The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States is historic in an obvious and important sense: a biracial American for the first time will hold the highest office in the land. But is the election of 2008 also historic in the sense of scrambling existing political alignments and remaking the electoral map? That claim is dubious.
There is no doubt that Nixon-to-Bush conservatism was crippled by defeats in the 2006 congressional elections as well as in this year’s presidential and congressional elections. But the exit poll data suggests that while the balance of power has shifted between the two parties, the parties themselves are the same coalitions that have been familiar since Richard Nixon reshaped the political landscape. We are still living in what early on Adlai Stevenson and more recently historian Rick Perlstein in his book of that name called “Nixonland.”
We are still living in what early on Adlai Stevenson and more recently historian Rick Perlstein in his book of that name called “Nixonland.”
The last major partisan realignment in American politics took place between 1968 and 1972. In 1968, George Wallace led white working-class voters out of the New Deal Democratic coalition; in 1972, Nixon welded them to the GOP. Meanwhile, as Southern whites and many white Catholics in the North trickled out of the Democratic Party, groups that had often favored progressive Republicanism in the early twentieth century—affluent Northeastern whites and blacks—began moving in and taking it over.
By 1972 the realignment was solidified. The Democrats had become a party of high-income voters allied with low-income ones. A ranking of white voters in the 1972 election by socioeconomic status showed that the highest percentage of the white vote for the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, were in the high socialeconomic status (SES) and low SES categories and lowest in the middle SES category.
Flash forward to 2008. Obama received majorities among voters who made less than $50,000 and more than $150,000, and a slight 51-48 majority among those earning $75,000-100,00. (This may reflect the decided 58-40 pro-Obama tilt of professors, lawyers, teachers, and others with postgraduate degrees).
Obama sought to appeal to the working class and middle class by emphasizing tax cuts for everyone who made less than $250,000. Not only did this appeal fail (with the exception of the $75,000-100,000 group, who were probably motivated by liberal idealism), but Obama was also more likely to be supported by the upper income groups he promised to tax rather than by the middle class whose taxes he promised to cut.
In terms of economic class, Obama’s alliance of affluent voters and low-income voters is the same “hourglass coalition” that has supported the Democrat candidate in every presidential race since McGovern’s run in 1972.
There undoubtedly has been a dramatic liberalization of white American racial attitudes since the realigning election of 1972. In other aspects of white voting behavior, however, the pattern in 2008 represents incremental rather than dramatic change. Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was the last Democrat to be elected president who won a majority of the white vote. Jimmy Carter in 1976 came in second best, with 47 percent. Obama is tied with Bill Clinton for third place at 43 percent. These parallels suggest that Obama’s political identity as a progressive Democrat was the crucial factor to white voters, rather than his race.
Obama did better than his Democratic predecessors among white men, with 41 percent, several points higher than the previous post-McGovern high watermark set of 38 percent set by Bill Clinton in 1996. But Obama did far worse among white women winning only 39 percent. By contrast, Clinton won 48 percent of white women in 1996 and in 2000 Gore split their votes with Bush. Obama’s poor showing refutes the pundits who dismissed the appeal to white women both of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.
Obama’s numbers are slight variations on the basic Democratic theme, not the stuff of which historic and lasting realignments are made. The electoral map, too, shows continuity rather than radical change.
In short, there is nothing in the election results to suggest that the partisan alignments and polarities that crystallized during the Nixon-McGovern race of 1972 have changed. The familiar McGovern Democrats have prevailed by winning an enlarged number of Latino voters two-to-one, winning more energized black voters (whose turnout rose by two percent this year) and bringing more former moderate Northeastern Republicans into the Democratic Party’s slowly-expanding ranks.
The election results show that there has been no dramatic partisan realignment. America is still divided between Nixonland and McGovernland. McGovernland has now prevailed, as it did in the 1990’s under Bill Clinton, by annexing a few former provinces of Nixonland, and by increasing its advantage among Latinos, the largest and fastest-growing minority.
The results—a Democrat in the White House and substantial Democratic majorities in Congress—might be thought to vindicate those analysts like John Judis and Ruy Teixeira who argued in their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, that the Democrats, instead of trying to bring back white working-class “Reagan Democrats,” should focus on expanding their appeal to highly-educated elite white professionals and nonwhite voters, particularly Latinos, who thanks to immigration are expanding as a share of the population, unlike blacks. But while the strategy of incrementally growing the McGovern hourglass coalition has paid off in 2008 (with unintended help from a disastrous Republican presidency), it is going to be difficult for a coalition whose base unites the metropolitan rich with low-income voters plausibly to position itself as the party of a post-racial American middle class. Fortunately for the Democrats, speaking for Middle America will be an even more difficult task for a reactionary populist Republican Party that is increasingly confined to the Dixiecrat strongholds won by Strom Thurmond in 1948 and Barry Goldwater in 1964.
The lack of a partisan realignment does not mean there will not be a policy realignment. Arguably the policy realignment began during Bush’s second term, with the public’s repudiation of the Iraq War and neoconservative foreign policy as well as its repudiation of the radical libertarian scheme for privatizing Social Security. But even a new policy consensus that excludes neocons and libertarians does not necessarily get us out of Nixonland. After all, Nixon was a realist despised by neocons and loathed by libertarians for supporting wage and price controls and other interventions by government in the economy that would be considered radically left-wing today.
Nothing lasts forever, and at some time both partisan alignments and the policy consensus will be transformed beyond recognition. But that date lies in the future. The election returns of ’08 confirm that American politics is still basically structured by the System of ’72.
Michael Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. and the author of The American Way of Strategy. He has been a staff writer or senior editor at The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic and The National Interest.