There have been six major cycles of American political history (with smaller epicycles within them: The Eisenhower epicycle, the Carter presidency, the Clinton years). Each has brought about major political realignments (with two major dominant political parties) for periods of between 15 and 50 years–shifts that have defined the shape of political debate and elections for some time to come. After the ’08 election, many asked if we were seeing a new political realignment, or just a hickup in the long Reagan era. I argued at the time that one could not know until the next election cycle: 2010 seemed to suggest that ’08 was a fluke, a hickup, but I believe that ’10 midterms were the result of two forces: 1) Understandable frustration with the pace of recovery and the promise of the out of power GOP to focus on “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” (a promise they immediately broke–as they focused on EVERYTHING ELSE BUT JOBS!) and 2) the emerging coalition that elected Obama had not yet learned to vote in non-presidential years, leading to a ’10 electorate that was older, whiter, more rural, and more conservative than the nation as a whole. In the presidential election of 2012, we have seen that 2008 was not a fluke. I think it safe to say that it was a realigning election and that this election is consolidating the basic shape of a new political alignment, and a new cycle of political history. The long Reagan Era has drawn to a close. (So, GOP presidential candidates can finally stop arguing over which of them is most like the sainted, mythical, Ronald Reagan–a myth not much like the actual Ronald Reagan.)
First Party System: George Washington, the first U.S. President after the adoption of the Constitution of 1789, thought there should be no “factions,” or political parties. But within his great unity government, there emerged two such factions, centered around 2 rival political visions or governing philosophies. Alexander Hamilton and his followers wanted a strong central government, complete with a national bank and a deliberate strategy to become an industrial society. They became the Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson led a group that distrusted centralized power–worried that this would erode the republic and bring back something like the monarchy we had just fled. Jefferson’s “Democratic-Republicans” wanted a smaller, weaker, central government and stressed “states’ rights,” and a nation of farmers, both the landed gentry of slave plantations and the smaller farms of freeholders. After the election of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans gained dominance for the next 20 years and the Federalists slowly died off.
The Second Party System: One party rule is unhealthy and eventually leads to splits within the party that cannot be contained. The Democratic-Republicans could not contain the major issues of the day, especially the growing conflict over slavery, within themselves. The new system was a contest between the Whig Party and the Democratic Party. This was Henry Clay’s “American System.” The rich tended to support the Whigs and the poorer voters tended to support the Democrats–who had evolved from the Democratic-Republicans during the Era of Andrew Jackson, the first “populist” president. The Whig Party began to fracture over many pressing social issues, particularly slavery which was becoming ever-more contentious as the Abolitionist Movement grew. This Second Party System–era lasted until 1860, just before the Civil War.
The Third Party System: The end of the Whigs led to the emergence of several smaller parties: The Liberty Party, The Free Soil Party,–mostly focused on ending slavery–with tensions over the details. In this era, the national differences began to split geographically. The North and East, becoming more industrial and urban, and increasingly seeing slavery as a national sin that was greatly at odds with the national identity as a democratic republic, began to identify with the new Republican Party: forged of the merger of the Free Soil, and Liberty parties, leftover Whigs, and the like. Southern and more rural Democrats pushed to keep slavery and to expand it westward while Republicans supporting ending it. This cycle lasted from the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of the Civil War until 1896, a time not only of war and conflict, but of rapid industrial and economic expansion.
The Fourth Party System: After the Civil War, the Republican Party became a coalition of pro-business types, former slaves, and reformers (often at odds with each other). During Reconstruction, the old Federalist vision of a strong central government, was given new life in the Republican party of the North, which also attracted Progressivists. The South and West supported Democrats. Both sides courted immigrants. This era lasted from 1896 until 1932. With brief exceptions, it was dominated by Republican presidencies. It had been a time of several “boom and bust” economic cycles, Progressivist Reforms (and the birth of the Social Gospel) in clash with industrial “robber barons,” the “Gospel of Wealth,” clashes over American Imperialism (as the U.S. began to rival other world powers) , the long struggle for women’s suffrage, the first grassroots peace movements, and the disillusionment of the aftermath of the Great War (World War I). The beginning of the end of the Fourth System was the election of 1928: Industrialist J. Edgar Hoover, a Quaker, a self-made millionaire, and Republican had been a philanthropic hero during World War I (feeding masses displaced in Europe) and in the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1924 (when he once more organized volunteer philanthropists to rescue victims and help with the aftermath). But Hoover, who had always been the can-do guy, proved completely unable to deal with the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression. Republicans, like the Federalists and Whigs before them, had always argued for a strong central government–but it wasn’t to play an active role in economics!
The Fifth Party System: Shaped by Franklind D. Roosevelt and the New Deal Coalition. The election of 1932 was a realigning one. Republican dominance since the end of the Civil War came to an end. In response to the Great Depression and the New Deal, the Democratic Party stopped referring to “states’ rights” and pushed the use of the federal government to create social justice. It now attracted the Labor movement and its concerns for workers’ rights, various minorities, Jews, reformers, and, for the first time, large numbers of African-Americans, who had previously been nearly 100% Republican since it was the “Party of Lincoln.” (In the South, many African-Americans continued to be Republican during this period because the South, dominated by Democrats, still strictly enforced racial segregation.) This system, briefly interrupted by the Eisenhower years, lasted from 1933 until approximately 1968.
