We divide elections into one of three types: confirming, deviating and realigning. Most of our elections fit into the first two categories. Examples of confirming elections are when the incumbent president wins reelection or when the incumbent is term-limited but his party continues to hold the office after his second term (e.g., George H.W. Bush in 1988). Deviating elections are when we see a change in party in the White House, but we are not experiencing a dramatic shift in national priorities over a major issue. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 is an example of a deviating election, when we moved away from the Republican Bush, but we did not see a tidal shift in the electorate. Therefore, most of our elections, whether confirming or deviating, can be classified as consensus elections. This means that they are largely fought over the middle, independent, undecided members of the electorate who will join with the loyal party members of one of the two major parties to form a consensus majority or plurality.
The third type of election is called a realigning election and represents a tidal shift. Historians and political scientists agree that the elections of 1800, 1860 and 1932 were realigning elections (some also include 1828 and 1896 in this category). By the term "realigning," we are referring to a transformational election that reshapes the political landscape in the country. This shift is measured in many ways. First, when we have realignment, citizens shift their loyalty from one group to another. This is not a temporary, one-election shift, but one that will continue for future elections. In 1932, we witnessed many long-standing Republicans shift their votes to Democratic candidates (from the presidential down to local races). This voting behavior continued throughout the next several election cycles, as many voted for Roosevelt and other down-ticket Democrats.
Perhaps more important than political party loyalty – which is a big part of realigning elections – is the impact that realignments have on the transformation of voter thinking on the one big issue that is at the center of the political realignment. Historically, when realigning elections have occurred, there is a significant national debate on a very important issue that has considerable depth and breadth. This issue is not isolated to a specific geographic region, but is impacting the entire nation and is something that will not be resolved in the short term.
Most are familiar with the issues of the elections of 1860 and 1932, so we will focus on these two elections in order to explain how those elections were political realignments. The issues of the elections of 1860 and 1932 were, of course, the national debates on the future of slavery and the government's response to the Great Depression, respectively. Prior to the election of 1860, the nation was divided on whether or not slavery should end, or whether it should continue to exist and even spread into new territories and states. For the election of 1932 (and continuing through 1936 and 1940), the central issue was what role the state should play in managing the economy, redistributing wealth, and securing a vigorous social safety net. Following the New Deal revolution, the political landscape was forever changed.
Political scientist Harry Jaffa describes the nature of America's elections throughout our nation's history in this way: "What seems to happen then, is that at a very few and very widely spaced elections, the voters are faced with drastically different alternatives…the results of such elections is virtually to annihilate one of the alternatives and to reveal the new ground upon which consensus must be sought by both parties in the next generation."
To summarize Jaffa's analysis: most of our elections that fit under the confirming and deviating categories are "consensus" elections, where there is very little difference between the parties and the candidates. However, on rare occasions we do see truly "antagonistic" elections, where there are sharp distinctions between the candidates and parties. When these antagonistic elections occur, the aftermath is defeat and, ultimately, the obliteration of the opponent. Following the Lincoln and Roosevelt presidencies, the losing parties did not hold on to their previous platforms. The Democrats of the 1870's, if they hoped to be viable, had to surrender their position on slavery and adopt the new mainstream position that slavery would be forever eradicated. Likewise, following Roosevelt, the Republican Party never looked back and seriously offered a repeal of all of the New Deal programs. Hence, the "old" party platforms were lost.
One important caveat needs to be stated before we evaluate the current campaign to see whether we have arrived at such an antagonistic/realigning election: recognizing when we have experienced a political realignment is only clearly delineated through the lens of history. There have been dozens of books written in just the past 30 years by well-respected scholars claiming that we have undergone a Republican realignment, a "rolling republican realignment," a realignment toward a permanent Democrat majority (largely based on immigrant demographic shifts). All of these projections have, for the most part, been proven wrong. The warning here is that there is often a temptation to overstate the significance of a political debate when we are sitting in the middle of the partisan and over-heated rhetoric of a political campaign.
Turning to election 2012, we can indeed see several signs that we are in the midst of an antagonistic election. President Obama and Governor Romney offer the country two very different paths. The legislative and administrative accomplishments of the past 3-½ years offer a clear and distinct agenda. Health-Care Reform, the $787 billion stimulus, Dodd-Frank, the auto-industry bailout, student loan takeover, environmental regulations, green-energy subsidies, and more – all show a dramatic shift toward government intervention, regulation, and federal control. While some of these may have been "one-time" expenditures, they are clearly establishing a precedent of federal government intervention that is indeed a significant shift toward statist policies. In addition, Obama's commitment to this agenda has not wavered. Despite that fact that the price of gasoline has doubled since he took office, an additional 3 million people are out of work, median household incomes have dropped, and the number of food stamp recipients has doubled, President Obama has not offered a change of course. When we compare President Obama's response to his chastening election of 2010 and President Clinton's of 1994, we find a recalcitrant Clinton backpedalling. With Obama, he has stayed firm in his commitment to statist policies. And Obama is not alone: a September Pew Research survey showed that 83% of those who support Obama for reelection seek an even greater expansion of government. In contrast, Governor Romney has campaigned in opposition to all of the significant initiatives of President Obama, promising to roll back those that he can.
Were the initiatives of the Obama presidency to become further entrenched by four more years, it is difficult to see how his statist initiatives could ever be removed. When we have realignments, a "new norm" emerges. Just as the new norm following the Lincoln presidency was the end of slavery in America, and the new norm following the Roosevelt presidency was a huge presence of federal intervention, redistribution, and social safety net, the new norm following eight years of Obama-Biden could very well see an irreversible path toward European-style government.
A break with these policies and the success of free-markets, limited government, personal responsibility, and earned success ushered in by a Romney presidency could stem the tide and renew American confidence in its founding principles.
There are indeed two clear, antagonistic paths being offered to the American people in this election. The choice may not just dictate the future of the country for the next few years; it may, in fact, transform the nation for generations to come.
Greg Schaller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado Christian University and a Fellow in Constitutional Government at the Centennial Institute specializing in constitutional government, classical republicanism, and the American Founding. He is currently completing his Ph.D. at Temple University.