Even before the final results showing a Democratic sweep were in, Washington's pundits were declaring that nothing had really changed politically in the country. In a cover story labeled "AMERICA THE CONSERVATIVE," Newsweek editor Jon Meacham warned that, "[s]hould Obama win, he will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal." Meacham's judgment was echoed by Peter Wehner, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "America remains, in the main, a center-right nation," Wehner wrote in The Washington Post.
These guys--and the others who are counseling Barack Obama and the Democrats to "go slow"--couldn't be more wrong. They are looking at Obama's election through the prism of Jimmy Carter's win in 1976 and Bill Clinton's victory in 1992. Both Carter and Clinton did misjudge the mood of the electorate. They tried unsuccessfully to govern a country from the center-left that was moving to the right (in Carter's case) or that was only just beginning to move leftward (in Clinton's case)--and they were rebuked by voters as a result.
Obama is taking office under dramatically different circumstances. His election is the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 1990s, was delayed by September 11, and resumed with the 2006 election. This realignment is predicated on a change in political demography and geography. Groups that had been disproportionately Republican have become disproportionately Democratic, and red states like Virginia have turned blue. Underlying these changes has been a shift in the nation's "fundamentals"--in the structure of society and industry, and in the way Americans think of their families, jobs, and government. The country is no longer "America the conservative." And, if Obama acts shrewdly to consolidate this new majority, we may soon be "America the liberal."
Realignments--which political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called "America's surrogate for revolution"--are not scientifically predictable events like lunar eclipses. But they have occurred with some regularity over the last 200 years--in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1980. The two most recent realignments were essentially belated political acknowledgments of tectonic changes that had been occurring in the country's economic base. In the case of the New Deal, it was the rise of an urban industrial order in the North; in the case of Reagan conservatism, it was the shift of industry and population from the North to the lower-wage, non-unionized, suburban Sunbelt stretching from Virginia down to Florida and across to Texas and southern California.
The new Democratic realignment reflects the shift that began decades ago toward a post-industrial economy centered in large urban-suburban metropolitan areas devoted primarily to the production of ideas and services rather than material goods. (In The Emerging Democratic Majority, Ruy Teixeira and I called these places "ideopolises.") Clustered in the regions that have undergone this economic transition are the three main groups that constitute the backbone of the new Democratic majority: professionals (college-educated workers who produce ideas and services); minorities (African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans); and women (particularly working, single, and college-educated women).
As late as the 1950s, professionals were the most Republican of all occupational groupings, but they were also relatively small in number--about 7 percent of the labor force. Today, professionals (who are the brains, so to speak, of the new post-industrial economy) make up 20 percent of the labor force and are a quarter or more of the electorate in many northern and western states. They range from nurses to teachers to TV producers to software programmers to engineers. They began voting Democratic in 1988 and have continued to do so ever since.
Using census data, Teixeira and I calculated that, between 1988 and 2000, professionals voted for the Democratic presidential candidate by an average of 52 to 40 percent. I don't know exactly what percentage of professionals voted for Obama this week because exit polls don't include professionals as a category. Still, as an approximation, I can use a somewhat smaller (and maybe even slightly more conservative) group: people with advanced degrees. Obama won these voters by a whopping 58 to 40 percent. He even won college graduates as a whole, 50 to 48 percent. (It may be the first time that a Democrat has ever accomplished this. In 1996, for instance, Clinton, even while beating Bob Dole handily, failed to carry college graduates.) Moreover, if you look at states Obama carried and compare them to the states that have the highest percentage of people with an advanced degree, you find that he won the top 19 states--all of them, which together account for 234 electoral votes. He also won 21 of the top 24, accounting for 282 electoral votes. McCain, by contrast, won the six states that have the lowest percentage of people with advanced degrees.
As for minorities: Most--with the exception of Cubans, Chinese-Americans, and Vietnamese-Americans--have voted Democratic since the 1930s. But, with the shift of the economy and the liberalization of immigration laws, the number of Latinos and Asian Americans has expanded. Some of the new immigrants are professionals, but others form the working class of the post-industrial economy. They are orderlies, child-care workers, janitors, fast-food cooks, and servers. As late as 1972, minorities accounted for just 10 percent of the electorate. In this election, they made up 26 percent. Blacks, of course, went overwhelmingly for Obama, but he also won Hispanics by 66 to 31 percent and Asians--who as a group used to split their vote between Democrats and Republicans--by 62 to 35 percent.
