Electoral Fault Lines and the Future of Conservatism

In Dissent, David Plotke maps the political terrain and assesses the chances of a Democratic victory in 2006 and 2008.

In the present phase of U.S. national politics, going back to 1968, conservative Republicans have normally won presidential elections. Democratic failures have been paired with occasional victories for centrist candidates whose administrations have not produced wonderful results. Thus it makes sense that the debate between centrist and leftist opposition strategies goes on and on, as it will from now through the autumn of 2008. One way to make debate between “centrist” and “leftist” forms of opposition to the Republicans less costly would be to produce attractive and plausible new programs that address widely perceived failures of Republican governance. Unfortunately, there is not much sign of such innovation in or near the Democratic Party—this notable absence will doubtless strengthen the case that the centrist course is the sensible way to proceed. Those who are uncomfortable with a centrist approach are obliged not just to register the intensity of their opposition to Bush. They need to articulate new perspectives and programs that do not reinforce the pro-Republican logic of so many recent policy debates, with the public concluding that low taxes and high but unequal growth are better than ill-conceived and expensive programs that require big tax increases and might jeopardize growth. Such innovation is a key part of focusing debate in ways that are strategically advantageous; it benefits Democrats if the legitimate desire to focus on social policy and severe inequalities accompanies interesting proposals about what to do next, rather than relying mainly on a (legitimate) moral critique of Republican policies.

The durable political shift that analysts debated in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s really did happen, though not in the form of a New Deal–style political realignment. The prevalent Republican framework is badly worn, and the damage is due in large part to the rigidity and misjudgments of the Bush administration. Thus Democratic electoral prospects are very good in 2006 and at least decent in 2008.