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Who Cares Whether There’s An Electoral Realignment?

- November 24, 2008

Political scientists’ opinions on electoral realignments seem to “run the somewhat limited gamut”:https://themonkeycage.org/2008/11/truths_and_myths_about_the_200_2.html between ‘we have no idea whether they exist,’ and ‘if they exist they are much weaker than the “expectorate”:http://crookedtimber.org/?s=expectorate says they are.’ But is there better evidence of _policy_ realignments – that is, of long term changes in the contours of politics that make some kinds of policies and laws easier to pass, and other kinds more difficult? This makes more plausible sense, given that the breaking of major policy watersheds in particular areas (think the New Deal or civil rights) often seem to make it easier to pass similar or reinforcing policies in the successive period, even if control of the Presidency or Congress changes hands. And there is some historical evidence to back this up, as Paul Pierson noted at APSA this year.1

If you look at regulation, there’s a huge expansion in government regulatory activity, especially with respect to consumer protection and the environment during the same period. Again, it doesn’t slow down when Nixon comes into the White House. If you look at Mayhew’s list of landmark pieces of legislation and look at the regulatory ones, there are twice as many major regulatory laws passed between 1964 and 1977 as there are if you combine the thirteen year period before that and the twenty five year period after that. More than twice as much regulatory legislation in about a third of the time. This is when it was all happening. The Nixon presidency is right in the middle of it. When does it stop? It doesn’t stop in 1981. Roughly, it stops in 1978. The defeat of key domestic
initiatives like industrial relations reform and health care reform; the passage of a completely di fferent kind of tax bill, much more oriented towards business and the affluent than the tax bills that had come previously, but a tax bill that would look very familiar to more recent discussions in American politics. You see also the beginnings of a deregulatory push that would eventually remake government and the connection between government and the economy. And all this comes after the huge Democratic electoral victory of 1974, and the recapture of the White House in 1976.

So the more interesting question over the next number of years is whether or not we are seeing a _policy realignment_ taking place. My strong prediction, thanks to the current economic meltdown, is ‘yes.’ We are likely to see a substantial shift in policy over the next several years, so that forms of state intervention that were previously unthinkable start to look routine. Not only is the Obama administration going to be, by any reasonable definition, a strongly left-leaning administration, but its successor in 2012, whether Democratic or Republican, is likely to be left-leaning too.

Here, the chattering class’s obsession with whether the personnel of the administration are liberals or centrist technocrats seems completely beside the point (I know people have to gossip about _something_ but they shouldn’t pretend that the something has world-historic significance when it doesn’t). As “Chris Hayes”:http://www.thenation.com/blogs/jstreet/385799/is_personnel_policy points out, someone looking at the incoming Bush presidency in 2000, and extrapolating the presidency’s policy predilections from Bush’s reliance on old hands from the Ford administration, would have likely been very badly mistaken. But you can go further – the fact that strongly right-leaning Bush administration officials are not only advocating but administrating substantial state intervention in the economy tells us that the policy changes we are seeing are probably not dependent on personnel or individual ideological inclinations, but on a changed environment in which certain kinds of policies have become pressing necessities. When this is added to (a) the usual preference of government officials to maximize the scope of their competences, (b) the difficulty of roll-back, (c ) the apparent desire of the administration to link spending programs that they would have wanted anyway to crisis response and (d) how close the Democrats are to being able to outvote blocking minorities in the Senate, I imagine that we are in for a substantial shift in the parameters governing which policies are politically feasible and which are not.

1 I don’t imagine that anyone has looked to see whether this apparent pattern is statistically convincing – it seems to me that the problem is akin to the one of genre fiction tackled “here”:http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/graphs_trees_materialism_fishing/ by Cosma Shalizi with simple simulations so it certainly isn’t intractable – but in the absence of work to the contrary, I’m going to stick with the assumption that the pattern is indeed significant. This is a blogpost, not a peer reviewed article.