IDEOLOGICAL MAJORITIES, PRESIDENTIAL
INITIATIVES, AND POLICY CHANGE

This article is under currently under review at a journal of political science.

Abstract

The American political system is biased against major policy change. It has inherent tendencies toward incremental policymaking and even gridlock. Major presidential initiatives can overcome these tendencies toward incrementalism, but only under certain political conditions. The concept of an "ideological majority" is introduced to describe the conditions that have allowed a few presidents and their parties to successfully enact major changes in domestic policy since the establishment of the New Deal party system. The historic policy effects of ideological majorities can be seen in the enduring changes in the composition of the federal budget they produce. Four conditions are necessary to produce an ideological majority: 1) presidential leadership, 2) unusually large or ideologically cohesive delegations of the president's party in Congress, 3) the incubation of innovative ideas, and 4) an electoral mandate.
 

I. Incremental Policymaking, Partisan Realignment, and Ideological Majorities

Through most of the 20th century the evolution of domestic public policy has been incremental in nature, unfolding in slow, halting, often contradictory steps. The American political system generally manifests multiple checks and vetoes, just as the designers of the constitution intended, but which make major change in public policy difficult and rare. Indeed, many observers have characterized recent times as a period of policy immobilism or gridlock. Such observations are not new. James MacGregor Burns' book in the 1960s on the post World War II political system used the phrase the "deadlock" of democracy, reflecting the view of many political observers of the time that the American political system was prone to long periods of policy immobilism. In fact, policies do change and adapt to conditions, but rapid, large-scale policy change is rare.

The causes of the incrementalist tendencies of the American policy system are well known. I would emphasize 3 interrelated causes of policy incrementalism: 1) the constitutional separation of powers, 2) an ideologically diffuse or closely balanced party system, and 3) the power of special interests. These factors work together to make American government a system of multiple vetoes. In theory party government is a way to overcome this system of vetoes, but only under certain rare conditions is it actually able to do so.

On the other hand, political scientists do recognize that massive change in public policy does occasionally occur. The theory of critical elections and partisan realignment asserts that periodic massive shifts in the partisan balance bring massive changes in public policy in their wake. (Key, Sundquist 1983, Burnham, Brady) The ascension of the Republican party in the second half of the 19th century led to the abolition of slavery and ended the domination of the national government by agrarian interests which cleared the way for the emergence of the United States as a major industrial power. The New Deal realignment created the modern welfare state that made economic security of citizens a national responsibility.

But there has not been a classical critical election or complete political realignment since the 1930s. There have been major changes in the political system since the 1930s--dealignment of the New Deal system (Shea), the weakening of party identification among voters, the prevalence of divided government (Mayhew 199x, Fiorina, Cox and Kernell, Galderisi, Herzberg, and McNamara), a shift in the regional bases of the political parties (Glaser), ideological polarization of the parties (Abramowitz and Saunders, Layman, Shafer and Claggett), and the emergence of the new Republican majority in Congress (Schousen, Koopman, Bader, Evans and Oleszek, Jacobson). Some observers argue that taken together these changes in the party system should be considered some form of realignment. (Ladd, Nardulli, Aldrich and Neimi) But whatever the changes in the party system since the unraveling of the New Deal coalition, these changes fall short of a classical party realignment in one crucial way--a new dominant party with massive political majorities has not emerged.

However, even though there has not been a complete partisan realignment since the 1930s, there have been major changes in public policy. The history of domestic policy since the emergence of the New Deal party system is one of uneven alteration between long periods of incrementalism and shorter periods of rapid, large-scale policy innovation. In biology, such a pattern is called "punctuated equilibrium." (Gould, Kelly) Most of the time public policy has little clear and consistent ideological direction. However, there have been periods since the emergence of the New Deal party system when public policy has moved swiftly and surely in a particular direction, clear periods of policy innovation.

