Voting Blocs, Building Blocks: This Election Proved That the Great Political Realignment of the Sixties Is Over

Article excerpt

What does Bill Clinton's victory mean for the next generation in politics? In addition to a robust economy and Clinton's inarguable political skills, the Republican presidential nominee this year was bucking some historical headwinds that promise to hamper his party's progress in Novembers to come as well.

Not that you'd know by reading post-election punditry. When Republicans won the presidency and lost Congress in most of the elections of the past thirty years, the media analyzed the results as a conservative victory. Now that the Democrats have won the presidency and lost Congress, the media have analyzed the results as...a conservative victory!

Beneath the surface story line of a ticket-splitting public producing a split government, the '96 elections reveal at least five significant long-term trends:

First, the Republican realignment of the sixties is at the end of its tether. Three decades ago political scientists became aware of the fact that there had been five party systems in U. S. history, each lasting about a generation and each with its own distinct politics and party structure (the Federalist-Republican system; the Democratic-Whig system of Jackson and Clay; the Civil War system; the McKinley-Bryan system; and the New Deal system).

Then a sixth system developed in the sixties that, like all previous ones, had its unique blend of politics and governance, with generally Republican Presidents opposing a more liberal Washington establishment built around a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

This system has now broken down at both levels: The 1992 election of an activist Democratic President from the "baby boom" generation, almost regardless of what he did, was bound to change the functioning of that institution; this was followed by the victory of the Republicans in Congress in 1994. Yet Bob Dole campaigned as the last Nixonian--trying to resuscitate the "acid, abortion and amnesty" pejorative one more time and even attacking the Eastern media elite as his chances dwindled. As they attempted to tar their opponents with the great conflicts of 1968, this year's Republicans sounded like Hubert Humphrey trying to recall the Great Depression. Except it's 1996, a year in which Jimi Hendrix tunes are used in mainstream commercials, there's no Vietnam War, the cops aren't "pigs" and there's little left left.

Just as Democrats in the New Deal era could win by evoking "Hooverism," so the basic Republican strategy of the past three decades has been to evoke the specter of "liberalism." This constant repetition of the word "liberal" has been called "Finkelthink," after the Republican political consultant Arthur Finkelstein. But Finkelthink only works if candidates allow themselves to be defined as the author Tom Wolfe defined them last year at Brown University: He cited a man in Valley Stream, Long Island' as saying that "liberals want to tax me and send the money to a welfare mother whose son will mug my wife at the shopping mall."

This formula is now tattered. Clinton refused to play into it, and Democrats like Paul Wellstone Tom Harkin, Mary Landrieu and Bob Torricelli also successfully repulsed an assault based on dated labels. More attention has been paid to Democratic concessions to popular opinion on such matters as welfare reform and crime than to Republican concessions on the minimum wage, the environment and Medicare. Meanwhile, the Gingrich majority in Congress helped Democrats by seeming to redefine conservatives as "people who will take the money from my parents on Medicare and send it as tax breaks to polluters who downsize me out of work."

A second trend is that the increasing dominance of Republicans in the South has produced its own reaction. Generally parties based on the South have not prospered' because the political ideas of the region--particularly in the half-dozen states of the Deep South--are quite different from those of most of the rest of the country. …