There is universal agreement, from Karl Rove to Jesse Jackson, that Barack Obama’s 2008 victory is “historic.” The same was said of the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic President in 1960. Obama’s race, like Kennedy’s Catholicism, ensures this contest a special place in the pantheon of American presidential elections. But the historical significance of the 2008 election goes beyond the fact that America has elected its first African-American President. To explore this larger dimension, it is necessary to overcome the widespread tendency to treat an election as a discrete event, with little or no relation to what came before it.
The 2008 contest belongs to a political system stretching back to 1788. More directly, it is part of a political culture that dates not from George W. Bush and the early 2000s, or Bill Clinton and the 1990s, but from Franklin D. Roosevelt and the 1930s.
Before FDR and the New Deal, American politics was defined by a century-old system dominated by boss- and machine-run parties, supported by consistently loyal ethnic and regional voting blocs, and fueled overwhelmingly by patronage and business contributions. This venerable party regime has been gradually transformed by the great events of modern times: the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and, more generally, by the economic, cultural and technological changes of the second half of the 20th century. A new American political culture is now in its full maturity, as Theodore Lowi observed in 1985: “What we now have is an entirely new regime, which deserves to be called the Second Republic of the United States.”
This new regime is populist in ways that earlier American party politics was not. It is true that over the course of the century following the time of Andrew Jackson, the franchise and the content of public policy were widened well beyond what the Founders had in mind. But that is a far cry from today’s populist regime. “Public opinion”, as we like to call it, is filtered through the media, advocacy groups, and public policy experts and think tanks. A burgeoning administrative state of bureaucrats, lawyers and judges have often contentious relationships to the two-party system. And politicians today are much more autonomous than their predecessors, less beholden to their parties when it comes to raising money and conducting campaigns.
These new facts of political life contribute to the insistently ideological tone of modern American politics, a hallmark of all populist regimes. The media, advocacy groups, ideologically driven professionals and autonomous politicians often profit more from polar confrontation than from the give-and-take of political compromise. Political coalitions often trump governing coalitions.
Another distinguishing feature of the current populist regime is the steady growth in the number of voters who say they are independent or weakly partisan. Blacks and Jews are unusual in their consistent Democratic loyalty, but younger voters, Catholics, white Southerners, blue-collar workers and white collar professionals have been all over the political lot in the course of the past 75 years.
The American two-party system, inescapable in a winner-take-all presidential arrangement that requires the largest and most durable possible coalitions, has been engaged for decades in the task of coming to terms with autonomous politicians, an assertive media, clamorous special interests, floating voters and the vicissitudes of technological change. So the question to ask now, if we really want to understand what happened on November 4, 2008, and what it means, is not about skin color or symbolic hues of blue and red. It is this: What place does the election of 2008 occupy in the larger context of American political culture?
Let us look first at the 2008 “election cycle”, as the pros and pundits like to call it: the choice of the candidates, the conduct of the campaign, and its outcome.
The 2008 choices made it clear that party leaders no longer have much voice in candidate selection. If the political pros had gotten their way, Hillary Clinton would have been the Democratic nominee, and John McCain, the bête noire of GOP regulars, would have gotten nowhere near the Republican nomination.
Instead, the candidates emerged from a uniquely long and intense primary season. Harry Truman once dismissed presidential primaries, with their small votes and susceptibility to well-heeled special interests, as “eyewash.” But the 2008 contests witnessed the unprecedented participation of some 35 million voters. Primaries are likely to remain the definitive form of candidate selection. In effect, they have become a set of mini-elections preceding the final runoff—which in itself has become a more extended process, with early voting and absentee ballots. These are likely to remain established features of the mature populist regime.
Continuing the trend of the past half-century, the 2008 conventions were spectacles for a national television audience rather than substantive gatherings of party leaders and constituencies. The Super Bowl-like theatricality of the Democratic show, and the Sarah Palin come-on of the Republican event, boosted their ratings above the rather snoozy norm of past years. Obama’s few and McCain’s complete lack of references to their party identities confirmed that their prime audience—in prime time—was the ever growing segment of the public who don’t identify with either party. Notable, too, was the degree to which the street theater of protest outside, part of the convention spectacle since 1968, was muted. The parties (with the help of the police) appear to be getting the hang of adapting their conventions, like their primaries, to a more populist politics.