Neither incrementalism nor theories of realignment can really account for these rare but crucial periods when there is large-scale policy innovation. What is needed is a way of describing changes in the political system and public policy that are less than a complete realignment, but more than normal equilibrium. This paper proposes theory of ideological majorities to fill the gap between the relative stasis of incrementalism and the massive changes of partisan realignments. Briefly, an ideological majority produces political changes greater than ordinary incrementalism but less than a full partisan realignment.

Before exploring the concept of an ideological majority, there is a methodological point that should be made clear. The concept of an ideological majority explains the development of domestic policy, not foreign policy. Conclusions about the tendency of the American public policy process toward incremetalism or innovation tend to differ depending on whether one is looking at foreign policy, especially military and national security policy, where the president has great constitutional and political powers to act despite the state of the party system, or whether one is looking at domestic policy where the constitutional and political role of Congress and the courts is greater. The "two presidencies" thesis of the 1950s and 60s, that the president dominates foreign policy but is hamstrung in domestic policy, may have taken a beating during the post-Vietnam era. But it is still useful to separate foreign from domestic policy when thinking about incrementalism vs. large-scale policy change. The tradition of bipartisanship, based on the calculation that it is dangerous for members of Congress to be too openly opposed to a president immersed in a breaking foreign crisis, has weakened since Vietnam, but is still a powerful political force. Probably most important in making the politics of foreign policy different from that of domestic policy is the fact that foreign powers, foreign actors, international developments, and global crises all introduce factors beyond the control of the American political or party system into the unfolding of foreign policy.

II. The Concept of an Ideological Majority

Presidential Initiatives and Ideological Majorities

Presidents who want to effect policy change basically face two choices in approaching the fragmented, incrementally oriented political system. They can accommodate themselves to the system of multiple vetoes by presenting centrist, bipartisan initiatives for policy change. Or they can seek to mobilize their party and the political system for large-scale ideologically directed policy change.

Presidents who seek policy change most often present centrist, bipartisan initiatives. There are limits to the magnitude of change that can be achieved through such centrist compromise between the parties, but significant policy reform can be accomplished through such initiatives. Every president since Truman has presented major policy initiatives that have gained bipartisan support--the Full Employment Act under Truman, aid for science education under Eisenhower, aid to depressed areas under Kennedy, the Civil Rights Act under Johnson, the Environmental Protection Act under Nixon, airline, trucking, and other deregulation policies under Carter, the reform of the Social Security program under Reagan, the budget summits under Bush, and the NAFTA treaty under Clinton are just some of the more salient examples.

Attempts by presidents to mobilize their party and their ideological supporters to seek massive change in public policy are more rare, but when successful they result in much more historic policy changes. Despite the general resistance of the American political system to policy change, there have been a few short periods of relatively rapid policy innovation since the emergence of the New Deal party system, which can be labeled "ideological majorities." An ideological majority can be defined as a largely partisan majority of Congress that passes a major series of policy initiatives proposed by the president that alter the direction of public policy and budgetary priorities for at least a generation to come.

On the scale of political change, an ideological majority falls somewhere in between incrementalism and realignment, more than normal incrementalism but less than a full realignment. A political realignment changes the partisan landscape for generations, but an ideological majority only endures for a year or at most a few years, although its policy consequences are long lasting. An ideological majority may also be triggered by changes in the partisan balance lesser in magnitude than a classical critical election.

Cases of Ideological Majorities and their Policy Consequences

The twentieth century American political system has produced 3 ideological majorities: 1) the New Deal of the early years of FDR, 2) the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, and 3) the budgetary changes of the early years of Reaganomics. These three periods stand out as examples of massive policy change far in excess of ordinary incremental fluctuations. Most of the important innovation and change in domestic policy since the first world war can be traced to these historical moments. Each of these periods of rapid policy change is associated with strong presidential leadership and concrete presidential initiatives purposively designed to alter the fundamental direction of a wide set of domestic policies.

