The 1964 and 1968 elections saw the beginning of the transition from liberal dominance to a conservative ideology which took over after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The elections of the 1990s were the transitions from the conservative movement to a new Democratic majority. The transition was interrupted by the September 11th terrorist attacks. The interlude of the terrorist attacks interrupted the transition, but the election of 2006 returns to the transition as trends show.
It is interesting to note how our nation arrived at this new transition to another realignment period by looking at the previous realignments throughout our history. Looking back on history we are able to see similarities, and differences, to help us better understand our present situation and look forward to the future.
George Washington was unanimously elected by electors to the presidency in 1789. He was once again unanimously reelected in 1792. In a time when men elected men to govern each other was not common place, Washington on his own chose not to run for a third term in 1796. He created a presidential tradition that lasted until 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term. The Republicans in power then made the tradition a Constitutional Amendment with the 22nd Amendment. Washington giving up his power was a big thing in the late 18th Century. In his Farewell Address to the nation, President Washington warned against the formation of political parties. Political alliances still occurred no matter the warning. The election and removal of these political parties in power would contribute to the different realignments to come.
The nation saw its first partisan election in 1796. Vice President John Adams, who had views aligned with the Federalists, ran against the anti-Federalist, former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The vice president won the election, and Jefferson finished second, becoming vice president. Four years later, for the first and only time, the sitting vice president, Jefferson ran and won against incumbent President Adams. The election of 1800 was the first realignment in government from one political party to another, the Federalists to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.
This dominance of the government by the Democratic-Republicans would last until the election of 1824. The Federalists were non-existent after the War of 1812, with the exception of Chief Justice John Marshall appointed by President Adams. The War of 1812, our second battle for Independence, ended with no clear victor until two weeks after the treaty was signed with General Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. The Federalists opposed the war, but in the end the Democratic-Republicans would exist alone in an “era of good feelings.” President James Monroe ran unopposed in his reelection in 1820. An elector cast one vote for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, keeping the honor and tradition given to our nation’s founding father, George Washington of having been the only president unanimously elected to the office.
The election of 1824 contained four candidates for president as members of the same political party. Naturally since there was no opposition by another political party, a party with so many members was sure enough to have factions within itself. The four candidates were: then heir to the throne office of secretary of state and presidential son, John Quincy Adams; Tennessean General Andrew Jackson; Speaker of the House of Representatives Henry Clay; and William Crawford, Secretary of the Treasury. This was the first election where the popular vote would be counted, however not all states counted their popular votes in this election. The results of the election of 1824 would have Jackson, the Tennessean, in first; Adams, the son of a president, in second; Crawford in third and Clay in last. That is how the candidates placed in the recorded popular votes and the electoral votes they won.
There was no majority in the Electoral College, so the top three vote winners went to the House of Representatives, with each state having only one vote. John Calhoun was the vice presidential candidate on both the tickets of Adams and Jackson giving him enough electoral votes to be elected vice president, no need for the Senate to elect him. Crawford suffered a stroke just after the election and Clay placed fourth, so they were out. The election came down to the Tennessean with more popular votes (and electoral votes) versus the son of a president in second place and the election being decided by a branch of government and not the people’s choice becoming president. An election like this would not be seen again until November 2000. The Speaker of the House would make a deal with Adams, the stepping stone office of secretary of state for enough votes to make Adams president. Jackson and his supporters would call this a “corrupt bargain.” This would cause Jackson and his supporters to run a four year long campaign against the Adams administration.
The election of 1824 established a new realignment in government, the single-party, the Democratic-Republicans were divided. There were Jackson supporters and anti-Jacksonians, who in the next presidential election would label themselves the National Republicans. The Jacksonian Era would officially begin with Jackson’s election in 1828. The Whig Party would rise up after that election as an opposition to Jackson’s Democratic Party, elected in 1828. The Jacksonian Era would last until the Civil War, as the transition would occur the decade prior to the war.
The Civil War would occur because Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. The Whig Party was no more, so they joined with some Democrats to form the Republican Party, the party that opposed the extension of slavery. This new dominance in government by Lincoln Republicans would last until 1896. The Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction period would move from social reform to economics making a transition to the realignment coming in 1896.
