THE United States appears to be finally reaching the last phase of a long-term, slow-motion political realignment of economic, regional, and ethnic groups. It's a reordering with profound implications for how political business is conducted. It's driven by economics and demographics as much as by ideology.
America has gone through several such changes before. The allegiances of the various constituent groups in the US body politic shift as often and as constantly as an Atlantic sandbar. The first political alignment lasted from the first Washington administration to 1816. It saw the Federalists, who represented the commercial Northeast, oppose Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans, who represented small farmers and Southern plantation-owners. The Federalists supported strong national government and economic protectionism, while Democratic-Republicans advocated state power, easy credit, and low tariffs.
The Federalists collapsed because they never quite appreciated the political system they themselves created. The Whigs, who formed to oppose Andrew Jackson's easy-credit, cheap-money, anti-central-bank populism, moved into the vacuum in 1829. Now called Democrats, the Jacksonians kept the backing of large and small farmers while cashing in on the growing political clout of the expanding "West" - the area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.
The Whigs fell apart in 1852, giving the antislavery Republicans an opening in 1856. Four years later, the Democrats' own split over slavery handed the Republicans the White House, and they kept it all but 16 years between 1860 and 1932. The GOP thrived on a coalition that included Eastern businessmen, Midwestern farmers (especially evangelical Protestants), and most laborers and blacks. Democrats controlled the South and had the backing of big-city machines, the nation's burgeoning urban ethnic groups, and Roman Catholics.
The Great Depression demolished the old Republican coalition, as Franklin Roosevelt was able to cobble together such disparate groups as Southerners, labor, blacks, urban ethnics, Catholics, and progressives behind the New Deal. The GOP kept its Eastern commercial and Midwestern farm base and started arguing with itself over how much of the New Deal to support, dividing into "moderate" and "conservative" wings that still exist.
The first cracks in the Roosevelt coalition occurred in 1948, when Southerners broke away to form the "Dixiecrat" party, led by Strom Thurmond, who went on to become a Republican. Then in 1952 Dwight Eisenhower carried three Southern states: Texas, Florida, and Virginia. The Democratic coalition began to fall apart over racial politics in the South and upwardly mobile Northern Catholic ethnics' rejection of social liberalism, school busing, and abortion.
This ongoing realignment of the past 40-plus years differs from previous changes in the length of time it has gone on. While the GOP has held the White House for 28 of the last 44 years, for decades it was unable to translate that into control of Congress. Democrats controlled the Senate from 1954 until 1980; GOP capture of the House of Representatives took another 14 years.
That's because it took a long time for white Southerners' willingness to vote Republican at the presidential level to percolate to lower offices. This evolution occurred at the same time as the South's population, and therefore electoral weight, increased. The 1994 election, and the large number of local officials in the South who have since switched parties, signify that the "solid South," with its 147 electoral votes, 22 Senate seats, and 125 House seats, may soon refer to a GOP, not a Democratic, stronghold.
The current Republican coalition is a majority if it holds together: suburbanites, Southern whites, many Midwestern farmers (this varies by state), socially conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, fiscal conservatives, the business community, and the mountain West. Democrats hold the allegiance of organized labor, blacks, the educational establishment, government workers, and Hispanics (except in Florida and parts of Texas). White males tend to vote Republican; white women often give the edge to Democrats.
Like any majority coalition, the GOP has its work cut out for it in times of economic anxiety. A large, disgruntled segment of the electorate, exemplified by the Perotists and Buchananites, is angry at all politicians. The tension between the party establishment and Pat Buchanan, many of whose ideas run counter to standard Republican themes, raises the threat of a split that could hand the election to Bill Clinton and Congress to his partisans.
For Democrats, the calculus is this: Can they siphon off enough middle-class, nonunion-labor, elderly, ethnic, and Catholic voters? Will their constituencies, especially minority voters, turn out in sufficient numbers to make a difference? Will a third candidate or party emerge again? The election's outcome hinges on the answers.