Is America Undergoing a Political Realignment?

A new Democratic coalition could be coming to power—but don’t count on it.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt on board an American warship
The first great political realignment of the past century brought Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats to power, and liberalism dominated until the late 1960s. (Keystone / Getty)

Realignment—a decisive shift in the balance of power between political parties, creating new coalitions and leaving one party and one ideology with lasting dominance—occurs far more often in the minds of partisans than in reality. Karl Rove believed that the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 would enshrine a permanent Republican majority. Within a couple of years the president and his party were discredited. In 2008, with the collapse of the financial system and the historic campaign of Barack Obama, some people—I was one—thought a Democratic realignment might be at hand. Obama’s victory, with big majorities in Congress, would close the book on decades of conservative ideology, anti-government politics, deregulation, the amassing of vast fortunes, the widening of vast inequalities. A new era of liberal reform was going to sweep aside the rubble left behind by the right and finally begin to solve big problems.

It didn’t turn out that way. It seldom does. The Obama movement was more personal than ideological. He campaigned as a visionary but governed as a technocrat. After the election, Obama for America was supposed to become Organizing for America, but instead it basically disappeared. At the end of the campaign the candidate had called the financial meltdown “the final verdict” on a “failed economic philosophy,” but this turned out to be a tactical shift in response to events. Obama wasn’t an ideologue—he distrusted sweeping historical claims—and he dropped that kind of language in the White House. As president, he devoted himself to the details of policy making and fruitless efforts to strike deals with the opposition. He lost his connection to the mood of the country, which grew feverish with discontents that took no clear ideological form.

The Republican Party had run out of ideas but not out of juice, and its energy turned wholly destructive. Obama was so personally impressive and appealing that many Democrats failed to notice their party hollowing out like a rotten tree, losing majorities in Washington and across the country. Obama achieved one major reform, in health care, and he set a shining example of decent, grown-up government, but by the end of his presidency he was pleading with Americans to be better than we are. Something had gone wrong, in our economy and in our democracy, that Obama was unable to fix—that he might have been too reasonable to fully understand.

In the past century there have been only two realignments—one in 1932, the other in 1980. The first brought Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats to power, and liberalism dominated until the late ’60s. The second brought Ronald Reagan and the Republicans to power, and conservatism retains its grip on our political institutions, if not on electoral majorities, to this day. “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket,” Eric Hoffer, the author of The True Believer, wrote. By the early 1970s, the New Deal coalition of urban machines and interest groups was becoming a racket, symbolized by piles of uncollected garbage in the streets of a nearly bankrupt New York City. Sure signs of degeneracy in the Reagan revolution appeared in the late 1990s, when Tom DeLay’s K Street Project erased the line between governing and big-money lobbying. The next step is dissolution, but the end of Hoffer’s life cycle can drag on for agonizing years.

The two realignments had several things in common. Long-term demographic change—immigration and urbanization in the first case, suburbanization and the end of the solid South in the second—reshaped the identity of American voting blocs. John the Baptists, harbingers of the realignment to come, appeared in unlikely forms. The failed candidacy of New York’s wet, urban, Catholic Governor Al Smith in 1928 foretold a changing Democratic coalition; the demolished candidacy of Arizona’s extremist Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 signaled the hard-right turn of the Republican Party. When traditional politics failed to address chronic social ills, the rising activism of popular movements—industrial workers, evangelical Christians—pushed the parties toward new ideological commitments. Crises precipitated widespread unhappiness with the old order: the Great Depression in the early ’30s; stagflation, gas lines, and American hostages in the late ’70s. The midterm elections of 1930 and 1978 were like tremors before an earthquake. Then, in a decisive presidential election, a challenger came along to wipe out an incumbent, not just by winning more votes, but by bringing a new idea of government.

Realignments happen when a long-term social transformation, a crisis, and the right leader converge to change the landscape. In hindsight, they have an aura of historical inevitability, but they’re impossible to predict. Roosevelt didn’t run as the scourge of economic royalists; that came later. He represented the liberal wing of the Democratic Party—he was for public hydroelectric power, federal relief to the unemployed, low tariffs, and conservation—but in 1932 he campaigned on deficit reduction and a vague promise of experimentation to put the country back to work. “On election day Roosevelt won by default,” the historian David M. Kennedy wrote in Freedom From Fear. “Roosevelt’s victory was less an affirmation of his policies than a repudiation of Hoover’s. He remained inscrutable, his exact intentions a mystery.” Then Roosevelt consolidated the realignment with the New Deal and overwhelming reelection in 1936.