Coming out of a depression in the early 1870s and the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the Gilded Age began a time of disproportioned wealth and economic power, and containing events like the rise of the industrial nation, the Populist movement, establishment of unions, increase in population numbers, strikes, decline in presidential power and an economic depression in the early 1890s. “The McKinley Republicans put the United States squarely on the side of its industrial future” (Judis and Teixeira 2002, 13). This quote is a good example of the realignment between social reforms of Lincoln Republicans to more conservative McKinley Republicans, with an eye toward business.
The next realignment would not occur until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Woodrow Wilson was a brief pause in the McKinley Republican’s dominance, just as Grover Cleveland twice gave pause to the dominance of both Lincoln Republicanism and do-nothing presidents of the late 19th Century. FDR and the New Deal Democrats would take over the government from the McKinley Republicans in 1933. “And that majority [McKinley Republicans] held until 1932, when anger over the Great Depression drove a number of groups – industrial workers, small farmers, blacks, Catholics, and Jews – back into the Democratic Party” (Judis and Teixeria 2002, 14). This shows the dramatic realignment. Blacks loyal to the party that freed their ancestors voted the opposition party.
The New Deal Democrats would dominate the government until liberalism ended with the Reagan Revolution of 1980. Democrats would govern with a liberal ideology from 1933-1969. Democrats would be elected in this period; FDR, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Dwight Eisenhower was elected twice between Truman and Kennedy. Eisenhower had not belonged to a political party prior to the election of 1952. Eisenhower ran as a Republican, so an isolationist Republican could not. This meant both candidates, Democratic and Republican, would continue to support the foreign policy of the Truman administration, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
In the 1964 presidential election, the Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Goldwater was a conservative. Goldwater conservatives believed in “downsizing the federal government, reducing income tax rates, and allowing citizens more choice in decision making, while portraying Democratic politicians as fundamentally opposed to these objectives” (Black and Black 2002, 225). This way of thinking appealed to the Southern Whites who began abandoning the Democratic Party, just as they had rejected the Republicans after Reconstruction.
Since the election of Lincoln in 1860, white Southerners felt Lincoln was out to destroy their way of life by ending their “peculiar institution.” They also felt that the federal troops stationed in the South during Reconstruction were an occupation force in place because of Republican led policy. Southern Whites vowed never to vote for the party of Lincoln for generations after Reconstruction.
The Solid South would vote Democratic until 1964. Eisenhower’s 1952 and 1956 elections had not “transformed southern partisanship” (Black and Black 2002, 24). The transformation would begin in the 1964 election. The “last straw” for the Solid South was Johnson and the Democrats support of civil rights legislation.
Once again it was a racist mentality which affected partisan politics among Southern Whites. Southern Whites vowed against voting Republican because that party ended their way of life, freed the black man, and occupied their homeland. Democrats in 1964 were making sure the black man’s vote was counted with civil rights legislation. “When the Republicans turned against the newly emerging black electorate, they anchored their future success to winning levels of white support that were frequently unrealistic” (Black and Black 2002, 25). Southern Whites were now voting Republican after the party abandoned the black vote when the Democrats took up their cause.
Goldwater won a good part of the former Solid South in 1964. Goldwater won electoral votes from his home state and five former Confederate States. This was not enough to win presidents for the conservative movement. The Southern Whites found an ally in the Religious Right. The Religious Right voted Democratic the last time with Jimmy Carter in 1976 with much irony since Carter was and is a very pious man, private and public. Reverend Jerry Falwell spoke for the angered Christians. “Angered by the Carter administration’s refusal to grant tax-exempt status to segregated Christian academies and by Democratic support for abortion rights, they turned to the Republicans, who, for their part, began to court them actively” (Judis and Teixeria 2002, 24). The Religious Right found a new home in the Republican Party.
The Republican Party took on the social causes of the Religious Right. This shows the beginning of a social cause movement taking over the fiscal economic ideology of the Republican Party. The Religious Right believed Ronald Reagan was their president they elected to office and he was one of them. George W. Bush most certainly believes God had something to do with him being president.
