NEW YORK, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Last year I wrote that realignments of American politics come with astonishing regularity -- 36 years apart: 1824, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1968 -- and it was an obvious point that the next realignment should be expected in 2004.
Naturally, the dramatic events of Sept. 11, 2001, were so overwhelming that it might be thought that they would precipitate a new political system. The answer, so far, is that they have changed everything in America EXCEPT its politics.
How can that be? The incumbent president has popularity ratings of 86 percent. And
his party has gained in generic identification questions -- going from trailing by an average deficit of 47 percent to 37 percent in the months preceding Sept. 11 to trailing by just 44 percent to 45 percent today. Doesn't that mean something?
While many later presidents have aspired to be Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Kennedy or one of the Roosevelts, it is safe to say that none before has aspired to be the new McKinley.
What did Rove mean by such an aspiration? What he is focusing on is that McKinley is one of the six presidents who opened up a realignment of American politics in which their party and their philosophy, became dominant: Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Nixon are the other five.
But is George Bush's presidency really the first in a new system? So far, the evidence is no. Temporally, of course, the Bush administration turns out not to coincide with that of McKinley, but of the presidents who preceded realignment: Monroe, Buchanan, Cleveland, Hoover, and Johnson.
Nor does the election of 2000 or the policies followed afterward show any sign of realignment. Realignment elections or cycles feature major reshuffles of party alignments, the predominance of new issues, and a new political agenda.
So far from the election of 2000 being something new, it was something drearily old; so far from Bush presenting a new agenda, his agenda bears the same relationship to that of Reagan's in 1981 as LBJ's did to FDR's -- it is the uncompleted items of an old agenda.
More important, it is the very bipartisan UNITY of the United States in this conflict which shows that this is not a realignment.
Realignments come from newly bitter divisions among the American people, and in times when those divisions precipitate millions of people to leave their previous partisan moorings.
The stolidity of the old partisan alignment, both in Congress and in the country, remains unmoved. Jim Jeffords' party switch is not new, but a trailing indicator of the sectionally driven party switches typical of the realignment of the recent decades -- which moved Southern Democrats such as Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond into the Republican Party and Northern Republicans like Wayne Morse into the Democratic Party.
The events of 2001 have shown no sign of moving either party off its base. The present political alignment has two important bases of stability -- and one of fluidity, which acts, ironically, to reinforce the stability.
The solidity comes from the solidity of the interest groups and ideological groups supporting the two parties. So solid are their ranks that analyses of congressional voting show that hit as become almost one-dimensional -- just about every member of Congress can be placed on a single left-right line which encompasses ALL the issues of the day.
The news media, by policing the lines of what they call "moderation" so closely, also help freeze existing political alignments. Their "moderation" simply reflects a media consensus supporting what might be called "free-trade multiculturalism." In the shorthand of modern politics, that means the media are left on social issues, right on economic issues.
In the old days the parties of the left used economic issues while the parties of the right used social issues. Today, the media reinforce the social issue division, which favors the right, while being solidly right on just about any economic issue. But their position on the social issue divide is liberal. The ironic result of this position is that it reinforces the even
split in the polity.
Meanwhile, the saving grace of fluidity which preserves the present alignment comes from the political consultants, who, endlessly polling, can keep incumbent politicians from falling into the errors of such past presidents as James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson, who allowed their policies to drift too far from the views of the people. The job of the consultants is to mask the real service of presidents to the core interest groups of their party with fake gestures to the center of the electorate. Absent an overriding crisis, these gestures usually suffice.
This means that most of the service to interest groups takes place "off-stage," in administrative decisions such as Gale Norton's recent permission for snowmobiles to use national parks, or in the alternating decisions on labor law, depending upon which party is in power. But the fact that one administration carried on affirmative action policies by stealth and the next anti-environmental decisions by stealth is unlikely to change the
minds of most voters.
The biggest issue dividing the two parties last year, whether the top tax rate should be 35 percent or 39.6 percent, is not the stuff of which realignments are made. In the end, the average voter is not going to change his or her position or party on the question of whether government should collect a point more or less of gross national product.
Realignment has come, most often, with major economic depressions, such as those of 1929, 1893, 1857 and 1819, or with wars and social struggles, which divide the American people, such as the combination of civil rights and Vietnam in 1968.
If 2002 turned out to be a depression instead of a recession, or if the continuation of the struggle against terrorism became a disputed issue at home, then realignment might come.
But so far, the two parties stand, unmoved, in positions barely distinguishable from the ones they held on 9/10/01. The calendar "predicts" change, but so far reality has refused to budge.