The ideological majorities of FDR, LBJ, and Reagan are similar in type but not necessarily in the magnitude of change. Of course, the FDR presidency ushered in a massive political realignment that defined the American party system into the 1960s and can still be seen to some degree today. But the ideological majorities of the Johnson and Reagan years lasted only a year or two and were swept away in the next political cycle. The scope and depth of domestic policy change under FDR was also greater than anything that has followed. A partisan realignment like the one that occurred in the 1930s is an order of magnitude greater than an ideological majority in terms of both duration and size of partisan shift.

But the congressional majorities of 1933-35 that created the New Deal also share many characteristics with those of the ideological majorities of 1965 under Johnson and 1981 under Reagan. Congressional support for the policy innovations of the New Deal faded after 1935, and the Democrats suffered major electoral losses in 1938. Perhaps it is best say that the Roosevelt administration produced both a temporary ideological majority from 1933-35 and a full partisan realignment. Partisan realignments and ideological majorities are not mutually exclusive phenomena. Alternatively, FDR's New Deal could be labeled a "super-ideological majority."

The importance of these three ideological majorities can be roughly but forcefully illustrated by looking at their long-term consequences for the federal budget. Figure 1 shows the effect of just one program initiated in each of these three periods on the budget. The Social Security program initiated in the New Deal now spends almost 5% of the entire economic product of the nation and is projected to grow as the baby boomers retire. Federal spending on health care was negligible in the early 1960s, but after the passage of the Medicare and Medicaid programs in 1965, federal health care expenditures have risen to more than 4% of the national economy and also are projected to grow due to an aging population. The effects of the Reagan ideological majority in 1981 were not so great on federal spending, but the tax cuts of Reaganomics pushed net federal interest payments from 1.2% in 1981 to 2.6% in 1996. With the current budget surplus, spending on interest on the debt will decrease, but no serious observer could deny that the deficit dominated national domestic policymaking for almost two decades. These changes in budgetary priorities will be discussed in more detail later in the paper, but the simple numbers illustrate the significant policy consequences of ideological majorities.
figure 1
 
 

Party Peaks and Ideological Majorities

These policy shifts were initiated during periods when the president's party was unusually strong in Congress, and the administration had unusual ideological coherence and clarity about the policy direction it wished to pursue. Each of these major policy initiatives was presented following a decisive election in which the presidential candidate campaigned on a platform of major change and won a decisive victory. His party also made large gains in Congress, attaining its largest majorities in decades. (see Figure 2) Since 1930 there have been 5 times that parties have peaked in their congressional strength at the same time that they controlled the presidency. Three of these cases produced ideological majorities.
figure 2

In the critical election of 1932 FDR won 57% of the vote and all but six states, and his party won more than 70% of the seats in the House and more than 60% of Senate seats. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson won 61% of the vote and all but six states, and the Democrats won more than two-thirds of the seats in both the House and Senate. Reagan's victory in 1980 was not quite as impressive, but Reagan did win all but six states and more than half of the vote in a three candidate race, and the Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years and the most seats in the House since 1954.

There have been other landslides in presidential elections in the 20th century; for example, Reagan in 1984, Nixon in 1972, both Eisenhower's elections, and FDR in 1936, 1940, and 1944. But the victories of FDR in 1932, LBJ in 1964, and Reagan in 1980 were remarkable in that they were quickly translated into massive changes in domestic policy. In 1933 FDR began the New Deal which created the modern American state, including the social security system, the welfare system, agricultural subsidies, systematic grants from the national government to state and local governments, recognition of the trade unions and their rights to collective bargaining and minimum wages, and acceptance of the role of the national government in macroeconomic management. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson passed a torrent of Great Society legislation that reshaped American government in the most fundamental way since FDR. The Great Society established the Medicare and Medicaid programs, the Food Stamps program, large scale federal aid to education, and it expanded the national role in labor markets and job creation, aid to cities and local governments for urban renewal and housing, and protection of voting rights, civil rights, and equal opportunity.