Television, which over the course of the last half of the 20th century assumed a major role in presidential politics, appears to be leveling off, or even declining in importance, a victim of new technology and the changing character of electioneering. Television ads and the enormous sums of money needed to buy them still count for plenty. But the Internet has eaten away at television’s primacy, and the televised presidential debates, so consequential in past elections (1960, 1980 and 2000 in particular), were far less so this time.
Television first showed its potential for political demagoguery in 1964, when an ad for Lyndon Johnson’s campaign showed a little girl doing a loves-me-loves-me-not countdown on a daisy, which morphed into a countdown for a nuclear explosion. It was widely condemned as beyond the pale and quickly withdrawn after a single showing. But the Republicans, increasingly beset by a hostile media, later revived the genre. A 1988 ad linking Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis to paroled rapist-murderer Willie Horton was credited with severely damaging Dukakis’s candidacy. Even more firmly ensconced in the pantheon of ultra-successful dirty telegenic tricks are the 2004 Swift Boat commercials questioning John Kerry’s Vietnam War-hero credentials.
Negative television advertising was hardly unknown in 2008. But it was not the issue it had been in previous elections. Perhaps that is because it is hard to judge the impact of advertisements of all kinds. The old advertiser’s lament (“I know that half my ads are effective, but I don’t know which half.”) applies as well to politicking on television.
The “October surprise”, the sudden interjection of a destabilizing story that (it is hoped) decisively favors one side before the other can adequately respond, has become another ubiquitous feature of the populist regime. The phrase first took on a political connotation in the 1988 election, when the Special Investigator of the Iran-Contra affair, Lawrence Walsh, threatened to indict former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for refusing to turn over relevant documents. Late in the 2000 campaign, an attorney with strong Democratic ties revealed that George W. Bush had been charged many years before with driving under the influence of alcohol.
In 2004, the October Surprise franchise moved decisively into the hands of the mainstream media, a product of its growing role as a quasi-independent political force. CBS and the New York Times planned to reveal at an auspicious moment that the U.S. Army had not stopped the looting, some months before, of an Iraqi arms depot with munitions supposedly used as activators for nuclear bombs. The Times (presumably responding to the get-the-scoop impulse so strong in print journalism) prematurely broke the story in September. CBS, duly scooped, dropped it.
CBS tried to get back into the gotcha game in October, when Dan Rather reported on 60 Minutes that a recently unearthed memo suggested that Bush improperly pulled strings to avoid being shipped to Vietnam while serving in the Texas National Guard. But now the Internet, that new player in the politics-of-populism game, upset CBS’s television applecart. Bloggers quickly challenged the authenticity of the memo on which Rather’s charge relied, and the chief casualty turned out to be newsman Rather, not candidate Bush.
Was there an October Surprise in 2008? A front-page New York Times article suddenly spun the tale that John McCain had an adulterous affair with a lobbyist, but that story, published in February, quickly disappeared under the weight of McCain’s vigorous denial and a dearth of corroborating evidence. Instead, the granddaddy of all October Surprises turned out to be the financial crisis, a major factor in the outcome of the 2008 election. This was no act of campaign trickery or media spin. Rather the distressing fact of the crisis left its mark in the form of McCain’s mishandled response and Obama’s impressive one.
Here as elsewhere a more substantive politics appears to be trumping media spin. For all its sound and fury, the 2008 election was not by recent standards a bitter or divisive one. Both McCain and Obama diluted their partisanship with bi- or post-partisan messages. The manifest public desire for a less polarized politics appears finally to be taking hold.
Why Obama Won
By early September, in the wake of the party conventions, no clear electoral trend had yet emerged. Why, then, did Obama win so comfortably on November 4? Because of two developments: the sudden financial crisis and the marked superiority of Obama’s campaign in message, money and organization.
Early expectations were that the 2008 election would focus on the Iraq war and the terrorist threat, McCain’s age, Obama’s race and radical past, and the unresolved problems of immigration, energy and the environment. None of this turned out to be the case.