The Sixth Party System: In the 1960s, the Democratic Party rejected the Southern segregationists fully–ironically during the presidency of Texan Lyndon B. Johnson. Yet his Great Society fell apart due to social unrest in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the War on Poverty, the Vietnam War and the movement to end it, the women’s movement and the youth movement. In 1968, Richard B. Nixon, former VP to Eisenhower, mapped out the “Southern strategy” to attract Southern and working class whites, especially less educated white men, threatened by the the Democratic Party’s championing of “hippies, African-Americans, and feminists (and, later, gays). Now the Republican Party revived the old language of “states’ rights,” (which it had long opposed) to attack New Deal and Great Society programs and as a code word for “supporting soft segregation,” and opposing “affirmative action.” Interrupted briefly by the Carter years and the Clinton years, the Sixth Party System initiated by Nixon was fully cemented by Ronald Reagan in the election of 1980. It ended Democratic dominance in the South (between 1980 and 2000, a 20 year period, Republicans completely replaced Democrats as the dominant political party in the South). Nixon and Reagan created a new GOP governing coalition of Economic Conservatives (Libertarians and big business-types, united in their hatred for Labor), Military/Foreign Policy Conservatives (nationalists and neo-conservatives), and Social/Religious Conservatives (the Religious Right coalition of groups opposing mixed marriages, feminism, abortion, contraception, gay rights, etc.).
It seems that 2008 may have been the beginning of the end of this Sixth Party System: the Nixon-Reagan-Bush Era. 2012 seems to confirm that we are seeing a new political alignment. The Obama coalition (youth, women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other minorities) shows that Democrats now begin presidential races with a large block of states in the Northeast, West, mountain, midwest, and Southeastern states that, at least, lean Democratic. Demographics are growing the Democratic dominance. The Republican Party is dominant only with white men and married white women. It is older, rural, less educated, more traditionally religious. But it lives in a world where Millenials (18-29 year olds) are comfortable with pluralism, have international and multi-cultural experiences, are highly educated (even if also highly in debt because of it), techno-savvy, and urban. If I am right, we are entering an era where the Democratic Party begins each presidential cycle with increasing electoral advantages. The Republican Party is reaping the rewards of the Southern strategy: As Mitt Romney proved, it is now possible to win 60% of the white vote and still lose an election badly. The exact shape of the realignment is not yet clear. Republicans maintained control of the House, but Democrats had the House all during the Reagan years and Reagan still drove the agenda. A governing philosophy based on constant tax cuts, ever higher military expansion, disgregard for the environment, anti-labor, and anti-government help is no longer a winning one. The new alignment may not be a 21st C. New Deal/Great Society (this is not yet clear), but it is one that has a definite role for government to play in helping ordinary people. The Reagan era is over. What will the new era be?
So, you may have heard that Pres. Barack Obama (D) and VP Joe Biden (D) were re-elected to a 2nd term Tues. night, November 6th, 2012. But you may have missed the many OTHER victories for social justice in the USA. There were also some losses, as Pres. Obama himself has emphasized, progress comes in fits and starts and zig-zags rather than a straightline. This post is a summary of as many of the victories and losses as I can find so that we get some idea of the current “lay of the land” as we prepare for the next struggles. I list these in no order of priority, just as I remember them and find links:
- Women’s Rights won big. The new Congress in 2013 will have a record TWENTY (20) female U.S. Senators, up from 17 this time. On the one hand, this is pitiful. 1/5 of the U.S. Senate will be female when when women are 51% of the nation? When women have had the right to vote since 1920? Clearly, sexism is still alive and well in the USA. BUT, it is improvement: Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) mentions that when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was just elected as the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right. (Before then, widows of deceased Senators were appointed to serve out the remainders of their husbands’ terms–something that still happens.) Only 39 women have EVER served in the U.S. Senate since the body was created in 1789! The new Senate in 2013 will have 16 Democratic women [Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Patty Murray (D-WA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and the newly elected Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), & Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)]and 4 Republican women [Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) will be joined by Deb Fischer (R-NE), an ultra-conservative. Two other GOP women senators: Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), retired this year.] All 8 of the men running for House and Senate who opposed abortion even in cases of rape were DEFEATED. Women’s health, including the funding of Planned Parenthood, and coverage for contraception, were reaffirmed. Most of the men who ran and won as Democrats were also strongly committed to women’s rights. New Hampshire became the first state to have all female leaders: Electing Maggie Hassan as Governor (D-NH), and replacing two GOP men with Democratic women: Rep.-elect Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH-01)–reclaiming a seat she lost in 2010–and Rep.-elect Anne McKlane Kuster (D-NH-02). NH already had 2 female Senators: Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), neither of whom were up for reelection this year. For the first time, every state legislative body had at least one female member. After the 2010 mid-terms, Republicans launched a nationwide war on women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, with huge state legislative restrictions on abortion and attempts at restriction on contraception. However, equal pay for equal work, and other women’s rights were also under assault. The victories of Tues. did not completely reverse or end these assaults, but they did constitute a major rejection of this agenda. Women were key to the reelection of the president: with an 18% gender gap between the 2 candidates.
