Did the 1994 Elections Bring on a Political Realignment?
Peter W. Schramm
December 19, 1994
This is the 1994 victory: we won the House, the Senate, and now have the majority of the governorships, and picked up l5 state legislative chambers (giving the GOP 47, the Dems 49, with 2 split + Nebraska); and of the l77 GOP incumbent Governors, Senators and House members, all were re-elected. It is no wonder that even the liberal media is asking whether or not this election was “the Big One” a seismic national shift to the Republican Party. Was this the realigning election everyone has been talking about since at least l968?
When this question had been posed in l968 or in l980 the answer was no because although the Republicans were dominating presidential elections, and had won the Senate for a brief period, they were unable to make any inroads in the House (and not many inroads in state and local elections). These incomplete electoral victories were a manifestation of a deeper problem. In the past, the GOP was not able to articulate a sufficient cause for realignment and, therefore, was not able form a new long term majority that would indicate a realignment had transpired (to realign means to both put something in a straight line and to take sides). In American politics, a realignment means that the voters take or switch sides in order to put the country back into alignment with its fundamental principles, or at least with what they regard as its fundamental principles. Were the Republican gains in the l994 elections of such a magnitude that Newt Gingrich is jus
tified in saying that there has been “a decisive shift in American politics” a decisive shift toward the restoration of an idea of limited government?
Each period of realignment in American politics began with a “critical election” (in both l860 and l932, for example). In these
years, the voters were presented with a real choice on a critical issue that transcended the
normal party lines or coalitions. These were periods represented by a crisis in values, where the
fraying of what had been thought of as the common culture had become obvious. In the l850s, the
polarizing issue was the extension of slavery, and in the l930s, it was the extension of the power and
size of the federal government. It was the beginning of what Margaret Thatcher calls the
“Nanny State.” This bureaucratic welfare state tried to do more than establish the
conditions of happiness; rather, it tried to get government to provide happiness itself to the people
by redistributing their wealth.
In each of these critical elections, the public was faced with
a clear alternative between divergent views of what America was as a nation, of the Constitution as
the frame of government for that nation, and of the principles by which that nation would be
governed. Ordinary partisanship was temporarily replaced by grand partisanship a
partisanship that shaped public opinion in the most profound way. Therefore, legislation based on
public opinion was made possible. As a result, in each case, an enduring majority party was
formed that dominated American politics for at least two generations.
historically has maintained over long periods of time a majority and minority party. This is a two-party system that does not alternate victories, but keeps a dominant majority and a long suffering
minority in national politics. (This has a great moderating effect on political life.) After a
realignment, the minority party, in order to survive, has to speak in terms that are defined by the new
majority. The new majority defines what the center of American politics is, and then all political
battles are fights for, and within, this center.
The Democrat realignment of the l930s did
this, and that is why the GOP has seemed, for two generations, the “me-too” party. The
Republican Party did not, until recently, question the very core of the New Deal regime and its
completion with the implementation of the Great Society programs. Instead, the Democrats had set
the terms of the debate, and the GOP had been content with having the same purposes. The parties
differed only on how those ends would be carried out, the Republicans arguing that they could run
the bureaucratic welfare state more efficiently.
How were these new majorities formed during
these critical elections, during these periods of realignment? In the l932/36 critical election cycle, for
example, the Democrats gave a positive argument for being a Democrat; hence, many
independents and Republicans were persuaded to become Democrats. Franklin D. Roosevelt
had made it clear that he was reconstituting the Democratic Party along new and progressive lines. The
new principles for his party were comprehensive and intentionally divisive principles to which
public loyalty could attach itself. FDR was a grand partisan; he intentionally polarized the
country. He made it clear that voters were faced with a fundamental choice between what he called
democracy and oligarchy a choice between the true principles of l776 (as he saw it) and that of the
“Tories” (or the traitors to those principles the GOP). Roosevelt contended that the
Republican Party had become the enemy of liberty. FDR argued that it was the purpose of the federal
government to insure a certain level of security for the American people, else they could not remain free.
