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Pat MurphyPolitical junkies have a weakness for big ideas, particularly those purporting to explain how the future is going to unfold. Invariably, it’s a matter of identifying underlying realignments, preferably those linked to factors which are deemed immutable, at least in the near-term.

My first encounter with this phenomenon came in 1969, courtesy of Kevin Phillips and The Emerging Republican Majority. It was a data-rich book, one that also had the cachet of flying in the face of the then conventional wisdom. Instead of American politics trending increasingly leftward, Phillips suggested that the ideological shift would actually go the other way. In an era when student radicalism and campus unrest were portrayed as a harbinger of America’s future, this thesis had the heady whiff of heresy.

The reality turned out to be more complicated. True, Republicans did win four of the next seven presidential contests, but results at other levels were less auspicious. Take, for instance, the congressional elections that happen every two years. In the 15 cycles over the last three decades of the 20th century, Republicans only outpolled Democrats twice.

Then, some 30 or so years further on, a counter-theory took root. In 2002’s The Emerging Democratic Majority, Ruy Teixeira and John Judis produced reams of data in support of a fundamental proposition: Changing demographics, especially the growing minority population, would increasingly make Democratic dominance the default mode.

Again, however, reality has been a bit stickier. The four 21st century presidential contests have been split 50/50, and Republicans have actually outpolled Democrats in five of the eight congressional cycles. (To be sure, realignment purists will note that Al Gore did manage to shade the 2000 popular vote while losing the Electoral College, so that particular Republican presidential win can be seen as an anomaly.)

Interestingly, though, Judis himself has now started to have second thoughts. Writing in the National Journal in late January, he suggested that “the Democratic advantage of several years ago is gone. And the seeds of a slight Republican advantage appear to have taken root, particularly in governor’s mansions, state legislatures, and the U.S. House, where the Republicans sport majorities they haven’t enjoyed since the Hoover-Coolidge 1920s.”

Two things have happened. One is the continuing slide in the Democratic share of the white working-class vote, and the other is the Republican rebound with middle-class Americans. Given that the latter constitute a growing segment of the electorate, their shift is “genuinely bad news for Democrats, and very good news indeed for Republicans.”

Of course, guys like Phillips, Teixeira and Judis aren’t stupid. Far from it. But while the influences they identified were real, they weren’t sweepingly deterministic. Rather than overwhelming the political scene, they merely gave the balance of power a modest nudge.

And there are a couple of other considerations – the fragility of coalitions and the action-reaction dynamic. Political analyst Sean Trende astutely describes both of them.

Winning political parties in a diverse country are essentially voter coalitions, which renders them inherently unstable. As Trende puts it, “Issues that had caused disparate groups to band together tend to fade quickly, while new issues arise that can put these groups at loggerheads.”

As for action-reaction, when Party A assembles a winning coalition, Party B sets out to pry some element of it loose. And on and on it goes.

Still on the subject of American politics, my early February column suggested keeping an eye on Scott Walker as the potential dark horse in the 2016 Republican presidential stakes. Since then, several polls have confirmed that he is indeed a rising force, at least for now. And if further evidence is required, there’s the fact that the big guns of the American liberal media have suddenly trained their sights on him.

One hit piece, from Gail Collins of The New York Times, spectacularly misfired. In a column unfortunately titled Scott Walker Needs an Eraser, she blamed him for education budget cuts leading to teacher layoffs in 2010. But, as the paper acknowledged in a correction a couple of days later, Walker didn’t take office until 2011. Collins, it transpired, was the one who needed an eraser.

To borrow a phrase from an old Bette Davis movie character, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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