In 1981 Ronald Reagan passed the budget bill and economic legislation that had perhaps the greatest impact on domestic policy of any Republican initiative since the beginning of the 20th century. Income taxes were cut by 25% and business taxes were also reduced, a tight money policy was instituted to cut inflation, and federal regulations of business were reduced. Some domestic spending was cut, particularly on programs to aid the poor and aid to states and cities, although total spending did not decline due to increased spending on the military and middle class entitlements like social security.

Two other "peaks" in party fortunes are shown in this data which did not produce ideological majorities. The Republican party peaked in the 1952 when it elected not only Eisenhower but also congressional majorities in both houses. This was the last time in the 20th century that the Republicans controlled all three elective institutions of national government. The Democrats also peaked in 1976 when they elected Jimmy Carter and a House delegation almost as large as LBJ's, although their Senate majorities were somewhat smaller. These two cases show that an ideological majority requires more than winning the presidency and a simple numerical majority in Congress. The other conditions for the successful construction of an ideological majority are discussed below.

The Asymmetry between Democratic and Republican Ideological Majorities

An important asymmetry between the Democrats and Republicans needs to be taken into account in order to understand the emergence of ideological majorities. At no time since the 1920s have Republicans enjoyed congressional majorities similar to those that were routine for the Democrats from the 1930s through 1994. The "peaks" of the Eisenhower and Reagan years were mere hills compared to the massive Democratic majorities of FDR, LBJ, and even Carter.

But the relatively small Republican numbers were compensated for by the "conservative coalition" and the greater ideological cohesion of the Republicans, especially since the Reagan era. From the 1930s until the 1980s, in terms of ideology, the Democrats were really two parties in an electoral coalition--the generally liberal northern Democrats and the generally conservative southern Democrats.

Most conservative southern Democrats opposed most of the liberal policy initiatives of FDR and LBJ, particularly when there were any racial issues involved. That is why it took Democratic "supermajorities" to pass these programs. Only when nominal Democratic majorities reached approximately two-thirds was there actually a majority of liberal northern Democrats. Democratic presidents who held only ordinary Democratic congressional majorities such as Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton were either rebuffed when they proposed major policy changes (for example, Clinton and Truman on national health care) or were deterred from even proposing major initiatives they knew could not pass Congress.

On the other hand, although Reagan in 1981 had only a small majority in the Senate and faced a Democratic majority in the House, he could count on support for his budgetary policies from conservative southern Democrats, particularly a bloc of a couple of dozen "boll weevils" in the House. While Eisenhower in the 1950s presided over a Republican party with a major northeastern liberal wing, the Republican party of Reagan's era had no liberals and even few moderates who were disposed to resist Reagan's budgetary priorities. The Republican party has generally been more cohesive in Congress than the ideologically fractured Democrats, but this has been particularly true in recent decades. In the most important vote on the Reagan budget in 1981, 99% of Republicans supported the administration (188 of 190), whereas one-third of southern Democrats (26 of 78) opposed their congressional leadership and voted with the Reagan forces. There never was a similar showdown vote in the Senate because the number of Democratic supporters of the Reagan plan was even higher. This tendency of cohesion in the Republican ranks on key votes has continued into the 1990s. On several key votes on the Contract with America 96% of Republicans in both the Senate and the House supported the Contract. The elections of the 1990s have dramatically reduced the number of conservative southern Democrats in Congress, but even so, in contrast to the cohesive Republicans, 30% of House Democrats and 33% of Senate Democrats broke party ranks and supported the Contract on key votes in 1995 and 1996.

The greater cohesion of the Republican party means that Republicans do not need the kind of "supermajorities" Democrats have historically needed to pass a program through Congress. Thus in 1981 the Reagan Republicans could construct an ideological majority even though they lacked a partisan majority in the House.

III. Seeing But Not Seeing Ideological Majorities

Political scientists universally recognize 1932 as a critical realigning election. However, the elections of 1964 and 1980 did not produce the kind of enduring changes in the party system characteristic of a classical realignment. The Democratic gains of 1964 were largely reversed in the 1966 midterm election. The Republican gains of 1980 were largely reversed in the House in the midterm election of 1982 and in the Senate in the midterm election of 1986. The 1964 and 1980 elections can better be thought of as producing ideological majorities. Ideological majorities have much greater long term policy significance than ordinary swings in the partisan balance, but less historical significance and durability than critical realignments.

