An Election in History

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Mr. Keller is Spector Professor of History Emeritus at Brandeis University. He is the author of America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History (Oxford, 2007). This article is based on his “An Election in History,” The American Interest (January/February 2009).

There is universal agreement that Obama’s victory was “historic.” But the significance of the 2008 election goes beyond the towering fact that America has elected its first African-American president. It should also be viewed in the context of a political culture that dates not from George Bush and the early 2000s, or Bill Clinton and the 1990s, but from Franklin D. Roosevelt and the 1930s.

Before then, American politics was defined by a century-old system dominated by boss-and-machine-run parties, supported by consistently loyal ethnic and regional voting blocs, and fueled by patronage and business contributions. This venerable party regime was gradually transformed by the great events of modern times: the Depression of the 1930s, World War Two and the Cold War, the economic, cultural, and technological changes of the second half of the twentieth century. A new political culture is now in its full maturity. Political scientist Theodore Lowi observed in 1985, “What we now have is an entirely new regime, which deserves to be called the Second Republic of the United States.”

This new regime is populist, in the sense that it is defined by a babble of voices--“public opinion” as filtered through the media, advocacy groups, and the public policy establishment; a burgeoning administrative state of bureaucrats, lawyers, and judges--that have an often contentious relationship to the two-party system. Politicians today are much more autonomous than their predecessors, less beholden to their parties when it comes to raising money and conducting campaigns. These new facts of political life contribute to the insistently ideological tone of modern American politics. Many of the participants profit more from polar confrontation than from the give-and-take of traditional party politics. 

The two-party system, inescapable in a winner-take-all system that requires the largest and most durable possible coalitions, has been engaged for decades in the task of coming to terms with this populist political culture. What place does the election of 2008 occupy in this larger context?

     Party leaders no longer have much voice in candidate selection. If the pros had had their way, Hilary Clinton most likely would have been the Democratic nominee. And John McCain, the bêtenoire of the GOP regulars, would not have been the Republican nominee.

     Nor did party-defined issues dominate the election. 

Early expectations were that the 2008 election would focus on Bush’s Iraq War and the terrorist threat, McCain’s age, Obama’s race and his radical past, and immigration, energy, and the environment. None of this turned out to be the case.

Instead, the red-blue cultural divide turned out to be the most persistent source of issues. It became clear that Obama could not rely on his three-legged coalition of blacks, the college young, and elite liberals. He would have to connect more effectively with the mass of voters who were not black, or young, or liberal.

McCain had the opposite problem: convincing the conservative-evangelical GOP base that he was one of (or at least with) them. His major attempt to do so was the selection of Sarah Palin as his running-mate. This produced the first (and last) outburst of real enthusiasm for his candidacy from GOP conservatives.

It cannot be said that Obama won great enthusiasm (though he got sufficient support) from Middle America. But he brilliantly reassured Hillary Democrats and Independents that he had the stature and judgment to be President. McCain, on the other hand, never managed to bridge the gulf between his conservative-evangelical Republican base and his old maverick-independent appeal. And then the financial meltdown put paid to what remained of his chances.

Money, as every schoolchild once knew, is the mother’s milk of politics. That is all the more so in the age of the populist regime, when the costs of campaigning by telephone and television, and of reaching 150 million and more voters, add enormously to outlays: an estimated $2.5 billion in the 2008 presidential campaign.

A measure of the speed with which the mechanics of fundraising is changing was the decline in 2008 of what four years before appeared to be the coming new thing in American politics: richly endowed PACs and 527s, advocacy groups not subject to McCain-Feingold contribution limits. But the money raised by 527s in the 2008 presidential election was about half their 2004 total. And although there was much talk of massive campaign spending by labor unions and advocacy groups, their totals paled into insignificance when set against the billion-plus raised by the parties’ national and congressional committees and the candidates themselves. The massive Internet-bundling operation of the Obama campaign, and Obama’s backing out of his pledge to accept federal funding, were the new new things of 2008.

As PACs and 527s declined in importance in 2008, attention shifted to the role of the mainstream media of newspapers, news magazines, and television, the entertainment/celebrity culture of Oprah and Saturday Night Live, the late-night network talk shows, and especially the Blogosphere and its cloud of bloggers and political and social web sites. It was said that in 2008 the netroots era replaced the network era, much as in the second half of the twentieth century Boss Tube (TV) replaced Boss Tweed (the party machines).

Media bias became a conspicuous issue in the campaign. Both Hillary Clinton and McCain made it a major talking point. It reached a crescendo with the gloves-off media assault on Sarah Palin, in sharp contrast to the gloves-on treatment of John Edwards’s sexual mishaps and Joe Biden’s gaffe-rigged candidacy. In good post-modernist fashion, the media had become its own story. 

No doubt Obama benefited from the strong bias in his favor in the mainstream media, the Hollywood-TV entertainment industry, and the Blogosphere. But how greatly? It is doubtful that a more even-handed atmosphere would have significantly lessened his personal and message appeal, the national desire for change, and the impact of the financial meltdown. It was Obama’s organization, and not Blogosphere wannabes, who controlled the campaign. His has been called the “first true 21st century campaign” in terms of its organization, fundraising, and voter mobilization.

Obama can be expected to build upon the enthusiasm that his election unleashed among blacks and Hispanics, the college young, and the professional classes. The spontaneous demonstrations in Times Square and elsewhere after his election testify to the fact that he has a personal draw not seen since JFK.

His coalition-building may well reach beyond his core to the large, growing population in the suburbs and exurbs, especially in the South and West. Bush in 2004 won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties. Obama in 2008 won 15 of them. There is far to go; and there is much to reap. If he takes this path, it argues against the turn to the Left that his ideologically minded supporters hope for. The new voting frontier is a large, growing, diverse constituency, reminiscent of but economically and culturally different from the industrial workers and ethnic-religious minorities that FDR’s New Deal so effectively tapped.

At this point the course of events, and Obama’s response, can only be conjectured. But whether he crafts a New Deal-like political coalition with real staying power, or runs aground trying to govern from the Left in a moderate-conservative country, the fact that he is where he is assures that 2008, in its own special way, will remain an election in history.

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vaughn davis bornet - 12/22/2008

This is a most interesting essay, and I have no quarrel with it.

I write to aid those who would study "party" free of influence from changes introduced in the period (as the author correctly says) after the early 1930s.

One who devoted endless time to this matter was Edgar Eugene Robinson, chairman of the department at Stanford, whose pioneering work The Evolution of American Political Parties appeared in 1924 in book form at least, dedicated to Frederick Jackson Turner, and beginning with a long quote on "party" from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography.

In later years, Robinson would laborously produce precinct figures for our elections from 1896 to 1944 in books published by Stanford Press. His careful generalizations therein should be noted by all who study party formation and power.

As his student, I produced less generally on party, but my overly researched book Labor Politics in a Democratic Republic treats Republican, Democratic, Socialist, and Communist Parties in 1928 in equal detail and length and from original sources, and labor's role comes right out of primary union sources.

For even more detail, I filed with the New York Federation of Labor an overly long and very heavy piece on its role in the Hoover/Smith contest and the FDR Gubernatorial effort of 1928. The Federation should cooperate in making it available to those who relish intimate detail in such matters.

I recognize the very limited audience for my suggestions, but I write for the one scholar out there, whoever he/she may be, who really wants and needs to comprehend The American System (a title I gave a course I often taught).

Merry Christmas to all.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Where the snow is definitely with us.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/22/2008

You seem to concur that had the GOP nominated a conservative candidate it would have swept Middle America and retained the White House.