It is becoming ever more difficult to recognize a historic election when we see one. The midterm elections of 2006 appeared to be a massive repudiation of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. In 2008 many observers thought that President Obama’s election had ushered in a new era of Democratic dominance and reduced Republicans to a regional party of the South. And now, a mere two years later, Obama and the Democrats have suffered their own remarkable “shellacking,” as the President rightly termed it. Democrats managed to retain a slim majority in the Senate thanks to a handful of weak GOP candidates, but their losses in the House constituted what reporters on election evening described as an unfolding bloodbath.
Little wonder that commentators have struggled to discern the “meaning” of this election. Was it a decisive Democratic smack down? Or merely a tempting opportunity for Republicans to imitate Democratic hubris in turn? A return to the generally conservative status quo ante? Or just a symptom of ungovernability? A call for sharply limited government? Or for government to do more in support of the middle class?
If you were hoping for answers to these questions, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. As we sort through the election’s aftermath, however, perhaps we can discern some general trends. Here are what seem to me three of its lessons:
1. Voter Volatility. We seem to have entered upon a period of extreme electoral volatility, with voters switching back and forth from one party to the other with extraordinary rapidity and magnitude. These are not so much “swing” voters as lunging, thrashing, wildly flailing voters. Charles Krauthammer argued in a post-election column that the country, after a brief pro-Democratic, pro-Obama aberration in 2006 and 2008, has merely reverted to its moderately conservative norm. Much though I respect Krauthammer, I think he is mistaken about this. The volatility we are witnessing is more extreme and enduring than his description suggests.
Obama, after all, is not the only recent president to suffer from significant swings in popularity or to see his party’s fortunes change dramatically. George W. Bush entered office under a cloud of illegitimacy, but then became tremendously popular after 9/11 and coasted to a relatively comfortable re-election victory. During his second term, however, his popularity plummeted and his party was punished in Congress. Before him, Bill Clinton—like Obama—saw his approval ratings collapse rapidly and his congressional majority vanish. He was able to pivot quickly and recover popularity, but his second term was clouded by scandal and impeachment, and his heir apparent, Vice-President Gore, failed to win election. Even Bush the Elder endured similar swings: immensely popular after the Gulf War, he nevertheless served only a single term when voters turned on him in response to his broken “no new taxes” pledge. Not since Reagan has a president served two full terms with his party’s and his own popularity more or less intact.
Throughout this period, however, the electoral swings seem to be becoming more frequent and more dramatic. Since no party can expect to solve our political and economic problems or accomplish much of lasting significance in a mere two years, this poses genuine dilemmas of governability.
2. Independent Uprising. Connected to this increased volatility, and partly helping to explain it, is a clear and steady increase in the number of independent voters, affiliated with neither party. The increase in independents only “partly” explains the volatility, I say, because there is no inherent reason why independent voters should swing wildly back and forth. One could readily imagine a large group of people who feel no strong partisan affiliation and are thus nominally independent, but whose views nevertheless tend with some consistency toward one party or the other. Indeed, one might expect this to be a fairly natural stance for many people. It is not our situation, however. Rather, the rising number of independent voters appears to be a symptom of a more general decline in the strength of our traditional two-party system.
Many factors have no doubt contributed to this gradual decline, which is not itself a new phenomenon. The widespread adoption of presidential primaries—which allowed candidates to be, in effect, self-selecting—is one critical source of party weakness. The growth of a twenty-four-hour media culture is no doubt another contributor to our candidate-centered politics. Whatever its immediate causes, party weakness has created serious problems for our political system. Commentators frequently decry the increased polarization of American politics. And the increase in independent voters, along with the very low approval ratings for both parties, suggests that citizens themselves increasingly view parties with distaste. Ironically, however, polarization is probably the result of party weakness, rather than party strength. As parties’ political role and influence decline, voters with low partisan identification tend to drop away. The parties are thus left with only the more committed partisans as members. Naturally, polarization results. Stronger parties would, of necessity, be broader parties.
Like electoral volatility, the rise in independents and decline of traditional parties are problems. There is little reason to expect that a country as large and diverse as ours, with the American system of separation of powers, can effectively be governed without the unifying and moderating influence of a functioning two-party system. Yet it is difficult to see how parties could successfully be strengthened given current levels of voter disdain. Republicans may have woken up on November 3 dreaming of a new, solidified electoral majority. But Democrats thought they had achieved precisely that in the 2008 elections, and GOP hopes are likely to prove equally illusory.
