Realignment and Contingency

Via Yglesias, Larry Bartels analyzes the role of chance in realignments:

The 1936 election has become the most celebrated textbook case of ideological realignment of the American electorate. However, a careful look at state-by-state voting patterns suggests that this resounding ratification of Roosevelt's policies was strongly concentrated in the states that happened to enjoy robust income growth in the months leading up to the vote. (As usual, voters seem to have been quite myopic--huge variations in income growth in 1934 and 1935 had no discernible effect on 1936 voting patterns.) Indeed, the apparent impact of short-term economic conditions was so powerful that, if the recession of 1938 had occurred in 1936, Roosevelt would probably have been a one-term president.

Considering America's Depression-era politics in comparative perspective reinforces the impression that there may have been a good deal less real policy content to "throwing the bums out" than meets the eye. In the U.S., voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved. In the adjacent agricultural province of Alberta, voters replaced a socialist party with a right-leaning funny-money party created from scratch by a charismatic radio preacher, and the economy improved. In Weimar Germany, where economic distress was deeper and longer-lasting, voters rejected all of the mainstream parties, the Nazis seized power, and the economy improved. In every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased dominated politics for a decade or more thereafter. It seems farfetched to imagine that all these contradictory shifts represented well-considered ideological conversions. A more parsimonious interpretation is that voters simply--and simple-mindedly--rewarded whoever happened to be in power when things got better.

Pundits, myself included, have a tendency to get caught up in broad cyclical theories of political parties, in which "ideological innovation" gives way to "ideological exhaustion," and parties retreat to the wilderness and then re-emerge all snazzed up and ready to make a comeback. There's a lot of truth to these theories, but it's also true that political history is both cyclical and extremely contingent. Thus while Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 was the result of deep, deep trends in American politics; it was also the result of a series of contingent events, from Watergate down to the Iran hostage crisis, that could easily have fallen out differently and resulted in Ted Kennedy-style Democrats or Nelson Rockefeller-style Republicans governing 1980s America instead.

This should offer conservatives reasons for optimism, in the midst of what looks like a potential liberal realignment: Contingency is still king, and there's nothing written in the stars that says the Right can't come back much, much faster than it looks capable of doing at the moment. But Bartels' argument also highlights the trouble with welcoming a retreat into the wilderness, as some conservatives (myself included) are sometimes wont to do: When you're out of power completely, you become a prisoner of events - and especially economic trends - in a way that a party with at least some hold on power isn't. Above all, you cede the ability to take any credit for good news - and given the broad upward trends that have defined American history to date, the typical Presidency is more likely to generate good news than not. Out-of-power parties often benefit dramatically from bad times in America: The GOP did in the late 1970s, and the Democrats have over the last four years. But the pattern of American history suggests that bad times are the exception rather than rule - and unless James Howard Kunstler's prophecies come true, a party that goes deep into the wilderness and waits for a crisis to bring it back to power stands a good chance of waiting for a long time. (And yes, that's a case for disaffected conservatives of all stripes - those who still have a stake in the GOP, that is; not the Larisonians of the world - swallowing hard and voting for McCain.)