Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles, and Swings
The End of Realignment? Interpreting American Electoral Eras
The entry of Patrick Buchanan and David Duke into the campaign for the Republican nomination for president suggests a degree of dissatisfaction on the political right far more significant than the usual discontent among conservative Republican voters. Duke and Buchanan have been expressing the anger and frustration of an important part of the electorate—an anger and frustration that were turned against Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis when they ran for president but that now threaten the establishment forces of the Republican Party.
The groups of voters to whom Buchanan and Duke are trying to appeal have been crucial to the outcome of presidential contests for more than two decades. They were to be found among the 9.9 million voters who cast ballots in 1968 for George C. Wallace, and those who were strongly tempted to do so. They were among the large numbers of voters who defected from the Democratic Party after it chose George C. McGovern as its nominee, and were attracted to Spiro Agnew’s rhetoric and identified with Richard M. Nixon’s concept of a silent majority. Many members of the same groups became Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. They were among those who were, according to the polls, at first inclined to vote for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 but then turned against him during a campaign that intensified middle-class anger toward criminals, redistributive equality programs, and lenient treatment of prisoners.
In five of the last six presidential elections, such voters have provided to Republican candidates the margins essential for victory. For nearly a generation these white voters, often from the working class or lower middle class, many of them Catholic, have had a pivotal role in shaping American politics. They gave the Republican Party the power to define which issues—particularly issues involving welfare, crime, and race relations—would be central in American politics. Republican campaign slogans about “welfare queens,” Willie Horton, busing, and quotas draw on latent and overt racism; but they also address such central and legitimate concerns as neighborhood security, fairness in the workplace, and what many see as the struggle to maintain the values of hard work, personal responsibility and initiative, and perseverance. Many of the previously Democratic voters who turned to the Republicans because they felt strongly about such questions now feel they have been repaid with little more than rhetoric.
Since the late 1960s conservative Republicans have been able to draw on the votes both of white members of the working class and of the well-to-do leaders of corporate America. But this alliance of former adversaries has not been mutually beneficial. The current recession only serves to emphasize that the past twenty years have been marked by alternating periods of recession and uneven growth, in which the only consistent beneficiaries of Republican dominance have been rich.
If the anger of the voters loosely described as Reagan Democrats was based solely on bitterness over the maldistribution of income, then liberalism and the Democratic Party would be heading into …