Women, too, were once disproportionately Republican--in 1960, Richard Nixon won the women's vote. But their voting patterns began to change as they entered the labor force. In 1950, only one-third of women worked; today, 60 percent of women work, making up 46 percent of the total labor force. Over 70 percent of working women have white-collar jobs, and 24 percent work as professionals--compared to 17 percent of men. In 1980, women began disproportionately backing Democrats, and the trend has continued. This year, Obama enjoyed a 13-point edge among women voters and only a one-point edge among men. He carried working women by 21 points. If you add these numbers to the Democrats' advantage among professionals and minorities, that is a good basis for winning elections.
To be sure, Obama and the Democrats needed to win about 40 percent of the white working class that used to be the bulwark of the party's New Deal majority. The recession and financial crisis certainly helped bring these voters home. But the heart of the new majority is no longer blue-collar workers. While the ranks of professionals, minorities, and working women are growing, the traditional white working class is shrinking--having already gone from 58 percent of the workforce in 1940 to 25 percent in 2006, according to Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz.
The new electoral map that has emerged from these demographic trends is, in some ways, the mirror image of the one generated by Republican William McKinley's 1896 presidential victory--with the Deep South now Republican rather than Democratic, and the Northeast now Democratic rather than Republican. (Vermont, today thought of as a left-wing Democratic bastion, voted for only one Democratic presidential candidate before backing Bill Clinton in 1992.)
And yet the geography of the new Democratic majority is not quite so straightforward. That's because, while the post-industrial economy is obviously strong in traditionally liberal areas like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, it has also taken root in parts of the South and West--areas like Charlotte (a financial center) and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill research triangle in North Carolina, the northern Virginia suburbs, Orlando and South Florida, and the Denver-Boulder region. This helps explain why North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado all shifted from red to blue in this election.
The rise of these voting groups within the post-industrial economy has brought in its wake a new political worldview. Call it "progressive" or "liberal" or even "Naderite" (for Ralph Nader the consumer advocate, not the misbegotten presidential candidate). If unionized industrial workers were the vanguard of the New Deal majority, professionals are the vanguard of the new progressive majority. Their sensibility is reflected in the Democratic platform and increasingly in the country as a whole. It has sometimes been described as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, but that doesn't really get it right. Professionals are generally liberal on civil rights and women's rights; committed to science and to the separation of church and state; internationalist on trade and immigration; skeptical of, but not necessarily opposed to, large government programs; and gung-ho about government regulation of business, especially K Street lobbyists.
Many are children of the 1960s and '70s--heavily influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Nader--but their views are clearly reflected in succeeding generations of college-educated Americans, particularly the "millennials" who grew up during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Ucla's annual study of incoming college freshmen across the country found in 2006 that 28.4 percent identified themselves as "liberal"--the highest percentage since 1975.
If you compare Americans' attitudes from the 1970s and '80s with attitudes today, you can see how much the worldview of these professionals has already permeated the electorate. In March 1981, two months into the Reagan administration, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 54 percent of Americans thought there was "too much regulation of business and industry" and only 18 percent thought there was "too little." By October 2008, 27 percent thought there was "too much" and 45 percent thought there was "too little." In a Pew poll released in March 2007, 83 percent backed "stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment," and 66 percent supported "government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes."
Attitudes on social issues have also changed dramatically. The Pew poll from March 2007 found that the percentage of Americans who believe that school boards should have the right to fire gay teachers fell from 51 percent in 1987 to 28 percent. Those who want to make it "more difficult" for women to obtain abortions dropped from 47 to 35 percent. Those who think that "it's all right for blacks and whites to date each other" rose from 48 to 83 percent. The poll also found that 62 percent of the general population--and 83 percent of college graduates-- disagreed with the notion that "science is going too far and hurting society."
These opinions had become prevalent in the 1990s; but September 11 and the fear of an imminent terrorist attack temporarily revived the conservatism of the 1980s, especially on social issues. (As I wrote in The New Republic last year, there is strong psychological evidence suggesting that a heightened fear of death pushes people toward traditional views on social questions.) Today, however, seven years removed from September 11, liberal views have re-emerged with a vengeance. Now, the coming recession seems likely to push voters even further left. And how Obama handles the economy will go a long way toward determining whether the new Democratic majority that has swept him into office proves to be a fleeting phenomenon or a durable one.
