For all the recent flurry of speculation and analysis regarding the Democratic Party’s shockingly sudden decline in power, one particular metric has never been adequately explored. Though it is certainly demoralizing that in merely twelve months a feel-good sugar high of optimism has given way to despair, airing our grievances should quickly give way to building strategies for the times going forward. We have learned quickly that party identification can never be taken for granted and that the American people want results, not gridlock. 2008 was seen by many (and indeed, me, for a time) as a realigning election along the same lines as 1980, but it seems that Obama’s coattails are really only his for the riding and that personal charisma and stirring rhetoric are subordinate to results in the grand scheme of things.
A year ago, many looked at FDR’s first term as a yardstick for comparison, hoping to see notable similarities between the two. Now we are recently looking instead at the 1936 election, as it was a referendum on the New Deal itself. Some are wondering why the American electorate hasn’t responded with complete faith in the Democratic Party, since the current economic climate is still primarily a result of incompetent Republican mismanagement. But there are two large differences between 1936 and 2010, or for that matter, 2012. To begin, FDR managed to pass a dizzying number of reform measures through Congress in a relatively short period of time. President Obama, by comparison, has only managed a handful of them, the most ambitious of which, health care, has been thrown into doubt by an unforeseen, but not totally unsurprising development. Second, and perhaps the most important of all, today’s voter does not function on the principle of brand loyalty to party, which Roosevelt used to carry him to four successive terms in office.
Strictly Democratic households or Republican households, once commonplace, are increasingly a thing of the past. Generational traditions of voting for a single party based almost exclusively on cultural, ethnic, or regional identity are no longer observed strictly. The solidly Democratic South of FDR’s time once cast its ballots in more or less lockstep, and even though the Deep South has become the last remaining sure-fire base of support for the GOP, if one digs deeper into that assumption, one discovers much in the way of enlightening nuance. While the majority of Caucasian residents usually vote for Republican candidates, one must not overlook the impact of a sizeable African-American minority which almost always votes Democratic. Moreover, city-dwelling white liberals and moderates frequently cast their ballots for a Democratic candidates as well. Alabama is much closer now to a two-party state than it ever was before, when Republican opposition was nominal and the Democratic primary was the de facto general election, since November’s balloting for state office was a mere formality to crown the winner. One has to perhaps have lived in the state to realize just how significant a development this really is.
Still, viewing matters through a two-party lens, regardless of state or region is not wholly sufficient either. Though third-party candidates have been part of the political landscape since the beginning of the Republic, it wasn’t until Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) Party of 1912 and Eugene Debs’ series of respectable showings as the perennial Socialist Party’s candidate that third-parties began to gain traction across the board, not merely as a protest vote against the policies, planks, or candidates of the major parties. George Wallace’s 1968 run was probably the most successful in recent memory from a strictly electoral college standpoint, but Ross Perot’s 1992 Washington outsider campaign garnished a surprise first-place showing in the polls for long enough that it led many to speculate, in all seriousness, what a presumptive Perot presidency might look like. 1992 is likely the point in which Independent voters became a force to be reckoned with, and when pollsters, politicos, and the like began to incorporated them in their greater analysis of voting demographics and trends, so too did many recognize that times had changed forever and that the electoral map of old had been redrawn.
To underscore my larger point, by means of comparison, let’s look at the 1936 Presidential Election, in which incumbent Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought re-election to his second term in office. In particular, let’s examine the popular vote returns of the state of Alabama.
F. Roosevelt (D): 238,136 86.4%
A. Landon (R): 35,358 12.8%
Two third-party candidates won less than 1% combined of the total number of votes cast for a total popular vote of roughly 2,150.