“Reagan’s appeal to the religious right political movement mobilized many conservatives Christians in evangelical and fundamentalist churches, but in the cities and suburbs the religious right has largely supplemented income-based Republicanism. In the metropolitan South secular conservatives made up 39 percent of core Republicans, moderates and liberals constituted another 35 percent, and religious right conservatives were only 25 percent. Successful Republican candidates in metropolitan areas have to balance an ideologically diverse party and generally must heed the concerns and issues of large numbers of secular conservatives and moderates” (Black and Black 2002, 266).
This is a good passage that showed the Religious Right was a group that Reagan tolerated to maintain and keep their support. The passage also shows that the ideology of the Republican Party in Reagan’s time was diverse compared to the party’s ideology by the time of George W. Bush’s reign and Reagan was not just dealing with Christians Conservatives, but a variety of conservatives and moderates.
The realignment from liberalism to conservatism would begin with the election of 1964. In that election Lyndon Johnson was elected by a landslide to his own term as president. The voters overwhelmingly voted for Johnson, voting for a liberal agenda. This was the beginning of the end of liberal dominance in government. The Reagan Revolution in 1980 was the beginning of the era of conservative dominance. The Southerners that voted Republican in 1964, began the rise of the Republicans in the South. The religious vote became associated with the Republicans after the 1976 election. These two groups became a powerful electoral force for the Republicans. As time approached the Reagan Revolution in the transition period, Congressional representation in the South by conservative Democrats were being exchanged for conservative Republicans.
The Republican Party had the base they needed, Southern White Christians, to elect someone that would fix what was wrong with the country in their eyes. The country had grown tired of the social agenda of the Democratic Party, from the New Deal of the 1930s to the Great Society programs of the 1960s. “Public support for Great Society-style social engineering had disappeared” (Judis and Teixeria 2002, 121). In this quote, the authors are referring to Edward Kennedy’s desire to run in 1980 with a social programs agenda similar to Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. The American people had had it with the social programs and Reagan offered an end to liberalism.
The revolution that began in 1980 with Reagan’s election was confirmed in 1984 with Reagan’s reelection. In 1984, voters overwhelmingly reelected Reagan and affirmed the conservative ideology as the nation’s dominant ideology. Vice President George Bush ran for president in 1988 and won. “This coalition [conservative Republicans] was strong – strong enough, in fact, to carry a much weaker candidate, George Bush, to victory in 1988” (Judis and Teixeria 2002, 26). Bush, a more moderate Republican than Reagan or his son, was able to maintain the support of Southern White Christians. The Republican hold on the presidency would come to an end when Bush sought a second term.
Popular after a successful war in the Persian Gulf, this would not last long enough to give Bush a second term. It would be an economic recession and a third party candidate, Ross Perot, which would contribute to Bush’s removal from office at the end of his first term. A centrist Democrat, Bill Clinton would be elected with a plurality of the popular vote. Clinton and the Democrats would for the first time since before 1968, win the state of California, establishing California as a Democratic state and show a trend that continues to this day of the West changing from Republican to Democratic. The election of Clinton in 1992 was the beginning of the transition from conservatism as the nation’s dominant ideology to a new Democratic majority. The Democratic victory in November 1992 would be short lived when the Republicans win the Congress for the first time in forty years in 1994. This win could be contributed to the forty year dominance of Democratic rule and the abuse of power that came after such a long time in power.
Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was a conservative platform the Republicans ran on in 1994. Gingrich, the Speaker of the House from 1995-1998, thought he would continue the Reagan Revolution as leader of the lower chamber of Congress. The Republicans in Congress soon realized they needed the help of President Clinton to accomplish anything. The 1990s would see the rise of Southern Republicans in control of the Congress. By 1997, Southerners would be running the government. The Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, was from Georgia. The Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, was from Mississippi. The Majority Leader and Majority Whip in the House were both from Texas. The Majority Whip in the Senate was Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The Minority Leader of the House was Democrat Richard Gephardt of Missouri. The Democrats also had two Southerners in the highest offices in the land, the only two elected by the entire nation, President Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee.
