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16 April, 2019 00:00 00 AM
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Is America undergoing a political realignment?

George Packer
Is America undergoing a political realignment?
The first great political realignment of the past century brought Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats to power, and liberalism dominated until the late 1960s

Realignment—a decisive shift in the balance of power between political parties, creating new coalitions and leaving one party and one ideology with lasting dominance—occurs far more often in the minds of partisans than in reality. Karl Rove believed that the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 would enshrine a permanent Republican majority. Within a couple of years the president and his party were discredited. In 2008, with the collapse of the financial system and the historic campaign of Barack Obama, some people—I was one—thought a Democratic realignment might be at hand. Obama’s victory, with big majorities in Congress, would close the book on decades of conservative ideology, anti-government politics, deregulation, the amassing of vast fortunes, the widening of vast inequalities. A new era of liberal reform was going to sweep aside the rubble left behind by the right and finally begin to solve big problems.

It didn’t turn out that way. It seldom does. The Obama movement was more personal than ideological. He campaigned as a visionary but governed as a technocrat. After the election, Obama for America was supposed to become Organizing for America, but instead it basically disappeared. At the end of the campaign the candidate had called the financial meltdown “the final verdict” on a “failed economic philosophy,” but this turned out to be a tactical shift in response to events. Obama wasn’t an ideologue—he distrusted sweeping historical claims—and he dropped that kind of language in the White House. As president, he devoted himself to the details of policy making and fruitless efforts to strike deals with the opposition. He lost his connection to the mood of the country, which grew feverish with discontents that took no clear ideological form. The Republican Party had run out of ideas but not out of juice, and its energy turned wholly destructive. Obama was so personally impressive and appealing that many Democrats failed to notice their party hollowing out like a rotten tree, losing majorities in Washington and across the country. Obama achieved one major reform, in health care, and he set a shining example of decent, grown-up government, but by the end of his presidency he was pleading with Americans to be better than we are. Something had gone wrong, in our economy and in our democracy, that Obama was unable to fix—that he might have been too reasonable to fully understand.

Read: The Obama doctrine

In the past century there have been only two realignments—one in 1932, the other in 1980. The first brought Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats to power, and liberalism dominated until the late ’60s. The second brought Ronald Reagan and the Republicans to power, and conservatism retains its grip on our political institutions, if not on electoral majorities, to this day. “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket,” Eric Hoffer, the author of The True Believer, wrote. By the early 1970s, the New Deal coalition of urban machines and interest groups was becoming a racket, symbolized by piles of uncollected garbage in the streets of a nearly bankrupt New York City. Sure signs of degeneracy in the Reagan revolution appeared in the late 1990s, when Tom DeLay’s K Street Project erased the line between governing and big-money lobbying. The next step is dissolution, but the end of Hoffer’s life cycle can drag on for agonizing years.

The two realignments had several things in common. Long-term demographic change—immigration and urbanization in the first case, suburbanization and the end of the solid South in the second—reshaped the identity of American voting blocs. John the Baptists, harbingers of the realignment to come, appeared in unlikely forms. The failed candidacy of New York’s wet, urban, Catholic Governor Al Smith in 1928 foretold a changing Democratic coalition; the demolished candidacy of Arizona’s extremist Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 signaled the hard-right turn of the Republican Party. When traditional politics failed to address chronic social ills, the rising activism of popular movements—industrial workers, evangelical Christians—pushed the parties toward new ideological commitments. Crises precipitated widespread unhappiness with the old order: the Great Depression in the early ’30s; stagflation, gas lines, and American hostages in the late ’70s. The midterm elections of 1930 and 1978 were like tremors before an earthquake. Then, in a decisive presidential election, a challenger came along to wipe out an incumbent, not just by winning more votes, but by bringing a new idea of government.

    The writer is a US based journalist

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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