My view of American Politics, part 2: “Realignment”

If you really want to understand American politics, forget the statistics, the regression analyses and all that. You don’t need to know that to understand this. All you need to do is look at a map.

I exaggerate, but only a bit. We have an advantage over, say, European countries in that the U.S. is such a big country, and it has had only two major political parties whose colors may be easily and neatly displayed on a map of our great country. It can look pretty cool. For instance, here is the electoral map of the 1896 election, between our old friend William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley:


Cool, huh? Let’s do another. Fast forward 104 years to the Al Gore vs. George W. Bush election:


That’s interesting. It’s practically the exact opposite, except that there are a few new states. Well, we’d expect a few things to change in 104 years, right? The one commonality between the two elections is that in both instances the Republican won, although in the latter case the Democrat got more votes.

Well, as they sing in the opening number to The Music Man:

Ya can talk all ya wanna, but it’s different than it was!

No, it ain’t, no, it ain’t; but ya gotta know the territory!

So, what made this happen? Did the parties change? Or did where their supporters live change? Or both?

Clearly, this is so a big a gap as to be meaningless. The big issue in the 1896 election was bimetallism. The big issue in the 2000 election was who seemed less likely to have an affair with an intern. There’s no point in making the comparison.

Besides, as we established in part one, a seismic change in American politics occurred sometime in the 1960s. So, the famous one. JFK vs. Richard Nixon:


Well, this one is interesting because there’s a third guy: Senator Harry Byrd, a segregationist Democrat. The Democrats were starting to split over that issue, but they still had no intention of voting for any Republicans. But, Kennedy still carried most of the Southern vote. And as we all know, he won, only to have his Presidency tragically ended.

Then in 1964, LBJ won in a massive landslide, because everyone thought Barry Goldwater was crazy:


But, Goldwater did win the South, voting for him because of his opposition to Civil Rights! So, the South has now gone to the extreme measure of voting for a Republican. Interesting.

LBJ decides not to run. Richard Nixon returns. 1968 is Nixon vs. Vice-President Humphrey. And George Wallace is also in the mix, representing the segregationist Democratic side, as opposed to the Northern liberal Democratic side represented by Humphrey. Here’s how that went:


As we all know, Nixon famously employed a “southern strategy” in this election. That is, he tried to attract those Southerners who were opposed to Civil Rights. What is less famous is that, as you can see, this strategy failed miserably. Wallace—who was a Democrat, except for his opposition to Civil Rights, won most of the Southern states.

Compare how Nixon did in 1968 with how he did in 1960. What states did he flip from blue to red? New Mexico, the Carolinas, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware. The only “Southern” States in that are the Carolinas. And when you factor in that Washington and Maine flipped from red to blue, it’s even less impressive.

There’s a scene in the play A Man for All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More tells Richard: “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… But for Wales!” I like to imagine someone telling Nixon: “It profits a man nothing to give the soul of his party for the whole world… But for the Carolinas!”

As Wikipedia notes “The independent candidacy of George Wallace, former Democratic governor of Alabama, partially negated the Southern strategy”. Yeah, “partially.” Wallace was a Democrat, except, as I said, he was pro-segregation. Southerners had been pro-Democrat for almost a century, and so were quite happy with their policies until the Civil Rights thing happened.

It’s often remarked that it’s a shame American politics has only two parties; that this forces a drastic oversimplification of the nuance of possible political positions. People often wish for a third party to allow for more varied politics. In general, I agree with this sentiment. But in 1968, I really wish there had only been two choices, Nixon and Humphrey, and not just because I despise Wallace’s policies.

The reason for this is that then the Southerners would have really faced a tough choice: between Democrat Humphrey, who belonged to the party they’d been voting for all their lives but who supported Civil Rights, and Republican Nixon who belonged to the party they hated, but who offered some coded hints that he wasn’t altogether for Civil Rights.

It’s true that in ’64 the South had voted for Goldwater. But I bet they knew that he had no chance of actually winning, and thus it was more of a symbolic protest vote against Civil Rights. I wonder if they would have had the nerve to cast their ballots for him if he’d actually had a chance. After all, his free-market, small-government stuff can’t have been completely to the taste of long-time New Deal Democrats.

But because they could vote for Wallace in ‘68, they did, and thus it remains a mystery whether they would have chosen Nixon or Humphrey. In any case, though, what we know for sure is that the South’s favorite candidate was a New Deal Democrat who opposed integration. In other words, they voted to maintain the New Deal coalition pre-1964.

People think that 1968 was a “realigning election”. They’re wrong. The South implicitly stated that they didn’t want realignment, they wanted things to stay like they had been. It was however an obvious prelude to a realigning election, because it made it clear there were irreconcilable differences between Northern and Southern Democrats.

The realignment came in 1972, when Nixon beat George McGovern. Actually, Nixon didn’t just beat McGovern; he crushed him. It was a massive landslide:


Imagine you’re a Republican strategist. (Just for a minute; otherwise you might lose your soul) Which election would you use as the blueprint: 1968 or 1972? In ’68 Nixon won because the Democrats split on Civil Rights. In ’72 he won because he persuaded almost everyone that McGovern was a crazy commie-pinko liberal. “Amnesty, Abortion and Acid,” was the phrase they stuck him with.

There was no Democratic split in ’72, and there was no Southern strategy, either. It was a massive victory for Nixon everywhere you looked.

This is the “realigning election”, because this is the one where the Republicans discovered they could run on social issues and appeal to nationalist sentiments by casting the Democrat as an unpatriotic, radical, cosmopolitan elitist.

This still goes on to the present day. The only thing is that sometimes the Democrat manages to win anyway by (a)pretty much going along with Republican economic policies and (b)being more charismatic than the Republican candidate. This strategy was pioneered by Bill Clinton and copied to a large extent by Barack Obama. (Carter, the other Democratic President post-Nixon, simply got in because of anger over the Watergate scandal.)

From 1972 onward, Republicans have known that the key to winning is to turn the nationalists against the cosmopolitan Democrats. As I have said before, this ensures continual Republican viability and forces the Democrats to capitulate time and again on economic issues for the sake of social issues.

Now, as I always feel compelled to say, I’m not an expert in these things; just an amateur. I have pretty firm feelings about this, but I still feel like I ought to make it clear I’m not a professional political scientist.

Recommended reading

Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm and Nixonland. (Both are excellent reads, and have influenced my thinking on politics tremendously.)

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?

What's your stake in this, cowboy?