The term “political realignment” is perhaps thrown around too liberally (no pun intended) by commentators always looking to emphasize the historic nature of whatever election just happened. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was considered by many to be a realigning election, as he not only put together a new coalition of young people, African Americans, college educated liberals, etc. but also managed to win red states like Indiana, Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina. Of course, in retrospect, Obama’s victories don’t seem like a realignment at all but simply part of the standard post-Cold-War back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. It may have seemed significant that over the course of the Obama years, states like Colorado and Virginia, after voting for George W. Bush twice, became dependably blue (both voted for Obama twice and both voted for Hillary Clinton) — but as Donald Trump’s 2016 victory made clear, this change hardly mattered. If anything, the 2016 election demonstrated a different kind of possible realignment, as Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin voted Republican for the first time since 1988 (1984 in Wisconsin’s case), suggesting that Trump’s appeal to the white working class, however disingenuous, may have shifted voters away from the Democratic party.
Of course, it’s possible (and based on head to head polls, very likely) that in 2020 some Democrat will become President and Trump winning Michigan and Wisconsin will feel less like a realignment and more like an anomaly, much like Obama winning Indiana or North Carolina. But how do we know? How can we differentiate genuine political realignment, a real shift of voters from one party to another, from people simply choosing the more charismatic politician for that particular election? (I know it’s weird to say that a racist and misogynistic reality T.V. star who could barely string together a complete sentence was charismatic, but to enough of America, he sadly was.) Well, as I’ve argued in my previous pieces, to do this we need to go back and look at the narratives and the history.
Political realignments can sometimes happen with a single election, often when there’s some major issue or event at stake — in 1860, rising tensions in the debate over slavey helped propel Lincoln and the relatively new anti-slavery Republican party to political power, while in 1932, FDR and the Democrats won in a landslide that was clearly a response to the 1929 Stock Market Crash and subsequent Great Depression. But realignments can also unfold over the course of several election cycles —for example, the South was solidly Democrat as far back as the Civil War, but after the passage of Civil Rights legislation by the Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson in the early 1960s, voters in Southern states shifted towards the Republican Party, not all at once, but gradually, over the course of a few election cycles, helped along by politicians like Barry Goldwater, who openly opposed the Civil Rights Movement when he unsuccessfully ran for President in 1964, and Richard Nixon, who made coded appeals to white conservatives in his successful 1968 campaign. Eventually, in the 1980 election, the South voted almost entirely for Ronald Reagan (the one exception was Georgia, but that was only because incumbent President Jimmy Carter was from there), and since then it’s remained almost entirely Republican (Bill Clinton, being a moderate from Arkansas, managed to win a few southern states, but that was partly due to businessman Ross Perot running a strong third party candidacy that hurt incumbent George H. W. Bush).
And yet — what looks in retrospect like a clear realignment of the South from Democrats to Republicans might not have been so obvious in the moment. Because Clinton won several Southern states (Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia), it was possible that in 1992 some pundits believed the South might be brought back into the Democratic Party fold and that its shift to the Republicans in the 1980s was only temporary. Of course, from our vantage point in 2019, it’s obvious that Clinton winning those Southern states was the anomaly and not Reagan winning them in 1980 — and there’s a clear narrative to help us make sense of this, conservative whites in the South reacting against the Civil Rights movement, fueled by Reagan’s moral appeal to religious conservatism and a broader backlash to the big government liberalism and counterculture of the 1960s. But this narrative, like most narratives, only becomes obvious when we have the benefit of historical hindsight. Seeing such a narrative in the moment takes a greater level of insight than most political pundits have.
And so, it’s perhaps unclear which narrative of realignment, Obama’s victory in 2008 or Trump’s victory in 2016, will end up being a more accurate description of our current political moment. Was Obama winning a state like Indiana in 2008 an anomaly, or was the anomaly Trump winning a state like Michigan in 2016? The truth is, of course, that the 2020 election will help us decide: if Trump wins again, and especially if he wins Michigan and Wisconsin again, then political historians will have to acknowledge that Trump’s election in 2016 represented a major realignment, and the narrative explanation will likely be that white working class voters in Midwestern towns devastated by neoliberal trade deals like NAFTA grew resentful of the Democrats and shifted their allegiance to a man, charlatan though he may be, who held out to them a vague promise of economic recovery.
Of course, if Trump loses, and the Democrats win back Michigan and Wisconsin as well as traditional swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and also hold onto Colorado and Virginia (which they almost certainly will) and maybe even win North Carolina again (and possibly Arizona and Georgia and even Texas), then a different narrative of realignment might emerge, one in which Trump’s victories are the anomaly, a brief backlash to a greater demographic shift in America, in which non-white voters and women and millennials have permanently changed the electoral map. In such a scenario, Obama’s coalition in 2008 would in hindsight seem like a harbinger of future change rather than just a failed promise, which is what it feels like now in the wake of the Democrats’ defeat in 2016.
But this then means that the Democrats need to nominate the right person in 2020 — someone who is capable of capitalizing on the promise of realignment Obama began. Hillary Clinton was not only too moderate to galvanize Obama’s coalition, her commitment to certain neoliberal policies also lost her the Rust Belt (also, she never actually went to Michigan and Wisconsin during the campaign, which in retrospect was probably a poor decision). And so, if Democrats want to rewrite the narrative of realignment, they need a candidate who will not only energize millennials and get them to turn out, but who will also appeal to those white working class voters in the Midwest who turned to Trump. And as far as I can see, there’s really only one candidate who appeals to both those groups — a candidate whose message of economic populism not only speaks to the needs of the working class in the post-industrial Midwest, but one who also polls extraordinarily well with young people and who in 2016 won more young voters than Clinton and Trump combined.