Obama at first made Iraq the keynote of his campaign. But the success of the surge all but removed it from the election agenda. He skillfully distanced himself from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers (much as Prince Hal, once he became Henry V, discarded the disreputable associates of his youth), thus draining the political juice from his earlier ties to militant black nationalism and white radicalism. Concern over illegal immigration faded, too: not because some illegals went home and fewer new ones crossed the border after the construction industry became depressed, but because the size of the financial crisis sucked the oxygen out of the air. Panic over energy prices also subsided when it became clear, to some anyway, that falling gasoline prices could be as much a product of market forces as rising ones.
Instead, the red-blue cultural divide turned out to be the most persistent issue. Hillary Clinton’s strength among blue-collar voters suggested that Obama could not rely on his three-legged coalition of blacks, college-educated youth and elite liberals. He would have to connect more effectively with the mass of voters who were not black or young or liberal.
McCain had the opposite problem: convincing the conservative-Evangelical GOP base that he was one of them, or at least with them. His major attempt to do so was the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. This produced the first (and the last) outburst of real enthusiasm for his candidacy from GOP conservatives. What Governor Palin did for McCain’s candidacy outside of that group will long be the subject of debate.
It cannot be said that Obama won great enthusiasm from Middle America (though he got sufficient support from it to win). But he brilliantly reassured Hillary Democrats and independents that he had the stature and judgment to be president. McCain, on the other hand, never managed to bridge the gulf between his conservative-evangelical Republican base and his old maverick-independent appeal.
The most surprising outcome of the 2008 election was not that Obama won, but that Republican losses were not even greater than they were. Obama’s 6.5 percent victory margin, twenty House and five or six Senate seats gained by the Democrats, and a voter turnout not notably larger in proportion to the electorate than in 2004, was a solid rebuke to a Republican campaign afflicted by drawbacks almost too numerous to count. But it was not a tidal sweep over it. The tendency to revert to the mean that, except for rare moments of crisis, is the American political norm thus appears to be alive and well.
Money and Media
Money, as every schoolchild once knew, is the mother’s milk of politics. So it was in the days of the party regime, when officeholder kickbacks and corporate and local business contributions financed the system. And so it is in the age of the populist regime, when the costs of campaigning by telephone and television, and of reaching more than 150 million voters, add enormously to outlays: an estimated $2.5 billion in the 2008 presidential campaign.
The long effort to control campaign spending is ever more reminiscent of Prohibition, that previous great effort to empty the sea with a slotted spoon. The costs of the new politics and the inventive new ways of raising money have seen to that. A measure of the speed with which the mechanics of fundraising is changing was the decline in 2008 of what four years before appeared to be the next new thing in American politics: richly endowed PACs and 527s, advocacy groups not subject to McCain-Feingold contribution limits. George Soros’s Americans Coming Together (ACT) and MoveOn.org were major political players in 2004. But Soros closed down ACT after Kerry’s defeat, and was conspicuously inconspicuous in the Obama campaign. MoveOn.org’s hard-left tone and its ill-conceived “General Betray Us” ad led Obama to distance himself from the organization. Both campaigns discouraged donors from giving to 527s, with the result that the money raised by 527s in the 2008 presidential election was about half the 2004 total. And although there was much talk of massive campaign spending by labor unions and advocacy groups, the teachers’ $4 million and even the service employees’ $44 million pale in significance to the billion-plus raised by the Parties’ national and congressional committees and the candidates themselves.
The massive Internet-bundling operation of the Obama campaign and Obama’s backing out of his pledge to accept Federal funding were the new things of 2008. His web-driven fundraising operation embraced 8,000 affinity groups, 50,000 local events, and 3.1 million contributors, an effort that raised almost $700 million. Obama imaginatively called this a form of public finance, even though his joint fundraising committee received more large donations than McCain’s (large defined as more than $25,000 a pop). One may be confident that in future campaigns the Republicans will borrow as heavily from the 2008 Obama innovations as the Democrats did from Karl Rove’s 2004 mobilization of Evangelicals.
As PACs and 527s declined in importance in 2008, attention shifted to the role of the Fourth Estate (the mainstream media of newspapers, news magazines and television) and what might be called the Fifth Estate: the entertainment/celebrity culture of Oprah, Saturday Night Live, the late-night network talk shows, The View, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and especially the blogosphere with its cloud of political and social websites.
