DEMOCRATS AND LIBERALS….Amy Sullivan and Jake Rosenfeld, a couple of my favorite bloggers, have an op-ed in Newsday today in which they make the point that Republican claims of a New Deal-like realignment in favor of conservatives are way overblown. They’re right, I think, but there’s another sense in which Republicans are right, so I’d like to add something to their argument that I think frequently gets overlooked in discussions of political dominance: the difference between “Democrats” and “liberals.”

Here’s what Amy and Jake say:

While these aren’t exactly rosy days for Democrats, the comparison of today’s Republican Party to the New Deal coalition is simply absurd. In the 1937-38 Congress, Democrats enjoyed more than a three-to-one advantage in the House of Representatives; today the GOP holds exactly 24 more seats than Democrats….Republicans currently have a three-seat margin in the Senate, a chamber they didn’t even control as recently as one year ago.

It’s true that Democrats enjoyed a margin of control during the 1930s that Republicans today can only dream of: the peak of Democratic power came after the 1936 election, when Democrats and third parties briefly held a whopping 80 Senate seats and 346 House seats.

But there’s a historical gotcha here: 22 of those Senate seats and 102 of the House seats were held by conservative Democrats from the South. So even using the generous assumption that the rest of the Democrats (and independents) were all liberals, which they weren’t, the House and Senate broke down approximately like this:

  • Senate: 58 liberals, 38 conservatives

  • House: 244 liberals, 191 conservatives

And this was only for a brief 2-year period. In 1938 the Republicans gained back a substantial number of seats in both the House and Senate.

The fact is that America has been a center-right country for practically its entire history, and by any reasonable measure of “liberal” and “conservative” there has never been more than a modest majority of liberals in Congress, a fact that was masked for many years by Southern loyalty to the Democratic party. FDR and LBJ managed to ramrod a fair amount of liberal legislation through during the two short periods of the 20th century in which liberals held small majorities, but even then it required help ? FDR did it by taking advantage of the panic brought on by the Depression and LBJ did it by winning some votes from moderate Republicans.

There are a few conclusions to draw from this:

  • In one sense, Republican claims aren’t as absurd as they look. It’s true that today’s Republican majorities are nowhere near the size of the Democratic majorities of the 30s, but today’s conservative majority is only a bit smaller than the liberal majority under FDR.

  • In terms of ideology, America has been a 50-50 nation for a long time. Outside events have prompted small swings of the pendulum ? Watergate in favor of liberals, 9/11 in favor of conservatives ? but not vast sea changes.

  • Although Congress is hardly the place to find lots of radical lefties, it’s also true that there are very few genuinely conservative Democrats left. There may actually be a bigger plurality of solid centrist liberals in Congress today than at any time since World War II.

There’s no question that movement conservatism has been making steady gains for the past 20 years, but I suspect the actual size of the change has been less than it seems. After all, just recently popular sentiment forced a conservative congress to expand Medicare, gay rights continues to make strides, and universal healthcare is once again an allowable topic of polite conversation.

So Amy and Jake are right: today’s swing of the pendulum is one of the normal small shifts, not a conservative revolution. I suspect that with the right leader and a few subtle shifts in rhetoric and emphasis, Democrats ? and liberals ? will have another turn at the plate before long.

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