- LGBTQ Rights won several victories. The reelection of Pres. Obama means that the GOP threat to reintroduce “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into the military was rejected. In addition, marriage equality was legalized by ballot measure in Maine, Maryland, and Washington State, the first time marriage equality was implemented by popular vote. Further, Minnesota, though not yet affirming marriage equality, strongly defeated a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as “between one man and one woman,” again, the first time such a ballot measure in the U.S. was defeated at the ballot box rather than in the courts. In Iowa, an attempt to unseat one of the state’s Supreme Court judges who had ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2009 was defeated. In NY, Rep.-elect Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY-18) became the first openly gay man who is MARRIED with adopted children elected to Congress and the first openly gay Rep. from NY. Likewise, Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) will be the first openly lesbian U.S. Senator. The re-election of President Obama also was the first time an incumbent president (and VP!) endorsed marriage equality, wrote marriage equality into the party platform, and campaigned on marriage equality–and WON re-election! That and several legislative victories at the state level means that more progress for LGBTQ folk is surely on the way because of Tuesday’s elections: Several more states will either enact marriage equality or civil union laws (usually an interim step toward full equality as voters see that the sky does not fall, but also that civil unions are still a form of 2nd class citizenship) between now and 2014. At the federal level, I expect a full court press to enact the Employee Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), preventing workplace discrimination against LGBTQ folk and either Congressional repeal or Supreme Court rejection of the ’90s-era “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) which prevents same-sex married couples from receiving the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. The next 4 years could even see the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice who is openly a member of the LGBTQ community. Clearly, LGBTQ rights are on the march–a stunning turnaround from 2004, just 8 short years ago, when attacks on LGBTQ folk, and especially on marriage equality, was a winning strategy around the nation.
- Economic Justice. The gains here are more modest, but real. The reelection of Pres. Obama and an enlarged Democratic Senate means that Obamacare will be fully implemented, not repealed or watered down further, that GOP plans to voucherize Medicare, eliminate Medicaid, and privatize Social Security are off the table, as are deep cuts to social programs and education across the board. Michigan voters repealed their state’s “emergency manager” law which had allowed for corporate dictators to usurp the elected government of any city that faced fiscal difficulties (like something out of the “Robocop” movies–set in Detroit!). Voters in CA rejected an attempt to end all union participation in the political process (while allowing corporations to continue unabated). CA also voted to raise taxes on the rich and to a temporary sales tax increase, to fund education instead of facing more layoffs. As well, CA achieved a Democratic 2/3 supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, enabling it to overcome the infamous Prop. 13 , enacted in 1978, which reduced property taxes to pre-1975 levels and then required 2/3 of each House of the legislature to raise them for any reason–leading to CA’s epic budget woes. The new CA legislature will be able to forge a workable budget AND end Prop. 13 forever–a law which had allowed a tiny, tax-hating GOP minority, to rule the majority for decades. In San Antonio, voters approved a tiny sales tax increase to fund quality Pre-K education. Even in Texas, conventional wisdom to the contrary, Democrats CAN campaign and win on tax increases IF the public knows that they will fund worthwhile things. Voters in a few cities around the country also approved small increases in the minimum wage.
- Civil Liberties. Voters in FL killed an attempt to amend the state constitution to allow taxpayer support for religious institutions and activities (in clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment). They also blocked attempts to ban use of public funds for abortions and contraception and blocked an attempt to block implementation of Obamacare in the state. They rejected legislature control over judges. Voters in Colorado and Washington State legalized cannabis and in MA authorized medical cannabis. Although it sets up potential conflict with federal law, it shows the end is in sight for the failed “war on drugs” and that a new, sane drug policy will emerge. Prohibition fails and regulation works.
- Diversity and inclusion. With the election of Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Hawai’i sends the first Buddhist to the U.S. Senate. And with the election of Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) to Hirono’s old House seat, Hawai’i also sends Congress its first Hindu member–who plans to be sworn in on the Bhagavad-Gita. They join 2 Muslim members of Congress. Native Americans were key to the election of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) in North Dakota. Hispanic/Latino voters were a decisive factor in the reelection of Pres. Obama and several other races. Asian-Americans also made gains in representation. The days when old white men ruled everything are ending, something that fills many with fear. But those of us who have embraced inclusion and diversity since the Civil Rights movement welcome the coming rainbow society with open arms.
Losses on election day include: Cannabis legalization in Oregon and medical cannabis legalization in Arkansas. Michigan voters failed to guarantee the right to collective bargaining in the state constitution, although that right is still part of MI law. CA tried and failed to abolish the death penalty by ballot measure–with only 48% of the public approving. Death penalty abolition is making gains, but they are not uniform by any means.
There is clearly much work left to be done. But there is no denying that Tuesday night was a good night for social justice in the USA.