Mayhew is one observer who recognizes what he calls "policy waves." (1994, p. 325)

During the twentieth century, the United States has seen three waves of particularly ambitious lawmaking--the Progressive era, the New Deal era, and the 1960s-1970s...The country has also seen a major retrenchment of state activity highlighted by Ronald Reagan's program of 1981.
These are essentially the three legislative majorities I have identified plus the Progressive era which lies outside the time frame of this analysis but could perhaps be fitted into the concept of a pre-New Deal ideological majority.

Mayhew dates the New Deal policy innovations from 1932-1938 and the key legislation of the Reagan era as the 1981 tax and budget acts, paralleling the analysis here, although he puts less emphasis on short-term legislative majorities and delves deeper into longer term social movements that shaped the overall political climate. He also correctly notes that the expansion of the welfare state in the Great Society era began soon after the assassination of Kennedy and thus before the legislative year of 1965 and continued on into Nixon's first term, and in the case of civil rights and the environment innovative, the legislation had broad bipartisan support. However, though he mentions it in passing, Mayhew misses the crucial importance of the election of 1964 and the legislative year of 1965. The temporary legislative majority of 1965 was critical in that it: 1) passed what has proved to be the most expensive of the Great Society programs, the Medicare and other health programs, 2) provided the major funding for the many of small-scale, experimental poverty programs passed in 1964 such as job training and food stamps programs, and 3) produced the political and ideological momentum and support for a decade of bureaucratic and legislative elaborations of the policy direction set in the legislative year of 1965. Mayhew is essentially correct in noting that the policy innovations of the 1960s and early 1970s stretched out longer than in the New Deal or the Reagan presidency, but he does not put enough emphasis on the election of 1964 and the huge Democratic majorities of 1965 that passed the crucial spending legislation over the opposition of most Republicans and many southern Democrats as being the pivotal events in this process.

While most political scientists have been slow to place the elections of 1964 and 1980 into historical perspective, these shifts in the ideological climate are widely recognized in the media, popular culture, and even serious academic historical studies. The media tends to magnify the historical importance of even minor electoral swings toward the Republicans or Democrats, interpreting many elections as indications the country has turned to the right or turned to the left. Popular culture has a tendency to label decades as either conservative or liberal, such as the conservative 80s or 50s or the liberal 60s or 30s. These descriptions can be exaggerations, but in at least some cases they are essentially accurate.

Serious historians are more careful about such glib characterizations, but they also recognize recurrent movements in American society and political ideology. Arthur Schlesinger is representative of a widespread view among historians when he writes of a roughly 30 year cycle of government activism and conservative reaction. According to Schlesinger, progressive activism at the beginning of the 20th century evoked the political conservatism of the 1920s. The domestic and international liberalism of the 1930s and 1940s brought on the conservative 1950s of McCarthy and Eisenhower. The civil rights and other social movements ignited the liberal activism of the 1960s which triggered an increasingly conservative reaction in the 70s and 80s, symbolized by the conservative Reagan presidency.

Historical studies of public policy also recognize long term shifts in policy direction. Students of the welfare state recognize the recurring cycle of expansion and contraction of benefits. (Piven and Cloward, Palmer) Studies of federalism and intergovernmental relations delineate clear periods of growth and retrenchment in national financial assistance to state and local governments and cycles of centralization and decentralization within the federal legal and regulatory systems. (Wright, Elazar)

Presidential scholars also recognize that some administrations have more historical impact on public policy and the public philosophy than others. (Skowronek, Sundquist 1968, Palmer) Presidents like FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan are generally recognized to have had major influence over the direction of domestic public policy, for better or for worse. Other presidents, like Bush, Carter, Ford, or Coolidge are known to have had little long term impact on domestic policy. The political parties try to make icons out of presidents from their party who have shaped the historical direction of public policy, like FDR for the Democrats or Reagan for the Republicans, not just to create a favorable public image, but also to legitimate continuation of the policy directions they have set.

