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Is It 1932 or 1952?

In the wake of Barack Obama’s historic victory, the question arises of whether we are witnessing a fundamental realignment in American politics.  Does 2008 mark the “end of the conservative era” as Pat Buchanan claimed?  Or will this election, like Bill Clinton’s before it, be a Democratic interlude in the midst of a Republican epoch?

Political scientists and historians divide American history into a series of periods marked by a particular dominant ideology as well as a distinctive voting pattern. The end of one era and the beginning of another general occurs when a particular set of issues seemingly pushes the old agenda aside.  This leads to a realignment in voting patterns.

The elections of 1932 and 1936 are famous examples of the end of one era and the beginning of another.  In 1932, the Great Depression crushed Herbert Hoover’s chances to continue the Republican era of laissez faire that had dominated the 1920s.   Franklin Roosevelt’s popular New Deal policies, especially the WPA, convinced some crucial segments of the voting population to change their party affiliation.  African Americans, who had voted (when they were allowed to vote) for the Party of Lincoln since Reconstruction, shifted to the Democratic Party.  Northern blacks, in conjunction with white southerners (who had voted Democratic since the Civil War), and organized labor created the backbone of the New Deal coalition.  The New Deal’s ideology—support for social welfare policies and the belief that an activist government could solve the problems that faced the nation—remained the dominant ethos until 1968.  Even when Republican Dwight Eisenhower was elected in 1952, he did not dismantle the New Deal’s key components.

The election of 1980 marked another political realignment.  Since 1980, Republicans and their ideology of deregulation, low taxes, and small government have dominated the political landscape.  Ronald Reagan summarized the Republican philosophy in his First Inaugural Address when, in response to the inflation and unemployment the nation faced, he said: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”  Like the New Dealers before them, Reagan Republicans reshaped the government in their own image.  Their policies, particularly on taxes and deregulation, convinced many former Democrats to shift their allegiance. A coalition of southern whites, westerners, and suburbanites has kept the Republican party in power for almost thirty years.  Even when Democrats won national office during this period, their policies largely conformed to the Republican small-government model (think: Bill Clinton and the “end of welfare as we know it”).

Does 2008 mark the end of this Age of Reagan?  It’s difficult to say.  Unlike Reagan, Obama didn’t articulate a new philosophy of government during his lengthy campaign.  Indeed, beyond embracing change and vowing to bring the nation together, it’s not clear what Obama advocates.  In this way, he’s far more like Roosevelt, who was quite vague and even contradictory about his philosophy during both his 1932 campaign and the first years of his presidency.  Roosevelt’s administration provides an important model for those Obama supporters who long for a new era.   While FDR called for change in 1932, some of his initial economic policies were in fact far more fiscally conservative than those of his predecessor.  Roosevelt’s budget director actually accused Herbert Hoover of indulging in “wild extravagance.”  During his famous Hundred Days, Roosevelt warned Congress that “Too often in recent history, liberal governments have been wrecked on rocks of loose fiscal policy.”  He used his tremendous popularity to push a deflationary budget cut through Congress.  Roosevelt in fact was far more conservative in much of his initial legislation than his supporters wanted. 

Why, then, is the New Deal now remembered for its innovative liberal economic policies?  It was only in response to political pressure that Roosevelt adopted many of his administration’s most famous programs, included deficit spending, old-age pensions, and pro-union legislation.  Like progressives in the 1930s, those Obama supporters who want this election to mark the beginning of a new era will have to push the new president-elect and the Democratic Congress to pass the programs they advocate.  If they don’t, Obama in 2008 could look a lot like Eisenhower in 1952 and Clinton in 1992.