FOR a quarter-century now, the United States has been undergoing a sweeping political realignment. The Nov. 8 vote was the latest step in this ongoing process, carrying it to a new, though still-incomplete, stage.
Analysts have often misread this political transformation - which I'll refer to as the ``postindustrial realignment,'' after the major socioeconomic changes that have precipitated it - because they've made some inaccurate assumptions. First among these is the notion that a ``real'' political realignment comes with dramatic suddenness in one or two critical elections. In this interpretation, the New Deal realignment began with the onset of the Great Depression and was largely completed by 1936. In fact, the ``New Deal realignment'' began to take form long before the Depression and continued well beyond it. The era's distinguishing features were most fully on display between, roughly, 1933 and 1965.
Our postindustrial-era realignment has its own timing and dynamic, of course, but like its predecessors it has proceeded in stages. Probably the most critical early developments were those that began transforming Southern politics in the 1960s. The one-party Democratic South originated in the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, but it remained a cornerstone of Democratic support long after.
The South's shift in presidential voting is by now a familiar story and its impact on national politics well understood. So long a prime Democratic presidential asset, the South had by 1980 become the GOP's best region. Still, the South remained an important Democratic base outside of presidential races, and nowhere more so than in congressional balloting. A majority of Southerners voted Democratic in every congressional election from the end of Reconstruction in 1876 through 1992. And, while the Democrats' margin in Southern congressional seats declined significantly after 1964, it remained large. In 1992 the party won 77 of the 125 seats in the 11 states of the old Confederacy - a margin of 29 over the Republicans.
Here, then, was one of the key political anomalies that contributed to the Democrats' unprecedentedly long control of the House: A section of the country that by all measures was the most conservative, and that had long-since become securely Republican in presidential races, shifted with glacial slowness in congressional voting.
Until this year. On Nov. 8, for the first time in US history, a majority of Southerners voted Republican for Congress. They elected 64 Republicans to the House, compared with 61 Democrats. GOP control of the new House would not have been possible had the South voted as it had in every preceding election.
This latest stage in the three-decades-old realignment of the South has had another twist. For a long time the Democrats enjoyed a big edge in House seats won without contest, principally because of the large number of such seats in their ``solid South.''
In 1994, however, for the first time in this century, a majority of uncontested races - 31 of 38 outside of Louisiana (which really doesn't count here, because of a peculiar feature of the state's electoral law) - saw Republicans without challengers. In the South, 14 Republicans were uncontested - one each in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, two in Texas, and 9 in Florida. Only 3 Southern Democrats went unchallenged.
Other distinctive regional patterns that have been evident in presidential voting for some time now also appeared in this year's congressional balloting. For example, outside the South, a slight majority of white women voted for Democratic candidates, while white men went Republican by a large margin. In the Northeast, according to exit polls by VNS, the consortium formed by the Associated Press, NBC, CBS, and ABC, 54 percent of white women, but only 41 percent of white men, voted Democratic.
Looking to the South, post-election analysis has emphasized the extraordinarily large Republican margins among white males. (Blacks in the region, both men and women, were overwhelmingly Democratic, as they were elsewhere in the country.) According to the VNS surveys, 69 percent of Southern white men who voted backed Republican congressional candidates, just 31 percent Democratic candidates. What didn't get noted was that Southern white women, while a bit less Republican than their male counterparts, were still very heavily so - backing GOP candidates by a 61-39 margin. The story in the South really wasn't one of a gender gap, but rather of a Republican tide.
What we are seeing is the normal experience as a major partisan realignment proceeds. Changes in groups' social and economic status, together with the impact of new clusters of issues or concerns, begin disrupting long-familiar voting patterns. The list of electoral ``firsts'' gradually grows longer until, at some point, the old political order is nowhere to be seen.
That's where we find ourselves after the 1994 balloting. The New Deal political order has been almost completely swept away.