He re-interpreted our understanding of equality and liberty. He argued that limited, Constitutional
government could not cope with the crisis at hand and therefore needed to be replaced. FDR was
successful both electorally and intellectually, and he was able to weld a new and enduring majority. We
have been living under this realignment and have been speaking the language of the New Deal the
language of liberalism for two generations.
Now, every critical election is about the same
issue (although wrapped in a different setting) the issue being the capability of a free people to
govern themselves in accordance with the proposition “that all men are created equal.” So
every critical election is an authoritative pronouncement on this great question of self-government,
deciding what the grounds of political consensus for the next generation or two will be. Every
critical election re-opens the question of justice that animated the American Revolution the relationship
between equality and liberty. In other words, the original questions to which the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution addressed themselves are given new life: What is the purpose of
government? What is the relationship between government and society? What is the relationship
between government and the individual?
Although it is beyond doubt that in l994 the GOP
won a spectacular electoral victory, it is incomplete. In order for the electoral victory to be finished
by l996, the Republican Party has to continue its intellectual victories. The GOP has to retain control
of not only Congress and take back the presidency, but we have to continue to our philosophical attack
on the unjust principles of liberalism and persuade people to become Republicans. Then the meaning
of these victories will be absolutely clear: The GOP will have built a majority that endures.
The clearest electoral sign of the coming realignment is that the Republicans won the House
of Representatives. This is significant because in the past presidential victories, the GOP could make
no serious inroads on the Democrats’ domination of the House. Why? Because under the New
Deal/Great Society dispensation, the House could ignore national public opinion. This is just as Franklin
Roosevelt had intended it. The New Deal Liberals wanted to have a realignment that would be the
political realignment to end realignments. They thought they could do it because they would make
Representatives nothing but administrators of the bureaucratic welfare state, and as such, individual
citizens would find it almost impossible to vote against them.
Members of the House were
supposed to act as if they were bureaucrats whose sole purpose in the Welfare State was to provide
services and programs and money for the people by administering the huge federal apparatus.
Representatives acted like auctioneers encouraging squalid competition between beneficiaries of rival
entitlement programs. Since they were acting in the “interests” of their constituents, and
because they had been telling the citizens since the l930s that this is what representatives in a democracy
were supposed to do, well over 90% were regularly re-elected.
By l994, the people were
suspecting that this is not what political life in a Constitutional Republic should be like, that this is not
what Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist called “deliberation and choice,” and,
therefore, the Republican Party was able to “nationalize” the elections. The Democrat
argument that “all politics is local” (i.e., not based on principle but on interest) had become
less persuasive. The Democrats made a strategic mistake by attacking the GOP Contract. In doing so,
they helped make the election one between differing philosophies of government. The Republican
principles proved more persuasive; people actually voted against their “interests” because
they came to see that their “interests” had become unjust. If the Republican Party
does things right in the immediate future, the House can never again ignore national public opinion.
And this means that the “Nanny State” is finished. This is the beginning of the
The Republicans have done a very good job in this election, but they need to do two more
things between now and l996, and it looks like they are doing both. On the one hand, they need to act
as they said they would. They must begin to dismantle the New Deal/Great Society programs that have
had such a detrimental effect on the character of the people and have been so costly. They must begin
cutting back the size of government. They must do this not only around the edges, but go for
the core. They must gut the size and power of the federal government.
Certainly they must
also lower taxes, not just by giving breaks for families with children (although God knows parents could
use it), but by lowering the rates of taxation. They should probably go to a flat tax, thereby killing
forever the progressive income tax, the greatest source of the redistributive power of the federal
government. They must do this because such a system of taxation is unjust, and by fighting for lower
taxation, we are fighting against the growth of the centralized bureaucratic Welfare State.
the other hand, the Republicans must also continue to talk persuasively about these matters to
the American people. They must explain what they are doing and why, and ask the citizens to take
sides. The Republicans must become grand partisans. They must argue on the basis of
principle, as partisans of Constitutional Government. We must do this without apologies, even if the
Liberal press doesn’t understand what we are doing or doesn’t like it. They must do this with confidence
and self-assurance, with what James Madison called manly eloquence. The people are ready to be
persuaded. Their opinions about these fundamental matters have been changing over the years (partly
due to GOP efforts, partly due to the lifeless ideology of liberalism as well as Democrat Party
The great task of statesmanship now is to persuade the citizens that the
principles of the New Deal/Great Society are deeply flawed and detrimental to self-government.
