Professor of History Daniel Singal wrote about the presidency of Barack Obama and how the election of 2008 was what historians call a “critical election.” A version of his article ran in the Democrat and Chronicle on May 2, on the event of the President’s first 100 days.
“In the early 1980s, I began predicting to my classes at Hobart and William Smith Colleges that, in the initial decade of the 21st century, the United States would experience what is known as a ‘critical election’ that would fundamentally transform U.S. politics,” writes Singal. “Now that the Obama administration has completed its first 100 days, it looks like that prediction was spot-on.”
He goes on to explain critical elections and predictions that can be made based upon the election of 2008.
The full article from which the D&C piece was derived appears below.
In First 100 Days, Obama’s Appears to be Transformative Presidency
In the early 1980s, I began predicting to my classes at Hobart and William Smith Colleges that, in the initial decade of the 21st century, the United States would experience what is known as a “critical election” that would fundamen¬tally transform U.S. politics. Now that the Obama administration has completed its first 100 days, it looks like that predic¬tion was spot-on.
I’m not clairvoyant; what enabled me to foresee the future was the fact that our Presidential elections run on a regular cycle, typically lasting 36 years. It begins with a critical election in which major groups significantly change their voting behavior. Previous such elec¬tions occurred in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932 and 1968.
In the critical election of 1968, for example, south¬erners and much of the white working class broke off from their tradi¬tional home in the Democratic Party and started voting Republi¬can. That gave the GOP an electoral majority, initi¬ating a Republican era that lasted until 2008 (four years longer than usual because the resignation of President Richard Nixon threw it off stride).
The party that wins a critical election is able to form a majority coalition of voters that will last for a generation. It will win six of the next eight Presidential elections, enabling it to control the nation’s political agenda for the remainder of the cycle.
The party that loses is con¬signed to the political wilder¬ness in order to rebuild itself. Its conso-lation prize is that it gets to win the White House twice during the cycle, al¬though as the minority party its ability to effect change is limited.
Not surprisingly, critical elections usually take place during times of war or severe economic downturn. In 2008, we had both.
There was also realignment in 2008. Younger voters and Hispan¬ics — both swing groups until now — cast their ballots for Obama by a two-to-one margin. Even more impor¬tant was the shift of Indepen¬dents and moderate Republicans in subur¬ban districts. The suburbs have been a mainstay for the GOP since the late 19th century. In 2008, however, they tended to vote Democratic across the coun¬try.
A criti¬cal election is invariably followed by a trans¬forma¬tive Presidency. Obama, it is now clear, intends to aggres¬sively address problems like health care, energy and education that have been stalemat¬ed for decades. Having a solid majority coalition behind him will likely ensure his success — which in turn will further strengthen his majori¬ty coali¬tion.
That means a pretty grim scenario for Republicans for a while, but also the prospect that the Democrats will in time become arrogant and corrupted by power as the cycle nears its end. The year 2044 should be the GOP’s comeback year. There’s no guaran¬tee of that, but given the pattern one finds in our history it’s probably another good prediction.
Singal is a professor of history, Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, Ontario County.