There have been two kinds of realignments in American history--hard and soft. The realignments of 1896 and 1932 were hard: They laid the basis for 30 years of party dominance, periods when the same party would win the bulk of national, state, and local elections. (During the New Deal realignment, from 1932 to 1968, Republicans controlled the presidency for only eight of 36 years and Congress for only four years.) The conservative Republican realignment of 1980, by contrast, was soft: It began in 1968, was interrupted by Watergate, resumed during Carter's presidency, and climaxed in Reagan's landslide. Yet, even then, Democrats retained control of the House and got back the Senate in 1986. Republicans did win Congress in 1994, but a Democrat was president and was reelected easily in 1996. Burnham characterized the '90s as a period of "unstable equilibrium" between the parties.
What made the 1896 and 1932 realignments hard was that they coincided with steep downturns in the business cycle. The political trends were present in prior elections--in 1928, for instance, Al Smith began to draw urban voters to the Democrats--but the depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression catalyzed and accelerated these trends. McKinley and the Republicans blamed the depression of the 1890s on Democrat Grover Cleveland. Franklin Roosevelt blamed the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression on Herbert Hoover. In both cases, the stigma remained for decades. Democrats were still running successfully against Herbert Hoover 20 years after he left office.
In 1980, Reagan and the Republicans were able to take advantage of deep divisions within the Democratic Party over civil rights (and later abortion), but, for catalysts, they had to rely on the Iranian hostage crisis and the stagflation of the late '70s, which led to a recession. By the 1992 election, the impressions created by these events had largely worn off. That prevented the Reagan Republicans from developing the kind of hard, enduring majority that the New Deal Democrats had enjoyed.
Will the Democratic realignment of 2008 be hard or soft? Initially, it seemed it would be soft. Like the Reagan realignment, it began in fits and starts--Clinton's victory in 1992 was comparable to Richard Nixon's victory in 1968, with Ross Perot playing the schismatic role that George Wallace had played in 1968. The Democratic trend was slowed by the Clinton scandals and interrupted by September 11. By this measure, 2008 seemed to be more analogous to 1980 than to 1932 or 1896.
But the onset of the financial crisis may have changed this. The coming economic downturn may more closely resemble the depression of the 1930s than the relatively shallow recessions of 1980 or 1991. There are, sad to say, striking resemblances between the circumstances that led to the Great Depression and those that led to the current emergency. In both cases, the downturn was preceded by overcapacity in an industry that had been key to growth--automobiles in the 1920s, telecommunications and computers in the 1990s. In both cases, there were mild recessions--1927 and 2002, respectively--that preceded the final downturn and were overcome by government policies. The Fed lowered interest rates in the 1920s and 2000s, and the Bush administration cut taxes. But, instead of fueling a genuine recovery, these policies fueled a speculative bonanza in the stock market of the late 1920s and in the housing market of the last years. That created a tower of toxic debt. When consumer demand and productive investment began to lag again, this tower collapsed. And, in both cases, the downturn, instead of being confined to the United States, was international, making recovery even more difficult.
There are differences, of course, between the two periods. For one thing, international cooperation to prevent a recession from becoming a global depression is much more likely this time around. Still, there is a likelihood that this recession will deepen over the next year and at least raise the specter of a new depression--something that never occurred in 1980 or in 1991.
If Obama and congressional Democrats act boldly, they can not only arrest the downturn but also lay the basis for an enduring majority. As was the case with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, many of the measures necessary to combat today's recession will also help ensure long-term Democratic electoral success. Many Southerners remained Democrats for generations in part because of Roosevelt's rural electrification program; a similar program for bringing broadband to the hinterland could lure these voters back to the Democratic Party. And national health insurance could play the same role in Democrats' future prospects that Social Security played in the perpetuation of the New Deal majority.
Americans, to be sure, are always reluctant to undertake ambitious government initiatives. This is a country, historian Louis Hartz once pointed out, founded on Lockean liberalism. But, as Roosevelt discovered when he was elected, a national crisis creates popular willingness to entertain dramatic initiatives. Moreover, Obama will not face the same formidable adversaries that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had to confront. The Republican Party will be divided and demoralized after this defeat. And, just as the Great Depression took Prohibition and the other great social issues of the 1920s off the popular agenda, this downturn has pushed aside the culture war of the last decades. It simply wasn't a factor in the presidential election.
If, however, Obama and the Democrats take the advice of official Washington and go slow--adopting incremental reforms, appeasing adversaries that have lost their clout--they could end up prolonging the downturn and discrediting themselves. What might have been a hard realignment could become not merely a soft realignment, but perhaps even an abortive one. That's not the kind of change America needs--or wants.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.