Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Catalytic Events and American Political History--The Fall of the Berlin Wall

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and thus the march toward the end of the Cold War. In the subsequent two years, the various Iron Curtain countries underwent dramatic transformations as the Soviet Empire crumbled. The Europe of today--a unified Germany and an expanding European Union is vastly different from the one that developed in the aftermath of World War II. Its indisputable that the Cold War affected American politics and elections. While there is debate among scholars about how much foreign policy shapes individuals' voting decisions, there is no doubt that many of the events of the era created the context in which our elections were conducted. Primary among these would be the Red Scare and McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and the Iran Hostage Crisis (also having an anniversary).

It has usually been assumed that, in partisan terms, the Cold War benefitted the Republican Party. For example, in the eleven presidential elections conducted between 1948 and 1988, the GOP won 7 garnering an average of 51% of the popular vote. In the five presidential elections since, they've won only two (including 2000 in which Al Gore won the most popular votes) and have seen their average popular vote total drop to 44.5%.

I haven't done any postings on last week's elections because, to be honest, I don't think there's a whole lot that can be gleaned from them. While most media outlets have been suggesting that the GOP pick-ups in Virginia and New Jersey are a sign of resurgence and should offer a warning to Democratic members of Congress, it seems to me that both races are an indication that governors, in particular, are being hurt by the tough economy. Hypothetically, if last week had seen two Republican Governors up for re-election (say Schwarzenegger and Pawlenty, perhaps), would they have won? Both have approval ratings right now that are less than stellar. If they'd have lost, how would last Tuesday have been interpreted?

Slightly more interesting was the special election in New York's 23rd district that saw the Democrats pick up the seat vacated by Republican and now Army Secretary John McHugh. Most of the coverage of that race centered on the intra-GOP rift that developed when local party leaders nominated NY assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava. The pro-choice, pro-gay marriage moderate Scozzafava was soon challenged by Doug Hoffman, running on the Conservative Party line. After weeks of attacks from her right flank, led by the Club for Growth and others, Scozzafava dropped out of the race on the final weekend and threw her support behind Democratic nominee Bill Owens, who ultimately won. The Scozzafava / Hoffman tussle illustrates a broader tension within the GOP, something that the Cold War largely succeeded in keeping under wraps. Last week a senior GOP House member spoke to my students and talked about how, in his mind, the Republican coalition is made up of three groups, no two of which consistently get along: 1) fiscal conservatives; 2) social conservatives; and 3) foreign policy conservatives. The Cold War, and the party's emphasis on defeating the Soviet Union, largely allowed this loose coalition to stay together. Issues that now provide heartburn for the party were put on the backburner, allowing the Republicans to mount a unified effort against the much more fractured Democratic coaltion. With the fall of the Soviets, Democrats (after a long period of soul searching and moderating) were able to compete on much more favorable terrain. While George W. Bush tried, it seems, to resuscitate the original Cold War electoral stragegy under the guise of the "War on Terror," the success of this strategy outside of 2002 and 2004 has been less than complete. Thus, where the GOP goes from here on out is unclear, despite some of the results from last Tuesday.

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