3. The New People’s Party. The decline in parties has been going on for some time now. Increasing electoral volatility is more recent and has only reached its current extremes in the past decade. More important and interesting than either of these, however, is a trend that has probably been underway since Reagan’s election, but that is only now, I think, becoming truly visible: our two parties are in the process of reversing identities. At least since the time of FDR, the Democratic Party has been America’s version of a populist party, with its electoral base rooted in labor and the working class. The Republicans, by contrast, were the party of big business and of the elites. We are watching a role reversal take place: the GOP is becoming our new populist party, while the Democrats are becoming a party of elites.
The so-called “Reagan Democrats” may have been the first harbinger of this change; the Tea Party is its most recent manifestation. But over the past two decades, Democrats have increasingly identified with a range of causes attractive to educated elites but with little resonance on Main Street: multiculturalism, environmentalism, cosmopolitanism, secularism, gay rights, global warming, immigrant rights, and the increasingly complex regulation of our increasingly complex national and global economy. This agenda has little appeal for most middle- and working-class, mainstream Americans. They are concerned with jobs, small business opportunities, safe and decent communities, declining K–12 education; they value faith and family, patriotism and military service. As became clear with the election of Obama, Democrats have become more successful at drawing support away from Republicans among elites, including business elites. But this process has been distancing them from their historic base, and Republicans have increasingly filled the void.
The financial crisis is providing an additional catalyst to voters’ changing identifications. As in democratic countries across the West, American citizens—ordinary, middle-class voters—are realizing that the welfare state model is increasingly unsustainable, that its economic viability rested upon a temporary demographic bulge, and that we can no longer afford large-scale entitlement programs. As a result, the basis for old-style economic populism is vanishing, while in its place a new form of populism is emerging—a cultural populism, one suited to the age of identity politics, and compatible (unlike the old, economic populism) with limited-government conservatism. In this world, the populist party will be the GOP, while the Democrats will be the party of Kyoto and Davos. Note that this is not a prediction of Republican dominance. A nation like America has plenty of educated elites, who vote more and have more money and influence than do the middle and working classes. Democrats will continue to be competitive, just as Republicans were when Democrats were the populists. I am merely claiming that we are witnessing a historic shift in the identity and electoral base of our two major parties. Perhaps the extreme volatility we have been witnessing is even a sign of this, the consequence of an electoral re-sorting that has not yet worked itself out, as a large number of voters find themselves torn between the party of their historic allegiance and the one that increasingly represents them today.
There is, I admit, a certain tension between the second and third trends I have described above. Does it make sense to think both that the rise in independents signals a general decline in parties, and also that the parties are in the process of changing identities? To be sure, these are not mutually exclusive possibilities—the parties could reverse roles and still remain weak. Nevertheless, the process of role reversal suggests a certain vitality in the party system that is belied by the rise of independents.
It could be, of course, that voters have moved out of parties in which they no longer feel represented without yet re-identifying with the opposite party, especially since the shift in party identity has been a gradual process and is not yet complete. This hypothesis would fit with the suggestion that electoral volatility may itself be a symptom of partisan re-sorting. In that case, we might expect the number of independent voters to decline somewhat as modified party identities gradually crystallize again. I don’t necessarily expect this to happen, since I believe that other factors have also contributed to party decline. But it is an intriguing possibility.
Perhaps the best way to think about the changing shape of American party politics is as a race between party decline and party realignment. If party decline is one possible outcome of independent voter discontent, party redefinition is another. It would not be the first time in American history that our party system has changed in response to electoral pressure. Will Republicans and Democrats revitalize themselves along somewhat different electoral bases, drawing discontented voters back into their respective folds? Or will they remain stuck halfway between the old, Democratic-populist alignment and the new, Republican-populist one, losing old voters without attracting new ones and watching the electorate continue to pivot back and forth between two options that take turns demonstrating their unattractiveness to large voter coalitions? The shape of the next decades of American politics may well turn on whether our parties complete this process of identity swapping before voters lose patience with them altogether.
Peter Meilaender is Associate Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.