Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Buzz on Critical Elections and Obama

When a remarkable presidential candidate emerges talking about "change," people start speculating about a "critical election" and "re-alignment." The theory of critical elections was developed by Walter Dean Burnham and you can read about it here. (Yes, you do the work.)

In "Our Robed Rulers," James Stoner's review of Keith Whittington's Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy: The Presidency, the Supreme Court and Constitutional Leadership in U.S. History in the Claremont Review of Books, Stoner mentions critical elections but neither of the candidates by name. Presidents are either reconstructive, affiliated or pre-emptive. This theory began with Stephen Shrowronek's The Politics Presidents Make (1993) and Whittington refines it. The reconstructive ones are transformative leaders, like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and FDR "who changed the terms of political debate, modified the structure of the state and its activities, and, yes, realigned the people's partisan identification." The affiliated ones follow the reconstructive ones and perpetuate their changes. George Bush relative to Ronald Reagan. The preemptive ones, like Eisenhower and Clinton, merely interrupt but do not fundamentally challenge the "regime" established by the reconstructive predecessor. And he applies all of this to the struggle since the Founding between the judicial supremacists (Federalist, Daniel Webster, Stephen Douglas) and departmentalists (Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln) in American jurisprudence.

The day after reading this is in the CRB, I was treated to John Steele Gordon's thoughts on critical elections in his Wall Street Journal essay, "2008: A Watershed Election?" (July 10, 2008).

Is the 2008 election likely to be a repeat of 1932 and 1980, remaking the political landscape in the process? That's unlikely. For one thing, while the incumbent is unpopular, he is not running. And the economy, while certainly dicey right now, is a long way from the desperate problems of 1932 or the very serious ones of 1980.

Gordon finds parallels with 1896, an election that does not come up even in learned conversation as often as, say, 1960 or 1980. That was William McKinley (R) versus William Jennings Bryan (D).
McKinley too was a genuine war hero (distinguished service in the Civil War) who then entered politics. He served several terms in the House and became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. In 1891 he was elected governor of Ohio. His opponent's political résumé was a lot thinner, with only two back-bencher terms in the House. But at the Democratic convention of 1896, Bryan electrified the crowd with his "Cross of Gold" speech. It instantly became an American classic and propelled him to the nomination at just 36 years old, by far the youngest man ever nominated by a major party. Like Mr. Obama, Bryan promised a new politics aimed to benefit the common man, not the capitalists.

Of course, young William Jennings Bryan lost to old McKinley who convinced America of the value that experience brings and that the young fire brand would ruin the economy. And, of course, Obama is Bryan and Ole John McCain is McKinley (who, if this is true, should stay out of Buffalo).

Read the whole article. (I know when you don't follow the links. I have secret ways of seeing these things.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

David, this is very interesting--I think the Shrowronek book is the best thing I read in grad school on the presidency. I'll be sure to follow up the other pieces you mention. Good post