Making sense of 1994|
by Stan Brubaker
I'm watching the elections of 1996 to determine the meaning of the elections of 1994. By several measures the '94 elections were among the most momentous of the twentieth century. At the national level, the GOP took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years; at the state level, Republicans made a net gain of 14 governors, nearly 500 state legislators and 18 state legislative chambers, giving them political control of nine of the ten most populous states. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans won a majority of House seats in the South.
Traditional Democratic constituencies, such as Catholics and the elderly, voted Republican. And most remarkable, of all the Republican incumbents running for reelection as representative, senator or governor, not a single one was defeated.
Rarely has the electorate spoken so forcefully. But what did it say? In one account, the '94 elections simply record the adventitious concatenation of small things -- a change of mood in a fickle electorate, political missteps by a vulnerable president, an unusual turnout of angry white male voters revved up by Rush Limbaugh -- none of which is likely to leave an enduring mark on the political landscape.
In another account, which seems to be more plausible, the '94 elections register a massive tremor in one of those political earthquakes that political scientists call `realignments.' These are the enduring changes in the dominant coalition and, more importantly, the ideas and principles governing our constitutional order, changes typically marked by a critical election or combination of them: 1828, ushering in Jacksonian Democracy; 1856 and 1860, yielding the birth and triumph of the Republican party, the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery; 1896, marking our shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy and registering a broad commitment to laissez-faire economic policy; 1932 and 1936, bringing into being the regulatory welfare state.
I call 1994 a `massive tremor' rather than the quake itself, the critical election, because with the entrenchment of the regulatory welfare state as well as the weak attachments of today's voters to their parties, realignments in contemporary America are unlikely to occur as they have in the past. Instead, what we seem to be witnessing is a slow motion, conservative realignment that began with the creation of a Republican presidential majority in 1968 and that has finally worked its way down to the congressional and state level in 1994. `Conservative' does not necessarily mean Republican. But it does mean that if Democrats wish to win, they need to become New Democrats -- a NewtLite alternative, but headed in the same conservative direction. That means rejecting command-and-control approaches to the economy, devolving more authority to the states, maintaining a strong national defense and protecting traditional moral structures. As of this writing, that's where the Democrats are headed. President Clinton has announced that the era of Big Government is over, signed two major repudiations of New Deal programs (the GOP's Freedom to Farm and Welfare Reform bills), stated his opposition to gay marriage and expressed his support for school uniforms and teenage curfews. In the early stages of the campaign, his eagerness to beat Dole to the conservative punch became almost unseemly. Congressional Democrats have been either more principled or more sluggish, depending on how one wishes to view their shifts, but they too are growing more conservative.
The columnist E.J. Dionne recently published a work titled They Only Look Dead, predicting, contrary to the above indicators, a new era of progressive liberalism. So I'm watching the '96 elections for signs of life in liberalism -- calls for, then electoral support of, new government sponsored health care programs, expansion of affirmative action, more job training, equal support for alternative lifestyles and so forth. In this case, I doubt that looks deceive.