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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 1-15

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The 2004 Election in Perspective:

The Myth of "Cultural Divide" and the Triumph of Neoliberal Ideology

Why did George W. Bush win the 2004 presidential election? Why did John Kerry lose it? Where to look for answers to those questions and how to interpret them are nearly as much part of the positional warfare of politics as was the election itself.

In fact, postelection commentary often seems like a Rorschach test. Analysts typically find what they had predicted. And there can be more than a grain of truth to many, if not all, of their explanations. The United States is a big, complex country, with multiple overlapping and crosscutting dynamics that shape people's concerns and perceptions. Politics is largely a struggle to give specific, partisan definitions to those concerns and perceptions and to tie them to specific issues and issue positions. This is how popular concerns show up in equally complex ways as electoral expressions—including the size and composition of the electorate as well as its voting behavior. Postelection analysis is partly about sorting out how those dynamics played out and how candidates and campaigns mobilized on behalf of their preferred issues and interpretations. It is important to keep in mind, however, that it is also often the first salvo in the next round of political competition.

Indeed, postelection analysis has been a significant element of shaping the terms of political debate at least since Kevin Phillips enshrined Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" and "silent majority" in The Emerging Republican Majority.1 Phillips's 1969 book contributed to a discourse of white ethnic, working- or middle-class conservatism associated with the so-called white backlash against civil rights and putatively elitist liberalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The book briefly attained iconic status in the wake of Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 as an element of a liturgy of political realignment that ratified Reaganism's ideological triumph. It helped to invent the imagery of the Reagan Democrats, the formerly Democratic white working-class male voters who supposedly defected to the Republicans because of liberalism's excesses. This imagery in turn has highjacked the imagination of Democratic party strategists [End Page 1] ever since, along with the trope of an imperative to repudiate the excesses of McGovernism or the 1960s. A herd of scholars and pundits retailed, refined, and rang changes on this imagery throughout the remainder of the 1980s. It has been a key node in the arguments of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) that the party should move to the right to accommodate the shifting public sensibilities. It has become a central element of the Democratic national leadership's common sense and the intellectual essence of Clintonism, which is arguably now the dominant ideological tendency in the national party.2

Phillips's role in construction of this liturgy is ironic in two respects. First, he wrote his ur-text of the realignment genre in no way as an impartial observer; he was a Nixon administration functionary, and his account was at least as much about calling a reality into existence as identifying it. Second, not long after his rise to prominence as an apostle of conservative realignment, less than halfway through Reagan's first term, Phillips recanted his right-wing populism and embraced an anticorporate economic analysis and strategy more closely associated with the left.3

Moreover, the conventional wisdom underlying this imagery is more conventional than wise. As Marie Gottschalk points out, in every presidential election but one (1980) since 1952, working-class voters have voted Democratic in higher percentages than the electorate as a whole has. More significant politically is her finding that in every election during that period union members in general, and white union members in particular, have voted Democratic in higher percentages than have working-class voters on the whole.4 I shall return to clarify the significance of the union/non-union distinction below, but for now the implication of...


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