“The Democrats are devastated at the moment, they’re flat — they’re conquered people,” said Prof. Theodore J. Lowi, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, offering his assessment of last week’s national elections. For Democrats in Ithaca and around the country, the election results were discouraging: President Bush won re-election, likely giving him the opportunity to name one or more Supreme Court justices, and Republicans added to their majorities in both houses of Congress. Kerry won more votes than any challenger in history, but still lost to Bush by a larger margin than Al Gore did four years ago. Yet despite the bleakness of the election results for the Democrats, Lowi argued that, “it would be ridiculous for the Democratic Party to lie down and allow themselves to be walked over, because it was such a close election.”
The election was indeed close, but the Republicans scored victories all across the nation, and although Bush won only a narrow victory in the electoral college, he bested Kerry by more than three million votes in the popular vote. So what exactly does the election indicate about the state of American politics? Is there, as some have argued, an emerging Republican majority? Moreover, what does the election mean for the future of the Democratic Party? In interviews with The Sun, several government and history professors offered their perspectives on these questions.
Impact on Democrats
One of the biggest questions to arise out of the election is whether Kerry’s defeat indicates serious problems for the Democratic Party in competing with Republicans. Several of the professors that spoke to The Sun downplayed the seriousness of the Democratic defeat.
“What it shows is simply that it’s very, very difficult, nearly impossible, to defeat a president during a time of national crisis,” said Prof. Richard Polenberg, the Goldwin Smith Professor of American History.
Lowi also cautioned against reading too much into Kerry’s defeat. “The message that comes out of the election, the way we interpret it, must be moderated by the closeness of the election,” Lowi said.
“The election was close enough that just by [a shift of] 150,000 votes [in Ohio], Kerry would be president and we’d be talking about the future of the Republican party,” he added.
Prof. Walter Mebane, government, also called attention to the closeness of the election, but underlined that, “there are some fundamental challenges [the Democrats] face.”
“The internal coalition of the Democrats is constantly on the verge of coming apart. This time the party was only held together by the common hatred of George Bush,” he said.
Mebane drew attention to a split in the Democratic Party over “what to do about the pacifism of some in the party.”
“Most people would agree that pacifism isn’t an option for the United States at this time — some members of the Democrats need to face that fact,” he said.
A Conservative Trend?
Another question is whether, with Republicans in control of all three branches of government, America is now entering an era of one party dominance in national politics. A related issue is whether, given Republican successes in the 2002 Congressional elections, and the fact that Republicans have controlled the presidency for most of the last 25 years, American politics is becoming more conservative.
Polenberg and Prof. Walter F. LaFeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor, history, both explained that starting in the 1930s with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the country generally moved in a liberal direction. However, Polenberg explained, that since 1980 the trend has been towards the right.
“The real sea change came with the election of Ronald Reagan, because after that it was just a matter of how quickly the country would go in a more conservative direction,” he said.
Still, he added that, “the country is centrist on most issues. Each party starts with about 45 percent of the vote, so you’ve got about ten percent undecided, and by definition those ten percent are in the middle.”
LaFeber agreed that American politics is trending to the right, but denied that the Republicans were poised to dominate politics.
“51-48 is not single party dominance,” he said, referring to the margin by which Bush won the popular vote, “What we’re talking about is a series of close elections [in 2000, 2002 and 2004].”
However, he suggested that “particularly what’s happening in Congress is that right now, in terms of values, in terms of foreign policy, and in terms of the economy, Republicans are very well positioned to hold on to what is essentially a 50/50 divided country.”
Prof. Stuart Blumin, history, shared LaFeber’s assessment of a narrowly divided nation but stressed that the divisions might not be as severe as many made them out to be.
“Americans probably are more like each other than we think,” he said. “Look at popular culture, the more day to day stuff … not the hot button social issues [like gay marriage and abortion] … in a lot of ways, Americans agree with each other.”
Blumin also pointed to a historical example to illustrate the difficulty of predicting an era of Republican dominance. In the 1964 election, the Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, carried 44 states, one of the largest landslide victories in American history, and the Democrats seemed poised to dominate politics. Yet four years later in 1968 Republican Richard Nixon was elected and since then Democrats have held the White House for a total of only 12 years.
“Things happened to derail the Democratic majority, Vietnam happened,” Blumin said. “Here is a guy [Johnson] that wins with 61 percent of the vote … and the next thing you know, he couldn’t even run for re-election.”
LaFeber suggested that in many ways “this political realignment that occurred 35 years ago … was part of a reaction to the 1960s.”
“A lot of Americans voted against the countercultural values of the 1960s in 1968,” and ever since, he said.
A third major question is whether, as many pundits have argued, based on exit polls in which more voters (22 percent) cited moral values as the most important issue to them than any other topic, America is becoming a more evangelical, religious nation. All four professors who addressed the issue disputed the idea that Americans were necessarily getting more religious.
LaFeber and Mebane disagreed with the media’s interpretation of the issue. “The real split in American religion is between what they call the traditionalists and the modernists in each religion,” LaFeber said. “If you track the voting, traditionalists vote together regardless of faith, and the modernists, whether they are Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant, are going to vote together. That’s the way to think about this.”
Mebane argued that any trend towards greater religious conservatism was likely to be temporary. On social issues like gay marriage, he said, support for the liberal point of view increases among younger voters, thus “the long run trend is to the left.”
During the campaign there was frequent hand-wringing over the vicious negative campaign adds from both Republican and Democratic interest groups. But Lowi was unsympathetic to complaints about the negativity of the campaign.
“All campaigns are negative,” he said. “Every four years you get this constant complaining about negative campaigning from people that don’t understand the history of it. In politics the rule has always been to say little about yourself and smear the shit out of the other guys.”
Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Sun Staff Writer