Media bias became a conspicuous issue in the campaign. Both Hillary Clinton and McCain made it a major talking point. It reached a crescendo with the gloves-off media assault on Sarah Palin, in sharp contrast to the gloves-on treatment of John Edwards’s sexual mishaps and Joe Biden’s gaffe-rigged candidacy. In good postmodernist fashion, the media had become its own story.
It was said that in 2008 the “netroots” era replaced the “network” era, much as in the second half of the 20th century Boss Tube (television) replaced Boss Tweed (party machines). A vivid symbol of this development was the “Big Tent” at the Denver Democratic convention. An 8,000-square-foot, two-story structure with space for 500 bloggers was erected next to the convention hall. Daily Kos and Google footed the bill: an emblematic marriage of “progressive” politics and the new technology. Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, has been the most politically ambitious voice in the progressive blogosphere. But his declaration that “we really are taking over the party” turned out to be as outsized as Soros’s quest to be a major player in 2004. Their ambition seems no more realistic than the expectations of the wraithlike players like Ralph Nader who inhabit the never-never land of third-party politics.
No doubt Obama benefited from the strong bias in his favor in the mainstream media, the Hollywood/television entertainment industry and the blogosphere. But how much did he benefit? It is doubtful that a more even-handed atmosphere would have significantly lessened his personal and message appeal, the national desire for change and the impact of the financial meltdown. It was Obama’s organization, not the blogosphere, that controlled the campaign. His has been called the “first true 21st-century campaign” in terms of its organization, fundraising and voter mobilization. It’s true.
The Next Outreach
Are there analogues from the past that can enrich our sense of the 2008 contest’s significance? Perhaps the most evocative election to look to is that of 1932. FDR’s victory, like Obama’s, was not so much a popular vote for a (then-undisclosed) New Deal as it was a rebuke to an unpopular President and a deeply troubled economy. By the 1936 election, however, most of the New Deal was in place, and FDR’s personal popularity had reshaped the political landscape. Roosevelt’s initial achievement lay not in the restoration of prosperity, but in bringing a new sense of inclusion to vast swathes of previously marginalized Americans: Catholics, Jews, blacks, industrial workers, Southern farmers and Western entrepreneurs. In 1936, many counties swung back to their ancestral Party, the GOP. But FDR’s gains in the cities and among these newly energized groups overwhelmed that reversion.
Does Obama confront a comparable prospect? He may be expected to build upon the enthusiasm that his election unleashed among blacks and Hispanics, the college young and the professional classes. The spontaneous demonstrations in Times Square and elsewhere after his election testify to the fact that he has a personal draw not seen since JFK.
But Obama’s coalition-building efforts may also reach well beyond his core to the large, growing population in the suburbs and exurbs, especially in the South and West. There is much more to suburban, moderate, mainstream, 21st-century America than today’s progressives can appeal to, just as urban-Catholic-working-class America was immune to the socialist-communist message of the 1930s. The new voting frontier is a large, growing, diverse constituency, comparable in size to the industrial workers and ethnic-religious minorities that FDR’s New Deal so effectively tapped. Bush in 2004 won 97 of the hundred fastest-growing counties; Obama in 2008 won only 15 of them. There is far to go, and there is much to reap.
Just as FDR effectively used the old city Democratic machines to craft his urban backbone, so can Obama build on 21st-century successors with large mobilization potential such as Internet-based discussion and social groups (MySpace, YouTube, Facebook) and political websites. Progressive/liberal and conservative issues have less resonance in suburban and exurban America than do the security of white collar and high-tech jobs, the costs of college, and the moral state of the society. The challenge for Obama is to speak to those concerns as effectively as FDR spoke to the yearnings of Depression-battered farmers, workers, new immigrants and their children. If he heads in this direction, Obama will eschew the Left turn that his ideologically minded supporters hope for, and will instead find himself engaging in a delicate political balancing act. Embracing the suburbs and exurbs, the progressive blogosphere and urban blacks all at the same time will be no easier than FDR’s juggling of old Democrats and New Dealers. But the payoff for success could be huge.
All of this is steeped in supposition. At this point, the course of events and Obama’s response to them can only be conjectured. But whether he crafts a New Deal-like political coalition with real staying power or runs aground trying to govern from the Left in what is without doubt a moderate-conservative country, the fact that he is where he is ensures that 2008, in its own special way, will remain an election in history.