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An 'Indian summer' election: realignment and reality

By Kevin PhillipsKevin Phillips is an author, commentator, and publisher of The American Political Report. / November 16, 1984



The Historical Dynamics of Realignment YEAR PRESIDENT PARTY FIRST 20 YEARS SECOND 8-16 YEARS Beginning Realignment (Critical Ascendancy) (Erosion and Stalemate) Jefferson DemocraticWon all five of first five1800 Party lines broke Republicanselections (1800-1816),down in 1820s; two by landslides. Republicans won in 1824. 1828 Jackson Democrats Won four of first five Party lines broke down elections (1928-44) in 1850s. three by landslides 1860 Lincoln Republicans Won all five of first fiveCivil war coalition broke elections (1860-76), down in 1870s; three by landslides. Democrats held White House eight years between 1884 and 1896. 1896 McKinley Republicans Won four of first five An exception: The GOP elections (1896-1912), resurged during the two by landslides. 1920s. 1932 Roosevelt Democrats Won all five of first Republicans held White five elections (1932-48) House for 8 of 16 years four by landslides. from 1952 to 1968. 1968 Nixon Republicans Won four of first five Ebb of GOP pattern elections (1968-1984), beginning in 1988-92? three by landslides. SHIRLEY HORN - STAFF

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Bluntly put, the realignment rhetoric that has followed Ronald Reagan's reelection landslide greatly exceeds the reality. No United States political realignment began in 1984 (or in 1980, for that matter). And no new conservative springtime is blossoming in the land.

More likely, what we saw on Nov. 6 was something of an ''Indian summer'' election, a last great triumph of a conservative political wave that began in the late 1960s. This year produced not only the fourth Republican presidential victory in five elections, but the fourth landslide rejection of Democratic liberalism. Consider: In 1968, 57 percent of the national vote was cast against the Democratic presidential nominee; in 1972, 61 percent; in 1980, 59 percent; and in 1984, 59 percent. We are talking about a well-established trend, not a new one. And my guess is that the 1984 election constitutes the last of the conservative landslides, not the first in a new era reaching into the 21st century.

History suggests that the US has had major political realignments every 28 to 36 years. Academicians generally agree on the following watershed elections: 1800, when Thomas Jefferson established the Democratic-Republicans; 1828, when Andrew Jackson launched the modern Democratic Party; 1860, when Abraham Lincoln put the new Republican Party in control in Washington; 1896, when William McKinley broke the late-19th-century stalemate and reestablished GOP supremacy; and 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt led the Democrats back to majority status.

After the 1964 and '66 elections convinced me that another such upheaval was indeed due in 1968, I began work on a book published in 1969 under the title of ''The Emerging Republican Majority.'' This thesis was promptly shrugged off by political scientists given to citing Democratic dominance of state and local voter registration rolls and elected offices to prove it couldn't possibly be happening.

But a decade and a half later, it has. As of January 1989, when Ronald Reagan's term expires, the Republicans will have held the White House for 16 of the previous 20 years. Landslide-studded sequences like this have always been a hallmark of a major realignment. Or, to restate the phenomenon, each of the realignments cited in the preceding paragraph began with the newly dominant party controlling the White House for 16 or 20 of the first 20 years (see accompanying chart).

Past those first 20 years, however, the party enjoying national majority status begins to lose steam. That happened to the Jeffersonians between 1820 and 1828, and to the Jacksonian coalition between 1848 and 1860. As for Republicans, their Civil War dominance came undone by the late 1870s. Between 1880 and the new watershed election of 1896, they controlled the White House only 8 years out of 16. The next Republican era, lasting from 1896 to 1932, was slightly different. The interrupting Democrats' White House tenure came with the election of 1912 and lasted only through 1920. Then the GOP ruled again through 1932. Finally, the newly empowered Democrats ruled from 1932 to 1952, but thereafter they occupied the White House for only 8 of the 16 years after 1952. Their impetus, too, ran down after its initial New Deal-era surge.

So if we did have a realignment of sorts in 1968 - and the historical evidence seems overwhelming - then a critical question presents itself: Will this GOP presidential era also begin winding down after its first 20 years? Quite conceivably. By such a yardstick, talk about 1984 yielding a new realignment and a new era that will run for decades to come is naive.

For one thing, it's hard to see the GOP with an obvious heir to Reagan in 1988 - or a likely national winner. Division and fratricide seem more likely.

But even more to the point, though, the realignment of 1968 was unique in institutional terms. Instead of a top-to-bottom reshaping of US politics, it promoted unprecedented split-level change - the country shifted to conservatism and Republicanism only on the presidential level, while at the state and local grass roots, Democrats retained a clear supremacy, albeit with some decomposition of party loyalty. In contrast to the results of previous presidential-level realignments, the Republicans have no infrastructure or grass-roots strength to sustain them beyond the exhaustion of Reaganism. By the late 1980s or '90s, politics may well be quite different.