Bartels on partisan realignment and the Great Depression

by Henry Farrell on October 7, 2008 · 1 comment

in Campaigns and elections

There’s a lot of discussion (some of which I’ve engaged in), over whether or not the current financial crisis calls the legitimacy of free market policies into question. But ift voters as well as policy elites are questioning free market solutions, this may not be for especially rational reasons. In a recent paper, Larry Bartels suggests that the aftermath of the Great Depression provides evidence that voters’ reactions to policy shifts depends far more on who is in power when than on any deep intellectual conversion.

Having swept into office on a strong tide of economic discontent in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt initiated a series of sweeping new policies to cope with the Great Depression. According to the masterful political analyst V. O. Key, “the voters responded with a resounding ratification of the new thrust of governmental policy”—a stunning 46-state landslide that ushered in an era of Democratic electoral dominance.

The 1936 election has become the most celebrated textbook case of ideological realignment of the American electorate. However, a careful look at state-by-state voting patterns suggests that this resounding ratification of Roosevelt’s policies was strongly concentrated in the states that happened to enjoy robust income growth in the months leading up to the vote. (As usual, voters seem to have been quite myopic—huge variations in income growth in 1934 and 1935 had no discernible effect on 1936 voting patterns.) Indeed, the apparent impact of short-term economic conditions was so powerful that, if the recession of 1938 had occurred in 1936, Roosevelt would probably have been a one-term president.

Considering America’s Depression-era politics in comparative perspective reinforces the impression that there may have been a good deal less real policy content to “throwing the bums out” than meets the eye. In the U.S., voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved. In the adjacent agricultural province of Alberta, voters replaced a socialist party with a right-leaning funny-money party created from scratch by a charismatic radio preacher, and the economy improved. In Weimar Germany, where economic distress was deeper and longer-lasting, voters rejected all of the mainstream parties, the Nazis seized power, and the economy improved. In every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased dominated politics for a decade or more thereafter. It seems farfetched to imagine that all these contradictory shifts represented well-considered ideological conversions. A more parsimonious interpretation is that voters simply—and simple-mindedly—rewarded whoever happened to be in power when things got better.

If this is right, then the bad news for John McCain is that it’s going to be very very hard to win the election (he is after all a bum-in-good-standing in the current government party). The very bad news is that if Obama wins, as the polls suggest, he may indeed cement a Democratic majority that could last for a decade or more (and perhaps introduce all sorts of new policies). The sort-of-good news is that if McCain somehow manages to win the election, and the economy improves whether because of his policies or despite them, he, his party and the conservative intellectual movement will be in a good position to take credit for these improvements.

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