Even before the final results, showing a Democratic sweep, were in, Washington's pundits were declaring that nothing had really changed politically in the country. In a cover story labeled "America the Conservative," Newsweek editor Jon Meacham warned that, "[s]hould Obama win, he will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal." Meacham's judgment was echoed by Peter Wehner, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "America remains, in the main, a center-right nation," Wehner wrote in the Washington Post.
These guys--and the others who are counselingand the Democrats to "go slow"--couldn't be more wrong. They are looking at Obama's election through the prism of Jimmy Carter's win in 1976 and Bill Clinton's victory in 1992. Both Carter and Clinton did misjudge the mood of the country. They tried unsuccessfully to govern a country from the center-left that was moving to the right (in Carter's case) or that was only just beginning to move leftward (in Clinton's case), and were rebuked by the voters. But Obama is taking office under dramatically different circumstances. His election is the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the '90s, was held in abeyance by September 11, and had resumed in the 2006 election.
This realignment is predicated on a change in political demography and geography. Groups that had been disproportionately Republican have become disproportionately Democratic; and red states like Virginia have become blue. But underlying these changes has been a shift in the nation's "fundamentals"--in the structure of society and industry, and in the way Americans think of family, job, and government. The country is definitely no longer "America the conservative." And with the Republican Party and big business identified with a potentially disastrous downturn, it could become over the next four years "America the liberal." That's what makes this election fundamentally different from 1976 or 1992. Unlike Carter and Clinton, Obama will be taking office with the wind at his back rather than in his face.
Realignments are not scientifically predictable events like lunar eclipses, but they have occurred with some regularity over last two hundred years--in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1980. Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called the realignment "America's surrogate for revolution." It is how a rigid two-party system has adjusted when the ground has shifted that has sustained the dominant party.
If you look at the two most recent realignments, they can be seen as the political superstructure's belated acknowledgement of tectonic changes that had been occurring in the country's economic base. In the case of the New Deal, it was the rise of an urban industrial order in the North; in the case of Reagan conservatism, it was the shift of industry and population from the North to the lower-wage, non-unionized suburban Sunbelt stretching from Virginia down to Florida and across to Texas and southern California. The voters in these states--many of them white evangelicals--became the foot soldiers of Reagan conservatism.
If you look at the new Democratic realignment, it reflects the shift that began decades ago toward a post-industrial economy centered in large urban-suburban metropolitan areas devoted primarily to the production of ideas and services rather than material goods. (In The Emerging Democratic Majority, Ruy Teixeira and I called these "ideopolises.") And if you look at the main groups that constitute the new Democratic majority, the states and cities where they live correspond almost exactly to those parts of the country that have been making this transition to a post-industrial economy.
The three main groups in the new Democratic majority are professionals (college-educated workers who produce ideas and services), minorities (including African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans), and women (particularly working, single, and college-educated women). These groups, which overlap in membership, are also the key components of the new post-industrial economy.
As late as the 1950s, professionals were the most Republican of voting blocs, but they were also a relatively small group--about seven percent of the labor force. The professionals, who are the brains, so to speak, of the new post-industrial economy, are now over 17 percent of the labor force, and are a quarter or more of the electorate in many northern and western states. They range from nurses and teachers to television producers, software programmers, and engineers. They began voting Democratic in 1988, and have continued to do so ever since.
Ruy Teixeira and I calculated from census data that, from 1988 to 2000, professionals voted for the Democratic presidential candidate by 52 to 40 percent. But the exit polls don't include professionals as a category. The best approximation is a somewhat smaller (and maybe even slightly more conservative) group--people with advanced degrees. And the results in 2008 show Obama winning these voters by a whopping 58 to 40 percent. He even won college graduates as a whole 53 to 45 percent. This may be the first time ever that a Democrat has accomplished this. In 1996, for instance, Clinton failed to carry college graduates against Bob Dole.
Most minorities--with the exception of Cubans, Chinese-Americans, and Vietnamese-Americans--have voted Democratic since the 1930s. But with the shift of the economy and the liberalization of immigration laws, the number of Latinos and Asian Americans has expanded. Some of the new immigrants are professionals, but others form the working class of the post-industrial economy. They are orderlies, childcare workers, janitors, and fast food cooks and servers. As late as 1972, minorities as a whole made less than ten percent of the electorate. In this election, non-white voters made up 26 percent of the electorate. Blacks, of course, went overwhelmingly for Obama, but he won Hispanics by 66 to 31 percent and Asians--who as a group used to split their vote between Democrats and Republicans--by 62 to 35 percent.
Women, too, were once disproportionately Republican--in 1960, Richard Nixon won the women's vote. But their voting patterns began to change as they entered the labor force. In 1950, only a third of women worked; today, 60 percent of women work, making up 46 percent of the total labor force. Over 90 percent of women work in white-collar jobs; and 24.1 percent work as professionals--compared to 16.8 percent of men. In 1980, women began disproportionately backing Democrats, and the trend has continued. This year, Obama enjoyed a 14-point lead among women voters--56 to 42 percent--and only a two-point lead among men. He carried working women by 61 to 38 percent.
