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How Historic a Victory?

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

by Larry M. Bartels
Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton University Press, 325 pp., $29.95

Red, Blue, and Purple America: The Future of Election Demographics

edited by Ruy Teixeira
Brookings Institution Press, 274 pp., $42.95; $19.95 (paper)

What was the scope of Barack Obama’s victory? His 365 electoral votes (the number so far—Missouri remains too close to call) represent a formidable tally, more than double John McCain’s 162. True, Obama’s electoral-vote total as of this writing is smaller than Bill Clinton’s in either 1992 (370) or 1996 (379). But it is worth remembering that because of Ross Perot’s third-party candidacies in those years, Clinton did not receive 50 percent of the popular vote in either race—he won 43 percent in 1992 and precisely 49.24 percent four years later, whereas Obama took about 52.6 percent, beating McCain by 6.5 percent. Jimmy Carter won just 297 electoral votes in 1976 and defeated Gerald Ford by only 1.7 million votes out of 80 million cast.1

When measuring victory by some combination of electoral and popular votes, then, one must go back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won 61 percent of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes to Barry Goldwater’s 52, to find a more impressive Democratic win. Obama turned nine states blue that were red in 2004: three in the Rocky Mountain West (Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada), three in the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa), and three in the South (Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida), totaling 112 electoral votes. Turnout was the highest in at least forty years, meaning that voter participation is back to pre-Vietnam and Watergate levels. Some experts revised initial turnout estimates slightly downward over the course of the days after the election but still reckoned that at least 126 million people voted, roughly two million more than in 2004, representing around 61 percent of all age-eligible voters.

The main reason turnout wasn’t even higher appears to have been that participation declined from 2004 levels in several red states (Utah, South Dakota, West Virginia), suggesting less enthusiasm there for the McCain-Palin ticket than for Bush-Cheney. In blue states and CNN’s seven designated battleground states, of which Obama won at least four pending the final count in Missouri, turnout was generally higher than in 2004,2 suggesting that there was great enthusiasm for the Obama-Biden ticket and that the vaunted Obama get-out-the-vote operation, which should stand as a template for every subsequent Democratic presidential campaign, lived up to expectations.

Think of it this way. Obama’s win was strong enough that he didn’t even need California (55 electoral votes) and New York (31). He could have spotted McCain those 86 navy-blue electoral votes, which he was never in danger of losing, and still finished with 279. It was, to use a nontechnical term on which political scientists and laypersons could surely agree, a wipeout.

But was it, to use a technical term about which political scientists are more persnickety, a realignment? Does Obama’s win herald a new period of dominance for one political party and its values as William McKinley’s did in 1896 or Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1932—or, some would add, though opinions still differ on it, Ronald Reagan’s in 1980? I recently happened across a quote from Heinrich Heine, who wrote in an 1833 work on the German Romantic period that “every epoch is a sphinx which plunges into the abyss as soon as its problem is solved.” Has Obama solved the problem of conservative political supremacy?

On this question, the jury is still out. Writing on the Web site of The New Republic the day after the election, John B. Judis, one of political journalism’s acknowledged experts on such matters, defined the sacred word with slightly more nuance:

There have been two kinds of realignments in American history—hard and soft. The realignments of 1896 and 1932 were hard: They laid the basis for 30 years of party dominance, periods when the same party would win the bulk of national, state, and local elections…. The conservative Republican realignment of 1980, by contrast, was soft: It began in 1968, was interrupted by Watergate, resumed during Carter’s presidency, and climaxed in Reagan’s landslide. Yet, even then, Democrats retained control of the House and got back the Senate in 1986. Republicans did win Congress in 1994, but a Democrat was president and was reelected easily in 1996. [Political scientist Walter Dean] Burnham characterized the ‘90s as a period of “unstable equilibrium” between the parties.3

Judis sees Obama’s win as “the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 1990s, was delayed by September 11, and resumed with the 2006 election.” My own view since spring 2006, when I wrote an essay in The American Prospect touching on these matters,4 has been that the era of conservative dominance is over, thanks to Iraq, the Katrina fiasco, Bush’s failed Social Security privatization effort, and other factors, but that the collapse of conservatism did not perforce imply the rise of a new liberal age. That, I believed—and still believe, even after an Obama victory in which 46 percent voted Republican—would depend on what President Obama and the congressional Democrats did with their power.

And here, for reasons both historical and contemporary, we must consider the question of realignment in light of the current financial crisis and the structural economic problems with which the new president must grapple. We must also consider the Democratic Party’s vexed relationship with the white working-class demographic group that is, or was, the historical backbone of the party and whose renewed allegiance would indeed put the GOP in a difficult spot for the foreseeable future. Judis, in the New Republic essay, takes the view that 2008 does have something very important in common with 1896 and 1932:

What made the 1896 and 1932 realignments hard was that they coincided with steep downturns in the business cycle. The political trends were present in prior elections—in 1928, for instance, Al Smith began to draw urban voters to the Democrats—but the depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression catalyzed and accelerated these trends. McKinley and the Republicans blamed the depression of the 1890s on Democrat Grover Cleveland. Franklin Roosevelt blamed the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression on Herbert Hoover. In both cases, the stigma remained for decades. Democrats were still running successfully against Herbert Hoover 20 years after he left office.

