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By Jay Cost

« An Incipient Realignment? A Response to Judis and Teixeira, Part 1 | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Over-Interpreting Polls »

An Incipient Realignment? A Response to Judis and Teixeira, Part 2

Yesterday, I began my critique of John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira's "Back to the Future: The Reemergence of the Emerging Democratic Majority." I indicated that Judis and Teixeira made at least four inferential errors in their article, and I outlined two of them. First, they fail to give a compelling reason to accept - in lieu of subsequent election returns - why 2006 should be understood as a realignment. Second, they engage in special pleading to explain previous elections that are inconsistent with their thesis.

Today, I shall complete my critique by outlining the third and fourth errors I see in their work.

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(3) They fail to account for the possibility that the Republicans will adapt to the demographic changes that they cite, and therefore retain their competitiveness.

They do not accept what has become a nearly axiomatic assumption in the study of the contemporary political party. That is, political parties are strategic pursuers of electoral majorities. The goal of the major parties, they should have assumed, is to win elections. Ideologies serve the purpose of electoral victory - not vice-versa. Political parties are not going to endorse ideologies that are guaranteed to induce electoral defeat. Rather, they try to craft issue platforms that they believe will yield victory. Accordingly, Judis and Teixeira should account for the possibility that the GOP might adapt successfully to the political environment. If they wish to argue that there is some reason not to expect the GOP to adapt - as one might argue about the Whigs in the 1850s, the Democrats in the 1890s, or the Republicans in the 1930s - I would be interested in such an argument. But they have to make it to predict the Democratic dominance they envision.

An implicit requirement here is that they must view the parties through a non-ideological lens. This is the case even if they can't stand one party or the other because of the issue positions it takes. A strange kind of "good faith" assumption is needed here. They largely should assume that the parties are not ignorant purveyors of narrow-minded ideologies, or angels sent from on high to deliver the nation from the evil woes of the other party. They should assume that the parties are "crass," that they are goal-oriented (they want electoral victory) and strategic (they take issue positions to achieve this victory).

Judis and Teixiera fail to make these assumptions about the GOP. They offer what seems like reams of demographic data, but no hint of recognition that the Republican Party might be able to adapt to these trends if - in fact - the trends are as they think they are. They write:

American politics became dominated by concerns over national security, an issue on which Republicans had enjoyed voters' confidence since 1980. Some voters who might have supported Democrats were distracted from economic or social concerns that had favored Democrats. They ignored Republicans' religious intolerance and indifference to environmental pollution, rewarding Republicans instead for their presumed success in the war on terror. In 2004 George W. Bush won victories in swing states like Ohio, Iowa, and Florida largely because of these voters' defection.

This is clearly insufficient. It is also unfair and uncharitable. It indicates to me that personal feelings are far too involved in their analytics. Not only do they fail to account for the strategic innovations we should expect - they seem to me to be too inclined to slip into "the-GOP-is-a-force-for-evil" talk. This is a hallmark of polemic, not sound analysis.

What is particularly interesting is that they nevertheless assume that the Democrats can be flexible and strategic.

To win elections, a Democratic candidate for Congress or governor has to maintain the support of the party's base while reaching a sufficient percentage of the swing voters in a given state or district. In Ohio, Iowa, or Indiana, that can mean appealing to white working-class voters in small towns. In Colorado, Arizona, or Montana, that can mean appealing to libertarian independents. In these local and state elections, Democrats can run candidates who reflect the special political mix of their state or congressional district. For example, in Ohio last year, Democrats ran a gubernatorial candidate who opposed gun control and a Senate candidate who campaigned against free trade. In Colorado, Democrats ran a gubernatorial candidate who opposed abortion and gun control. In Pennsylvania, Democrats ran a Senate candidate who was pro-life who appealed to working-class Catholics. And in every one of these cases, the Democratic candidate was elected.

Are Republicans not equally capable of such strategic positioning?

(4) They take rhetorical advantage of their vague terminology. "Realignment" is an inherently vague term, and it needs to be specified as fully as possible. They fail to do this.

Judis and Teixeira argue:

None of this suggests that the Democrats can't win the White House. Indeed, they will enter presidential elections with a slight advantage because of the tilt in the country toward the political center. But whether they can win will depend on how well they can maintain the Democratic base while reaching out to swing voters, and on the strength of the opposition. Republicans, obviously, will face problems of their own in placating their conservative Christian and pro-business base while reaching out to suburban professionals and the white working class in the North and West.

So, this will be a realignment in which the unfavored party can still be expected to win the White House about as often as the favored party? What kind of realignment is that?

They answer:

If the Democrats are limited to incremental reform, what we foresee is a realignment similar to the Republican realignment of the 1980s but different from the massive, dramatic realignment that occurred in the crisis of the 1930s. Democrats will hold Congress and the White House for most, but not all, of this period, and they'll suffer intraparty recriminations (as the Democrats of the 1990s did) from their failure to do better. But if they are able to anchor their majority in landmark legislation, they could achieve the kind of historic realignment that Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats enjoyed. At minimum, that would require Democratic politicians to put aside their own differences and mobilize pressure from below. The past record on this is not encouraging, but there's always the chance that today's Democrats will rise to the occasion.