Geographically, the new Democratic majority is, to a great extent, the mirror image of Republican William's McKinley's 1896 majority, with the Deep South being Republican rather than Democratic and with the northeast being Democratic rather than Republican. (Vermont, now thought of as a leftwing Democratic bastion, voted for only one Democratic presidential candidate before backing Bill Clinton in 1992.)
But there is another dimension to the new political geography created by the new post-industrial economy. If you look at a map of where the post-industrial metropolitan areas are concentrated, this is where the Democrats are now enjoying the greatest success. That includes high-tech metropolitan areas and regions like Boston, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. But it also includes areas in what were the Republican south, such as Charlotte (a financial center), the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill research triangle in North Carolina, the northern Virginia suburbs, Orlando, and south Florida. That explains why a state like Colorado, with the Denver-Boulder metro area, has turned Democratic, or why metro areas within red states have done the same.
If you look at states Obama won, and compare them to the states that have the highest percentage of people who have completed an advanced degree, you find Obama won the 19 top states--all of them, which together account for 232 electoral votes. He won 21 of the top 24, accounting for 280 electoral votes. Conversely, McCain won the six states that had the lowest percentage of people with advanced degrees. That's almost a perfect match between Obama's and the Democrats' new majority and the contours of the new post-industrial economy.
In Colorado, for instance, Obama won post-grads, who make up 22 percent of the electorate, by 62 to 35 percent. In Pennsylvania, where they make up 24 percent, he won them by 61 to 37 percent. In New Hampshire, where they are 25 percent of the electorate, he won them by 68 to 31 percent. If you add those kind of numbers to Obama's and the Democrats' edge among minorities and working women, that is a good basis for winning elections.
To be sure, Obama and the Democrats needed to win about 40 percent of the white working class that used to be the bulwark of the party's New Deal majority. And the recession and financial crisis certainly helped bring them home. But the heart of the new majority is no longer blue-collar workers, but the professionals, minorities, and women who live and work within post-industrial metropolitan areas. And they are a growing part of the overall electorate, while the traditional working class is shrinking. According to Alan Abramowitz and Ruy Teixeira, the traditional white working class (who don't hold managerial, professional, or sales jobs) has already gone from 58 percent of the work force in 1940 to 25 percent in 2006.
The rise of these voting groups within the new post-industrial economy has brought in its wake a new political worldview. Call it "progressive" or "liberal" or even "Naderite" (for Ralph Nader the consumer advocate, not the egomaniacal presidential candidate). If the unionized industrial workers were the vanguard of the New Deal majority, the professionals are the vanguard of the new progressive majority. Their sensibility is reflected in the Democratic platform and increasingly in the country as a whole. It has sometimes been described as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, but that doesn't really get at it. They are socially liberal on civil rights and women's rights; committed to science and to the separation of church and state; internationalist on trade and immigration; skeptical, but not necessarily opposed to, large government spending programs, particularly on healthcare; and gung-ho about government regulation of business, including K Street lobbyists.
They are seen as children of the '60s and '70s--heavily influenced by Martin Luther King, Jr., Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and Nader--but their views are clearly reflected in succeeding generations of college-educated Americans, particularly the "millennials" who grew up during the administrations of Clinton and George W. Bush. UCLA's annual study of incoming college freshmen across the country found in 2006 that 28.4 percent of them identified themselves as "liberal"--the highest percentage since 1975.
If you compare Americans' attitudes from the '70s and '80s with attitudes today, you see how much the worldview of professionals has permeated. In March 1981, two months into the Reagan administration, the Los Angeles Times found that 54 percent of respondents thought there was "too much regulation of business and industry" and only 18 percent thought there was "too little." By October 2008, 27 percent thought there was "too much," and 45 percent thought there was "too little." In a Pew poll released in March 2007, 83 percent backed "stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment," and 66 percent supported "government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes."
Attitudes on social issues have also changed dramatically. The Pew poll from March 2007 found that the percentage of Americans who believe that school boards should have the right to fire homosexual teachers has fallen from 51 percent in 1987 to 28 percent in 2007. Those who want to make it "more difficult" for a women to obtain an abortion has dropped from 47 to 35 percent. The percentage of those who think that "it's all right for blacks and whites to date each other" has risen from 48 to 83 percent--and as much as 94 percent of Generation Y-ers born between 1981 and 1988. The poll also found that 62 percent--83 percent among college graduates--disagreed that "science is going too far and hurting society."
Americans held some of these opinions well before this year's election; in fact, these opinions had become prevalent in the 1990s. But September 11 and the fear of an imminent terrorist attack temporarily revived the conservatism of the '80s, especially on social issues, and eclipsed concerns about government regulation and the economy. These liberal views have re-emerged, however, with a vengeance, and can be expected to shift further leftward--especially on economic questions--in the face of coming recession. That recession will represent a stiff challenge to the Obama administration, but also an opportunity to solidify and harden the realignment that took place in this election.
