December 2012, Week 3


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Wed, 19 Dec 2012 22:12:38 -0500
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The Realignment of American Politics: Towards a Mass Party of the Center

Submitted to Portside
By Van Gosse
December 19, 2012

Like a fog slowly clearing, we can perceive the slow-
motion realignment of American politics towards a mass
party of the center.  This emerging formation, the
Clinton-Obama remaking of the Democratic Party, will
almost certainly dominate politics and policy at the
federal level and in most major states for the long-
term.  If this is the new reality, the left had better
adjust its sights. Above all, let’s stop the furious
agonizing about an ultra-right, Christian Right, Tea
Party, Koch-Brothers-and-Karl-Rove take-over:  it ain’t
happening, get over it, move on.

The mass party of the center, birthed twenty years ago
by Bill Clinton triangulating his way into a “socially-
liberal” version of neoliberalism (or what used to be
“liberal Republicanism” in the days of Nelson
Rockefeller and George Romney) has been brought to
fruition by Barack Obama’s savvy Chicago apparatchiks.
Consider what they have achieved:

The Democratic Party has won the popular vote in five
of the past six presidential elections;

It has reduced the Republican Party to a pathetic
replica of the pre-New Deal Democrats, relying on white
votes in the Solid South and the rest of rural America
where Dixie flags and country music dominate, along
with poverty and nativism (with the obvious difference
that the Obama machine is making that America a lot
less solid);

At the presidential level, Democrats now have a lock on
nine of the top fifteen states defined by GDP
(California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New
Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, Maryland),
and of the remaining six, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia
are turning blue, while Texas and Georgia alone remain
deep red (North Carolina seems to be the purple wild
card right now);

Forget states, whole regions are gone for the Right.
Except when they get lucky or run RINOs, the entire
Northeast is Democratic, as is the West Coast. Since
Reagan, their white hope has been the Midwestern
heartland, but Obama again shut them out of every
Midwestern state other than the traditionally borderish
Indiana and Missouri.

Anyone can read these numbers. Indeed, the Democratic
tilt of major states, regions, the cities, and most of
suburbia has been growing ever more obvious for some
time, but no one has had the nerve to call it a
realignment.  Why not?  What is realignment, anyway,
and why should you care?

The term derives from the eminent political scientist
Walter Dean Burnham, who argued long ago that the
American political system since the 1790s has pivoted
on a handful of “realigning” elections, when huge
swathes of the electorate moved in one direction,
undergirding long-term majorities for one
party—Republicans after 1896; Democrats after 1936, and
so on.

For decades, the not-so-New Right has pursued its own
realignment, and rightward-trending and just trendy
pundits have bought into their propaganda that the big
shift was about to happen.  In fact, it was always just
about to happen, whether in the defection of the
vaunted Reagan Democrats to the Gipper, or Rove’s grand
plan to sew up Latinos and so-called “soccer moms.”
But at no point has the U.S. ever come close to a
lasting realignment to the Right. Each of their big
victories—in 1984, 1994, and 2004--was followed
immediately by sharp defeats (losing the Senate in
1986; Clinton’s crushing Dole in 1996; the Democratic
sweep of 2006).  Now, in the aftermath of Obama’s
sequential system-wide victories, encompassing every
region and popular vote majorities, we see the real
realignment towards a socially progressive, center-
right, post-Fordist party, with one foot in neoliberal
orthodoxy (think Summers and Geithner), and the other
in what’s left of the “functionally social-democratic”
base (think Ohio and Michigan, where nationalizing the
auto industry in 2009 secured national victory in

So where does that leave those of us who define as
left, whether in, out, or in-denial regarding the
Democratic Party? Begin with a basic premise:  the
tectonics of generational and demographic change have
decisively moved U.S. politics to a new kind of center,
commanded by those who now lead the Democratic party.
Carefully marshaling an array of constituencies, from
Ph.D.’s to janitors, these new men and women of power
have decisively trumped the ultra-Right’s hopes of
rolling back the twentieth-century’s progressive gains.
And with powerful financial machines of their own and
nationwide networks of personal loyalty, the Obamaites
have also largely displaced the older party and union
structures that got out the Democratic vote. Remember
the “Friends of Bill” back in the 90s?  They were
merely the precursors of the thousands of dedicated
organizers recruited into Obama’s permanent campaign
since 2006.

Is there any room for the left as we have known it,
other than as dutiful acolytes, tiptoeing around the
table of power, or impotent critics, standing on the
sidelines?  Certainly Occupy points the way to how
savvy, spectacular protest can galvanize the national
discourse, but surely we can do better than that.  What
would an American Left look like? That’s the real
question.  Stay tuned.


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