The problem with this analysis is that 2006 is the first indication of a budding electoral realignment - if indeed there is one. 1980, on the other hand, was not.

There were realigning elements to the 1980 election. This is certainly true. The Republicans made significant and lasting gains in the Mountain West and, to a lesser extent, the South. However, 1980 was not a critical realignment. The GOP had slowly been making gains in these areas during the entire postwar period. Thus, 1980 was a punctuation in what has been an ongoing, secular realignment that had been punctuated by a GOP boom in both regions in the mid-60s (and was punctuated again in 1994). So, the roots of what happened in 1980 go very deep.

That is not the case with 2006. The realignment that Judis and Teixeira claim they see now is a critical realignment - one that emerges without electoral precedent. And so, 1980 is not the proper basis of comparison. The only election year in the postwar period that has shown any evidence of that phenomenon - a shift in the voting patterns without much prior indication - was 1958. The Pacific West lurched leftward that year.

Thus, to compare the realignment that Judis and Teixeira see this year to the realignment of 1980 is not a valid comparison. If they had made a more modest argument - perhaps correlating Democratic gains in the Northeast last year as another major step in the secular decline of the GOP in that region - the comparison would have been apt, and I would have probably agreed. But their comparison is not modest, and therefore it does hold up under scrutiny.

This problem is not limited to mere rhetorical imprecision. In lowering their sights about what they mean by "realignment," they lose any basis to justify their prediction of sustained Democratic domination. Grant the similarities between 1980 and 2006, for the sake of argument. As I said, whatever realigning forces that existed in 1980 were relatively modest. Thus, no one could - at the time - make a reasonable argument to expect, based upon demography alone, the political events of the next decade. If you retain the same demographic basis for each party, you can easily envision a different decade after the 1980 election.

To see what I mean by this, try the following though experiments. Extend the 1982 recession by a couple of months, and we would remember our 41st President, Walter Mondale. In 1988, make the aggressive Lee Atwater a little too aggressive, take Michael Dukakis out of the tank and make him think a little bit more about that death penalty question from Bernie Shaw, and we might remember him as our 41st President. In 1994, have the Clinton Administration recognize the implications of the 1992 Perot vote, and have the President govern as the New Democrat he promised to be (didn't he promise a middle class tax cut?) - and we might be celebrating the eighteenth year in Speaker Tom Foley's tenure.

If we are now in a period like the 1980s, Judis and Teixeira cannot make predictions about who will retain the balance of legislative power based solely upon demographic trends. The demography of the 1980s was not a sufficient condition for the political events of that period. Accordingly, they cannot justify their predictions about 2006-2022 by comparing it to 1980-1996.

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This last objection is a good indication of my overall take on their argument. I think it is confused. There is a confusion here about what "realignment" is, and what it implies. Judis and Teixeira think that this is a realignment like 1980. But if 2006 is indeed a realigning year as they think it is, it is quite different from 1980. On top of this, if 2006 is as modest a realignment as 1980 was, they really have no business making predictions about the next decade. The political shifts in 1980 were far too modest to have been a sufficient condition for the next 12 to 16 years. So, how are the shifts in 2006 a sufficient condition?

This is the basic problem I see in all four of my objections. They are confused about what kind of data needs to be offered to make their point. They are confused about what should, and what should not, count as data. They are confused about how to view the parties. And, as I said, they are confused about what they mean by "realignment."

Mind you, I am not necessarily rejecting their argument. Their thesis might be true. But the justification for it is so riddled with theoretical and methodological confusion that we have no business accepting their thesis based upon the justification.

This confused article should, I think, serve as a cautionary tale to all and sundry who wish to go off proclaiming incipient realignments. It is a dangerous undertaking - much harder than many obviously think. This is one of those instances where our desire for foreknowledge must give way to the sober realization that our ability to know is limited, and that all the wishing in the world will not change this frustrating fact. There are some things that we just can't know. So, before we start talking realignment, how's about we let the voters vote?

Footnote: Yesterday, I incorrectly credited V.O. Key with the four-fold typology of elections. In fact, the typology I referenced was partially created by Key in his 1955 Journal of Politics article, "A Theory of Critical Elections." Key identified elections as critical or reinforcing. However, it was Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes who noticed that some elections - such as the 1956 presidential election - were deviating elections, while others - like the 1960 presidential election - were reinstating elections. Interested readers can check out their seminal work, The American Voter, or their 1961 article in The American Political Science Review, "Stability and Change in 1960: A Reinstating Election." Also, for anybody who is interested in a recent, and very excellent, review of realignment in the postwar era, I would recommend an article by Charles Bullock, Donna Hoffman, and Keith Gaddie entitled "Regional Variations in the Realignment of American Politics, 1944-2004." It appeared in the September, 2006 edition of the Social Science Quarterly.

-Jay Cost