In American history, there have been hard and soft realignments. The realignments of 1896 and 1932 were hard; they laid the basis for party dominance for over 30 years, where the same party won the bulk of the national, state, and local elections. During the New Deal realignment, from 1932 to 1968, Republicans controlled the presidency for only eight of 36 years and Congress for only four years. But the conservative Republican realignment of 1980 was soft: it began in 1968, was interrupted by Watergate, resumed during Carter's presidency, and climaxed in Reagan's landslide. But even then, Democrats retained control of the House and got back the Senate in 1986. Republicans did win Congress in 1994, but a Democrat was president and was re-elected easily in 1996. Burnham characterized the '90s as an "unstable equilibrium" between the parties.
What made the 1896 and 1932 realignments hard was that they coincided with steep downturns in the business cycle. The trends were present in prior elections--in 1928, for instance, Al Smith began to win urban voters back to the Democrats--but the depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression catalyzed and accelerated these trends. McKinley and the Republicans blamed the depression of the 1890s on Democrat Grover Cleveland. Franklin Roosevelt, of course, blamed the 1929 stock market crash and the depression on Herbert Hoover. And in both cases, the stigma remained for decades. Democrats were still running successfully against Herbert Hoover 20 years after he left office.
In 1980, Reagan and the Republicans were able to take advantage of deep divisions within the Democrats over civil rights (and later abortion), but for a catalyst, they had to rely on the Iranian hostage crisis and on the stagflation of the late '70s, which led to a recession in 1979. By the 1992 election, the impressions created by these events had largely worn off. That prevented the Reagan Republicans from developing the kind of hard, enduring majority that the New Deal Democrats had enjoyed.
Will this new Democratic realignment of 2008 be hard or soft? Initially, it seemed it would be soft. Like the Reagan realignment, it began in fits and starts-- Clinton's victory in 1992 was comparable to Richard Nixon's victory in 1968, with Ross Perot playing the schismatic role that George Wallace had played in 1968. The Democratic trend was slowed by the Clinton scandals and interrupted by September 11. By this measure, 2008 seemed to be 1980, not 1932 or 1896. But the onset of the financial crisis and the recession may have changed this.
The subsequent downturn may more closely resemble the 1930s depression than the relatively shallow recessions of 1979 or 1991. There are, sad to say, striking resemblances between the circumstances that led to the 1930s downturn and those that led to the current one. In both cases, the downturn was preceded by several years by overcapacity in an industry that had been key to growth--automobiles in the 1920s, and telecommunications and computers in the 1990s.
In both cases, there were mild recessions that preceded the final downturn--1927 and 2002, respectively--that were overcome by government policies. The Fed lowered interest rates in the 1920s and 2000s, and the Bush administration created deficits through tax cuts. But instead of fuelling a genuine recovery, these government policies fuelled a speculative bonanza in the stock market of the late 1920s and in the housing market of the last years. That created a tower of toxic debt. When consumer demand and productive investment began to lag again, this tower collapsed, accelerating the downturn in the economy and the loss of jobs. And in both cases, the downturn, instead of being confined to the United States, was international, making recovery even more difficult.
There are differences, of course, between the two periods. While the tortuous currency relations between the U.S. and China and Japan contributed to the financial crash, there is much more prospect now than in the 1930s for international cooperation to prevent a recession from becoming a global depression. Still, there is a likelihood that this recession will deepen over the next year and raise the specter of a new depression--something that never occurred in 1979-80 or in 1992.
If Obama and the Democrats in Congress act boldly, they can not only arrest the downturn, but also lay the basis for an enduring majority. As was the case with Franklin Roosevelt, many of the measures necessary to combat the recession--such as spending money on physical and electronic infrastructure, adopting national health insurance--will also help ensure a Democratic majority. The rural South remained Democrat for generations because of Roosevelt's rural electrification program; a similar program for bringing broadband to the hinterland could lead these voters back to the Democratic Party. And national health insurance could play the same role in Democrats' future prospects that Social Security played in the perpetuation of the New Deal majority.
Americans, to be sure, are always reluctant to undertake ambitious government initiatives. This is, as historian Louis Hartz once demonstrated, a country founded on Lockean liberalism. But as Roosevelt discovered when he was elected, a national crisis creates a popular willingness to entertain dramatic initiatives. Obama and the Democrats will also not face the same formidable adversaries that Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton had to face. The Republican Party will be divided and demoralized after this defeat. Just as the Great Depression took Prohibition and the other great social issues of the 1920s off the popular agenda, this downturn has set aside the culture war of the last decades. It wasn't a factor in the presidential election. And the business lobbies that blocked national health insurance in 1994 will incur the public's wrath if they once again try to buy Congress.
If, on the other hand, Obama and the Democrats take the advice of official Washington and go slow--adopting incremental reforms, appeasing adversaries that have lost their clout--they could end up prolonging the downturn and discrediting themselves. What could have been a hard realignment could become not merely a soft realignment, but perhaps even an abortive one. That's not the kind of change that America needs or wants--and, hopefully, Obama and the Democrats understand that.
By John B. Judis
Reprinted with permission from The New Republic