We shouldn't be too hard on Carville. It wasn’t that long ago that Karl Rove was rattling on about a generation of Republican electoral dominance and conservative ideological hegemony after the elections in 2004. Political strategists on both sides of the partisan barricades seem to be prone to same mistake because they’re enthralled by forty-year-old political science. They can’t help expecting our politics to unfold through periods of relative stability punctuated by cataclysmic “political realignments.”“On ABC’s Good Morning America yesterday, the Democratic political strategist James Carville — in commenting on this devastating (for the Democrats) Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll — said that it is “absolutely possible” that the Democrats could lose control of Congress, and, if the election were held today, they almost certainly would. That is by now a commonplace belief.
“Carville’s admission is quite a contrast to what he was saying just last year. ‘Today,’ he proclaimed, ‘a Democratic majority is emerging, and it’s my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next 40 years.’ Carville even wrote a book on the topic: 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.”
The elections in 1896 and 1932 are their benchmarks because they signaled the emergence of a governing party that would set the terms of political debate for over a generation until the political system suffered an exogenous shock like the Great Depression. Rove and other conservatives thought that, together, 9/11 and the insolvency of Social Security and Medicare were enough of a shock to push the system toward a new Republican-dominated equilibrium. Carville thought that the economic meltdown in 2008 would do the same thing for liberal Democrats. In view of how silly they both look now, maybe it’s time we stopped holding our breath in anticipation of the next realigning election.
Owing to the proliferation, increased efficiency and decentralization of communication media, the costs of organizing political constituencies is dropping precipitously. That makes it a lot easier than it used to be for political insurgencies to undermine not only intra-party establishments (look what Obama did to the Clintons and the Tea Partiers are doing to the RNC), but the inter-party status quo by pushing an agenda that divides their opponent's electoral coalition and attracts independents. Under the circumstances, no political victory is likely to be very durable because every political action powerful enough to tip the partisan balance in the next election is likely to excite a political reaction of similar magnitude in the election after that.
Rove’s vision of a governing coalition built on low taxes, social conservatism and neo-conservative foreign policy was already being undermined in the summer of 2003 by a Democratic insurgency that came out of nowhere to support Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy. In the space of three short years, anti-war Democrats showed that they’d taken possession of their party by denying Joe Lieberman the senatorial nomination because of his position on the war. When the Republicans lost control of both houses of congress in an election that was a referendum on the war any hope of a Republican governing coalition was long gone.
Now it looks like the Tea Partiers are returning the favor, and dashing Carville’s hopes in the process. Get used to it.