Clinton’s immoral extramarital affair would be a rallying cry for the conservatives to elect someone who could return moral integrity to the White House. Gore chose to run apart from Clinton because of the affair, as opposed to running on the prosperity and peace the Clinton administration gave the nation in the 1990s. However just as California went from Republican to Democratic in the 1992 election, it was a trend that proved that a transition was occurring from conservatism to a new Democratic majority. Clinton won reelection in 1996, still with a plurality and not a majority. The Democratic candidate in 2000, Vice President Gore, would receive more popular votes than his compassionate conservative opponent, Governor George W. Bush of Texas. One could argue that with the true results of the Ohio election in 2004, the Democratic candidate in 2004 continued what had begun with Clinton’s elections in the 1990s and Gore’s popular vote win in 2000, an increase in votes for the Democratic candidate. A trend was taking place showing a realignment, from the Reagan Revolution to Clinton’s election in 1992.
George W. Bush became president in January 2001, after winning the Electoral College, but losing the popular vote. With Gore winning by 500,000 votes, it was not a majority, but it was a true indicator of what the people wanted and did not get. The thought of Gore returning in four years and winning, as all the previous winners of the popular vote but losers of the presidency have done before (except Samuel Tilden), looked promising as Bush governed with mediocrity. Then September 11th occurred.
After the terrorist attacks on the United States, the realignment was interrupted. “The November 2002 elections represented the temporary revival of the older conservative realignment of the 1980s” (Judis and Teixeria 2002, 179). The Republicans capitalized on the fear of another terrorist attack and took hold of security as their issue. Security had been a Republican issue since the 1980s, as Reagan took down the Soviet Union. Bush used the goodwill he and the nation received after the terrorist attacks to pursue those that attacked the United States. He successfully, or was thought of as successful at the time, accomplished this with the War in Afghanistan. Bush would ruin this goodwill by invading Iraq, a country with no connection to the terrorist attacks on the United States.
The build up to the Iraq War began the end of the goodwill the president and the country received from the rest of the world. Beginning with the State of the Union address in 2002, Bush created the Axis of Evil, which consisted of the rogue nations of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. He of course chose the one country that posed no threat to us from the Axis of Evil. “By the late summer of 2002, as popular concern with terrorism began to abate, the Democratic advantages that had been growing in the 1990s began to reappear” (Judis and Teixeria 2002, 181). It is as if the September 11th terrorist attacks were a brief interruption in the realignment of the American political landscape. The failure of this president with the Iraq War has contributed to the shift which had begun in the 1990s.
The continuation of the “stay the course” policy in the Iraq War probably brought the realignment back on course to a new Democratic majority. The mid-term elections in 2006 showed the American disapproval of the Republicans who have controlled the government for twelve years, the last six years all three branches were dominated by conservative ideology. In the short period the Republicans have dominated the government, compared to the length of time the Democrats dominated the government the American people have dealt with; corruption and ethics violations, misappropriation of funds, no oversight, mishandling of Reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, and mishandling of the Iraq War. Mid-West states that had been a given for Republicans in presidential elections since 1968, have a majority of governors that are Democratic after the 2006 election. The conservative movement that came into dominance with the Reagan Revolution began its end with the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004.
The trends of the 1990s have resumed after the brief interlude with security dominating the Republicans agenda. If the House of Representatives is a representation of the people it shows a Democratic majority. The Senate however is almost evenly split, almost as divided as the last two presidential elections showed the country to be. If the true results from Ohio 2004 were used giving more votes to the Democratic candidate, then since 1992 more Americans have cast their vote for Chief Executive who is a Democrat. The scare tactics used in the 2002 and 2004 elections served their purpose and maintained the conservative movement that was on its way out in the 1990s. However, the trends have returned to their prior positions giving the Democrats a chance to emerge as the new majority, with lessons learned hopefully from the liberalism of the 1960s and the conservatism of the 1980s.
Black, Earl, and Merle Black. 2002. The Rise of Southern Republicans. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Judis, John B., and Ruy Teixeira. 2002. The Emerging Democratic Majority. New York: Scribner.