Whether Democrats will still be running successfully against George W. Bush in 2028 will depend very directly, it seems to me, on how Obama and the Democrats in Congress respond to the moment. With the current world situation fraught on so many fronts, certainly President Obama will have a singular opportunity to move his party beyond its post-Vietnam image of soft incoherence and show that a less bellicose foreign policy than Bush’s, carried out by a leader who enjoys the world’s respect and even adoration, can yield better results—for America, for Iraq, for the Israelis and the Palestinians, and so on.

But the economy will clearly occupy the center of the stage—first the management of the crisis itself, and, over the longer term, the problems of family and income inequality that have been the hallmark of what Princeton political scientist Larry M. Bartels calls in his subtitle to Unequal Democracy our “New Gilded Age.” (We learn from The New Yorker ‘s George Packer that the President-elect somehow found time to read this rather dense and academic work during the campaign.5) The question now is whether Obama and Congress can deliver both economic progress and greater equality by following through on his major campaign promises—tax increases on the wealthy; tax cuts for the middle class; protections for homeowners; a bold stimulus package that includes broad public investment; and a health-care plan that reduces risk and out-of-pocket expenses for average Americans. If they can do so, then the chances of this realignment becoming a hard one in four years’ time will increase dramatically.

Bartels is the political scientist of the moment. Along with Obama, Bill Clinton also read and recommends Unequal Democracy, according to The Daily Beast, Tina Brown’s new Web site.6 Clinton told The Daily Beast that the book describes “how partisanship has hurt the poor,” and that is as good a succinct summary of the book as any. Bartels argues that political partisanship has exacerbated economic inequality, as Clinton suggests, but he makes an important distinction that Clinton might well have noted since it reflects favorably on his presidency. As a measure of economic inequality, Bartels chooses to compare how wage-earners at the 80th percentile of the income distribution (i.e., those toward but not at the top) and those at the 20th percentile (toward the bottom) fared under recent presidential administrations. His findings are unambiguous:

Indeed, the effect of presidential partisanship on income inequality turns out to have been remarkably consistent since the end of World War II. The 80/20 income ratio increased under each of the six Republican presidents in this period…. In contrast, four of the five Democratic presidents—all except Jimmy Carter—presided over declines in income inequality. If this is a coincidence, it is a very powerful one.

He goes on to assert that the largest differences appear in the second year of each administration, “the first year in which the president’s policies could be expected to have a significant economic effect.” Real income for lower-income people in those years grew 5.7 percent under Democratic presidents and shrank 1.3 percent under Republican ones. (Carter, by the way, started out pretty well in Bartels’s accounting but got socked by the second energy crisis and stagflation.)

These trends may seem obvious and intuitive—you or I or most people on the street could have told Bartels that the working poor fare better under Democrats, even if we couldn’t have put numbers on it. But the importance of these and some other findings in the book—for example, the aggressively negative impact on equality of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts—is that they use scholarly methods to provide political explanations for economic problems. Social scientists don’t usually see things this way. To most economists, income levels, like periods of expansion and contraction, must have explanations rooted in the business cycle.

But Bartels now joins Paul Krugman and others—Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson come notably to mind7—in the growing number of liberal social scientists who acknowledge the power of the conservative political apparatus aimed at achieving ideological goals such as minimally regulated markets and low taxes for the well-to-do. That such goals could not be justified as socially fair or economically effective did not matter. In his book The Conscience of a Liberal,8 Krugman announced his conversion to the view that political decisions by Republicans, not the vagaries of the economic cycle, were the cause of inequality, and he pressed the need for a major political challenge to the conservative forces responsible. Now, writes Bartels, “the most important lesson of this book is a very simple one: politics matters.”

I would imagine that President-elect Obama knew this already. But it’s still an interesting and hopeful sign that he read Unequal Democracy. One suspects that Obama—intellectual, empiricist, progressive, and by all evidence a believer in his own power to transform society—very much wants to undo the legacy of inequality that has been with us since at least Reagan’s time. One also suspects that Obama the politician wants to do all this while expanding his mandate in 2012. To accomplish that, many analysts say he will have to deepen his reach into one voting bloc—the white working class—to which Bartels and others have paid special attention.

  1. 1

    To amuse yourself, go to www.270to win.com, an interactive electoral-map Web site, and look at the states Carter won, and lost, thirty-two years ago. In important respects a mirror image of our politics today, the 1976 election saw Carter win all the states of the deep South but lose California, Michigan, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, and four of the six New England states.

  2. 2

    The seven states were Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, and North Dakota. Only in Ohio was turnout lower than in 2004.

  3. 3

    America the Liberal,” November 5, 2008.

  4. 4

    Party in Search of a Notion,” The American Prospect, May 2006.

  5. 5

    See “The New Liberalism,” The New Yorker, November 17, 2008. Top Obama strategist David Axelrod tells Packer that Obama has read the book (p. 87).

  6. 6

    See www.thedailybeast.com/beast-board/member/william-j-clinton.

  7. 7

    I refer to the coauthors of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (Yale University Press, 2005).

  8. 8

    Norton, 2007. See my review in these pages, November 22, 2007.

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