance portability, he became an avatar of gradualism against the onslaught of increasingly radicalized Republicans. In a sense, he fractured the Eisenhower coalition precisely because he governed like an Eisenhower Republican, and because the Republican Party seemed determined to reject its moderate past as vigorously as possible.

We end part I with Bill Clinton having bequeathed to his successors a Democratic Party rebranded as the party of balanced budgets and fiscal rectitude. In part II we explore the swift breakdown of this coalition, and the onset of our increasingly unstable politics. Clinton’s efforts to rebrand the party set the stage for the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, as well as the election of Barack Obama. This point is critical: Barack Obama’s coalition was not novel. It wasn’t even that broad. It was a narrower version of Clinton’s. Obama’s election saw the final collapse of Democratic voting strength among Democrats in Appalachia and in those states settled by Appalachian Scots-Irish, areas that had been voting Democratic since Andrew Jackson. He was the first Democrat since Lewis Cass in 1848 not to carry Floyd County, Kentucky, and the first ever to lose Knott County. For perspective, in 1996 Clinton carried Floyd County by 45 points and Knott County by 55 points. Even George McGovern carried these counties by double digits.

Of course, there was a positive side to the 2008 ledger as well. Obama ran stronger among liberals, the young, minorities, and suburbanites than did Clinton, and he brought more of these individuals out to vote. As a result, while Obama lost ground by building a coalition that was narrower than Clinton’s, he made up for this narrowing by creating a coalition that went much deeper among certain demographics.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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