Similarly, in 1980, it wasn’t at all clear that Election Day would usher in a new era of conservatism. Arthur Schlesinger, the masterful chronicler of Democratic presidencies, above all Roosevelt’s, didn’t see a realignment coming. He confided “a relaxed view of Reagan” to his journal, and, loathing Jimmy Carter, made up his mind to vote for the hopeless third-party candidate, John Anderson. Throughout the fall Reagan and Carter were nearly tied in the polls, until a week before the election, when they met for their only debate. If, after Carter reminded Americans that Reagan once adamantly opposed Medicare, Reagan had said, “Well, Medicare is socialism,” Carter might have become a two-term president. Instead, Reagan brushed him off with a good-natured shake of the head—“There you go again”—and his performance opened the gates to a last-minute landslide.

“It was far from clear that Reagan and the Republican right had swept the nation with their ideas and proposals,” Sean Wilentz wrote in The Age of Reagan. “But the results certainly reflected a collapse of the Democrats, especially of the liberal Democrats.” Reagan, a certified ideologue, won by softening his positions into a reassuring vision of American individualism. Then, like Roosevelt, he went on to entrench the realignment by governing as an ideological president and winning reelection by a huge margin.

In other words, while realignments come from tectonic shifts, they aren’t inevitable. They’re subject to a combination of elements, including chance—more like a hurricane than the coming of spring. No one can know whether 2020 will bring the realignment that some people on the left expect. In the years since 2008 many things have changed, including three big ones. First is the lingering hangover of the Great Recession, with increased economic divisions, leaving Democratic voters impatient with the kind of incremental reforms that Hillary Clinton campaigned on in 2016 and hungry for more ambitious policies. A second is the coming to political age of Millennials—the most powerful generation since the Boomers, and far more left-wing than their elders. The third is Donald Trump.

Since getting elected, Trump—by being true to himself every minute of his presidency—has pushed educated women, suburban voters, and even a small percentage of his white working-class base toward the Democratic Party. His hateful rhetoric and character are making Americans—white Democrats in particular—more rather than less liberal on issues of immigration, religion, and race. Last November, nonwhite voters made up a record 28 percent of the midterm electorate, and 38 percent of young voters. At the same time, the Republican Party has built its ramparts around the diminishing ground inhabited by older, whiter, more rural, less educated Americans. These are the kind of changes that could bring a new Democratic coalition to power for years to come.

But don’t count on it. There are still a lot of people living back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the red fields of the republic roll on under the night. Since progressives, especially younger ones, and especially the hyperpoliticized partisans on Twitter, rarely talk to people who don’t think like them, they stop believing that such people still exist, at least not in meaningful numbers—sooner or later they’ll have to die out. And yet, year after year, those nearly extinct Americans keep showing up to vote, and often win.

Perhaps the Democratic Party, and with it a majority of Americans, have reached the point where fine-tuning a grossly unjust economy and a corrupt political system no longer cuts it. Perhaps, after decades of inequality and rule by organized money, a critical mass of the electorate is ready to hear radical solutions—a wealth tax, a public insurance option, a green economic program, sweeping political reforms, even constitutional changes. Perhaps this means a realignment of the party and the country to the left. We won’t know until the election. If so, then it’s past time.

But realignment depends on political leadership, which isn’t just a matter of ideology or policy. Campaigns tell stories, and in politics as in literature, style matters as much as plot. Roosevelt and Reagan, ideological opposites, both won by speaking in a way that gave Americans a sense of dignity and belonging and made them hopeful. They didn’t win by haranguing the public. They didn’t win by implying that anyone who disagreed must be either stupid or venal. They didn’t assemble majorities by degrading Americans into identity blocs. They didn’t force their party to pledge allegiance to the most extreme positions, or turn politics into a joyless exercise in orthodoxy. They hammered their opponents, but they did it with a smile.

The choice between radical solutions and a unifying appeal is a false choice. If the Democrats end up with a hectoring, humorless, disdainful, divisive candidate who doesn’t speak to the whole country because he or she doesn’t have a vision for the country, then we’ll almost certainly enter the darkness of a second Trump term. If they choose a leader whose radicalism is hopeful and whose anger is generous, then we might just have a realignment.