Republicans must make it clear that their opposition to the Democrat past is based on more than the fact
that these programs cost too much, are inefficiently run, and are bankrupting the country (although these
things are true). Republicans must argue that these programs are unjust and that the American
people are made less independent, less able to govern themselves, and less free under the New
Deal/Great Society regime. Republicans have to argue that the purpose of government is to secure
freedom and opportunity and not security and entitlements, and that nothing less than the character of
the citizens and the character of the nation is at stake.
Republicans have to articulate their
position on, and their understanding of, self-government and explain why it is in accord with the
principles of l776 and the Constitutional framework of l787. Republicans have to make the case for
limited, Constitutional government; they have to contend what once was obvious: that men can take
care of themselves. And they are going to have to do this in all other realms, including the
categorization of citizens on the basis of race and ethnicity, which will likely be the next big
philosophical and political rumble. And in doing these things we should not hesitate to be
divisive. The Republicans have to clarify and intensify the divisions
between themselves and Democrats. It is critical that during this time of crisis we speak with the
utmost clarity and without compromising the things for which we stand. The Republicans have to
ask citizens to move in a straight line and take sides. They have to make positive
arguments for becoming Republicans and make it clear that they are reconstituting the Republican
Party along new conservative lines. If they don’t do this, they will not be able to build the new
grounds for a political consensus the grounds for the new majority.
The Bush loss in l992
is the most recent example of what happens when a party, although in a position to form public
opinion, abnegates its responsibilities. It does so either because it doesn’t have any principles or
vision, or because its leaders are cowards. The effect is that the Democrat Clinton was elected
President without having formed a majority electorally. Lacking the grounds of political
consensus, even though his Party controls Congress, he still cannot govern. Also, a fifth of the
people had become alienated and supported Ross Perot, a third party candidate.
If it turns
out that the GOP is not successful in shaping public opinion between now and l996, our country will
suffer, and our party will not be able to become the majority party. Since the Democrat Party is
intellectually insipid, it will not be able to regain the majority. What is most likely to happen is that
a number of new parties will be formed from the two old, and for many years the country will have
to live in a chaotic political universe in which there will be no true governing majority. This is
dangerous and unprecedented. Various forms of extremism are likely to prosper and the two party
system will be imperiled.
The Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, is the only
party that can prevent this. The Republican Party is the only party that is in a position, both
intellectually and electorally, to form the new majority. Our principles must be firm and
uncompromising, and we must not be seduced by the call for “bipartisanship” on the part
of our political enemies. Certainly we can cooperate on some things, as long as the Democrat Party
understands that they are now playing in the political universe we created as long as they
understand that they now have to become the “me too” party. We are re-writing
the definition of bi-partisanship. (And if the press will not understand this, then the people will
altogether stop listening to Dan Rather and his ilk and listen to alternative news sources like Rush
Limbaugh and C-SPAN.) We should no longer be in the re-action mode. Let them re-act to our
purposes. We are the ones who have been victorious both intellectually and electorally. We have
nothing to apologize for. The sound sense of the American people is with us. We must not give up
our position of leadership.
The Republican Party’s duty is to the eternal principles of
liberty and equality of opportunity; of limited Constitutional Government supported by the common
sense of the American people. If we continue to persuade the citizens to move in a straight
line and take sides, of being divisive on matters of principle, not only will the
Republican Party prosper, but we will have done much good for the country. In his last public
address, Abraham Lincoln reminded the country that “important principles may and must be
inflexible,” and we must continually remind ourselves, and those Republican Representatives
who may not fully understand it, of this.
We have the opportunity after two generations in
the political wilderness to become the majority and realign the country. Our interests as
Republicans, our duty as citizens, and our honor as men, demand that we take it. We must stay