In that particular cycle, Roosevelt won every single Alabama country except for one, Winston. Winston County was a hotbed of Republican support, very much analogous to the rest of the state, which stemmed from the fact that it remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, winning it the title of “The Free State of Winston”. For years, Winston County was the only real center of power for the Republican Party, and with it the sole source of opposition to the otherwise Democratic-dominated state. The state itself had never really recovered from the Civil War and after making tentative strives to rebuild itself, it was flung cruelly back into widespread poverty by the Great Depression. Since the Republican Party was deemed the party of big business and the wealthy, few Alabamians felt much in the way of allegiance towards it. My Grandmother expressed the views of many residents in those days by saying, “You only become a Republican when you get money.”
Next, let’s look at the 1996 Presidential contest returns from the same state, in which President Clinton sought re-election against Senator Bob Dole of Kansas and once more from Ross Perot.
B. Clinton (D) 662,165 43.2%
B. Dole (R) 769,044 50.1%
R. Perot (I) 92,149 6.0%
As you can see, Dole’s margin of victory was dramatically far less than Roosevelt’s based purely on popular vote, and the third-party candidate Perot managed to win nearly fifty times more votes than any other independent combined managed in 1936. The total number of votes cast in 1996 was roughly six times that of 1936, yet a third-party candidate managed a showing that would not have been possible earlier. Quite a bit changed in sixty year’s time. The populace became more politically literate, more African-Americans were granted suffrage, the rise of cities fostered Progressive ideas and more liberal inclinations, Alabamians grew wealthier with time, and the number of registered voters increased as a result. However, along with all of these changes came a desire to vote not so much for a party but for a specific individual or particularly compelling cause, regardless of primary party identification.
This relatively recent development is both fortunate and unfortunate. It is fortunate because the Founders never intended for this country to be structured as a two-party system, meaning that most of the groundwork they set in place is based on unanimity of opinion, not factionalism. Despite this idealistic notion that we might all swear allegiance to one sacrosanct party, when two parties ruled and there were vast differences from state to state and region to region regarding the balloting behavior GOP voters and Democratic voters, there were often unwritten rules and assumptions upon which to base decisions and strategies. In short, with brand loyalty came predictability. Those of certain states, regions, and allegiances could be reliably counted on to cast ballots in time-honored ways. Policy matters, sloganeering, and coalitions could be built along ancient fault-lines. The system might not have been the fairest, but it was at least more manageable to some.
There had, of course, been many from the beginning who advanced a third, if not multi-party system as a fairer, more democratic alternative to the numerous limitations and inequalities of the existing system. Still, it took nearly two centuries before that clamor became loud enough that it was ever taken seriously. Even then, it took a massive backlash to an equally massive social justice movement to encourage people to set aside their long term allegiances and a few decades later a billionaire espousing populist rhetoric and more than willing to inject millions upon millions of his personal fortune to get his message and candidacy out to the public—to buck long held voting trends. This is the reality with which we are faced today. The American people want jobs and job security, and they increasingly don’t much care what letter of the alphabet can manage it, so long as they are presented with a credible plan of action and an understandable means of presentation.
Backlash, of course, can only take one so far, and it seems that right now even economists and those handsomely compensated for their role as official soothsayer have yet to figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The conventional wisdom held by many is that one ought not to change horses in midstream, but if the recent victory in Massachusetts means more than just one bad campaign or an angry electorate demanding renewed economic security and lasting health, then Democrats ought to be concerned. My fault is not with those who have done their best to bring about reform, but for those in the leadership who are not just bad managers, but also completely indebted to awful strategies of conducting legislative business.
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Alice has a conversation with Humpty Dumpty himself.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.
“They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!
The American people want more verbs and less adjectives. Moreover, we are tired of passive voice towards our concerns and demand active voice above all else, since nothing weakens one’s argument more than a million qualifiers as to why the rather straight-forward promise of change must come with so many strings attached or concessions made. The base can be counted on to usually gird up its loins and put aside its reservations to cast a ballot for Team Blue. But moderates, independents, and conservatives will not and one would think the most sensible means of keeping everyone inside a big tent that seems to be collapsing one tent peg at a time would be to find a strategy that caters to all without pandering or making empty promises to anyone. This is your mission, Democrats, if you choose to choose to accept it.