The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority: Realignment, Dealignment, and Electoral Change from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton

By David G. Lawrence | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992 hardly signified a re-creation of the Democratic presidential majority that dominated American politics between 1932 and 1968. While the Democrats were undoubtedly pleased to win their second presidential election in the last seven, they won it with only 43 percent of the popular vote, a total not much different from the percentage they gained in losing a series of contests widely regarded as disasters for the party. When compared to the five consecutive elections won by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman or even to the Democratic resurgence under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Clinton's achievement is modest. He may of course yet create a new Democratic presidential majority, but his election was hardly evidence that such a majority exists. Clinton's subsequent difficulties in implementing a legislative agenda and the dramatic defeat of his party in the 1994 congressional elections raise further doubts about the long-term significance of the 1992 presidential outcome.

To claim that the Democratic majority which dominated American presidential politics between 1932 and 1968 has collapsed is neither original nor very interesting. Even a casual observer will be aware that Republicans won five of the six post- 1966 presidential elections, four of them by comfortable margins. The most recent Democratic victory before Clinton's was an extremely narrow win by a southern moderate who had re-united his party after a decade's division over race, running against an unelected incumbent widely perceived to be somewhat out of his depth who had become president in the immediate aftermath of Watergate. That Jimmy Carter was elected under such circumstances is hardly surprising; that he won so narrowly is a sign of the extent of Democratic problems in the mid-1970s.

The focus here is less the fact that the Democratic presidential majority has collapsed than the process by which the collapse occurred. Existing literature and popular wisdom suffer no lack of possible explanations: racial polarization at a time when the Democrats have become generally perceived as the party sympathetic to black political demands; a divisive and ultimately unsuccessful military involvement in southeast Asia initiated by a Democratic administration; belief that the Democrats were excessively permissive at a time of rising crime rates and other symptoms of social disintegration or "moral decay"; nomination of a series of weak candidates, ideologically out of touch with mainstream America and incapable of organizing a campaign, much less an administration; Democratic failure to master

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