From the upcoming Democracy: A Journal of Ideas symposium, "What Happened?".
While history never repeats itself, the past does offer useful benchmarks of comparison. Many otherwise sober observers discerned in the 2008 election results the harbinger of a new 1933, or least 1965. At the time, those analogies struck me as far-fetched, and nothing in the ensuing year has made them more plausible.
On the eve of the 1932 elections, Republicans held 218 seats in the House of Representatives. When all the returns came in, they had lost 101 seats, giving Democrats a 313-117 edge. In the Senate, similarly, Republicans began with 48 and lost 13, yielding a 60-35 Democratic majority. One might have thought that after such a sweep, the majority party would have nowhere to go but down. But in the 1934 midterms, the Democrats gained an additional nine seats in both the House and the Senate. For all practical purposes, the Republicans had ceased to exist as an effective opposition. When the dust settled after the 1936 election, they were down to 16 Senate seats and 88 in the House. President Roosevelt enjoyed unprecedented freedom of action. The only check on the New Deal-and it proved temporary-was the Supreme Court.
In 1964, Democrats won an additional 36 House seats, increasing their margin from 259-176 to 295-140-68 percent of the seats, and the largest House majority held by either party since 1936. In the Senate, Democrats began with 66 seats and ended up with 68. Like FDR in 1932, Lyndon Johnson won the popular vote in a landslide. And the Republican opposition was ideologically heterogeneous, with substantial numbers of moderates and liberals. More than half of House Republicans voted for Medicare, as did 43 percent of Senate Republicans.
2008, by contrast, was more like 1992. Bill Clinton won the presidency with a six percentage point margin in the popular vote. When he took his oath of office, he joined 258 Democrats in the House and 56 in Senate. Barack Obama's majority was seven points, and Democrats ended up with 257 House seats and 57 senators (58 when the protracted Minnesota struggle was resolved in their favor). To be sure, Obama helped add to the Democratic congressional majority, which Clinton had not. Still, the raw numbers did not give him substantially more freedom of maneuver than Clinton had enjoyed-in some ways less, given the routinization of the filibuster that had developed in the interim.
Other structural features of American politics had shifted in ways that deepened the disanalogy between the New Deal/Great Society eras and the circumstances that Obama faced. In the first place, far more Americans identified themselves as conservative than as liberal. This was true the day Obama was elected, and it is more so today. By the end of 2009, conservatives held a two-to-one edge over liberals and had surged ahead of moderates to form the largest ideological block in the electorate. This fact alone makes it implausible to characterize the election of 2008 as the evidence of a swing to the left. More likely, it reflected widespread public discontent with the economic and foreign policy performance of the Bush Administration, and the willingness to give a promising young leader a chance to prove he could do better. And as disappointment with the new Administration has set in, the dominant response has been not a swing towards Republicans, but rather "a plague on both your houses."
Second, the Republican electorate had become far more homogeneous. According to recent surveys, conservatives now constitute about three-quarters of all Republican identifiers, with moderates making up the remainder. By contrast, Democrats are far more divided-roughly 40 percent are liberals, another 40 percent are moderates, and a surprising 20 percent still think of themselves as conservatives. A divided Democratic party confronts a united Republican phalanx.
And finally, the congressional parties are more polarized than at any time since the 1890s. Political scientists have shown that by the summer of 2009, the most conservative Democratic senator was more liberal than was the most liberal Republican. (Emblematically, Ben Nelson ended up supporting health reform while Olympia Snowe opposed it.) The same dynamic can now be found in the House, too. One definition of the political "center" is the overlap between the parties. If so, the center has disappeared.
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