But students of the party system, perhaps overly dependent on theories of critical realignment and dealignment, have been slow to recognize the importance of ideological majorities. The concept of an ideological majority identifies shifts in the party system that are of lesser magnitude than critical realignments, but which also have historically significant impact on public policy and the public philosophy. The concept of an ideological majority helps identify the importance of long term shifts in domestic policy without exaggerating every twist in the political winds. It helps separate out which swings in the party balance in Congress are ephemeral and which are truly of historical significance. An ideological majority reflects broader ideological currents within the polity, which however much they may be trivialized by the media and popular culture, can be quite real. The concept of an ideological majority helps explain why some presidential administrations leave a broad lasting legacy on domestic policy, yet most do not.

IV. The Conditions for Formation of an Ideological Majority

The Basic Conditions

Not all attempts to mobilize partisan majorities in Congress succeed. Jimmy Carter's energy initiative and Bill Clinton's national health insurance proposals were intended to effect major policy change by mobilizing nominal Democratic party majorities to overcome conservative Republican resistance, but both initiatives failed to pass Congress. The "contract with America" can also be seen as an attempt by congressional Republicans to create an ideological majority. So far the Republican Congress has failed to accomplish most of its objectives due in large part to the resistance of Democratic president Clinton. So what are the conditions for the successful creation of an ideological majority?

An ideological majority is the coming together of an ideological movement in the broader polity and a particular election that puts in power a president and a Congress in tune with that ideological movement. It is the matching of an ideological climate with a political opportunity. The ideological majorities of FDR, LBJ, and Ronald Reagan each manifested four particular conditions: 1) a presidential administration with a commitment to lead the country in a particular policy direction, 2) unusually large and/or unusually disciplined partisan majorities in Congress, 3) a general ideological discontent coupled with a specific set of policy proposals that had been incubating in Congress and the public mind during the prior period of incrementalism, and 4) a presidential campaign that indicated a clear overall direction for public policy which garnered a decisive mandate from the American people.

These 4 conditions overcome the 3 causes of policy incrementalism outlined above--diffuse or closely balanced parties, the constitutional separation of powers, and the power of entrenched interest groups. The crucial election alters the prevailing party balance in Congress and gives the president the political muscle to overcome the separation of powers. Running a focused campaign gives the president and his party a mandate to challenge entrenched interests. If the president exerts sustained ideological leadership he can seize the opportunity given to him by his unusually strong congressional majorities. If the ideological climate is favorable and ideas for new directions in public policy have been incubating in Congress and Washington policy networks, the president will have a range of specific policy proposals to incorporate into an agenda for action. (Sundquist, 1968) Powerful interests hurt by presidential policy initiatives are sure to mobilize to oppose the president's agenda, using the many opportunities the fragmented American legislative process normally provides to veto major policy change or water it down to relative insignificance. But the shift in the partisan balance means that the president and his party can muster supportive majorities at each stage of the legislative process so that the president's initiative emerges from Congress modified but largely intact.

The Short Life but Long-term Consequences of Ideological Majorities

Ideological majorities have a relatively short political life, but their impact on public policy is long term. The tendency of the American political system to incrementalism and political centrism is strong. The political system tends to revert to its previous condition fairly quickly. Freshmen members of the House of Representatives carried into office by the national landslide in districts normally held by the opposition party often lose their seats in the next midterm election.

The sharp ideological shifts generated by ideological majorities tend to produce a corresponding political and philosophical reaction. The coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats that passed the Reagan budget and economic package in 1981 lost the votes to control the House in the midterm election of 1982 and the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 1986. The impact of the loss of House seats in 1982 can be seen in contrasting the politics of Social Security reform, the major legislative issue in 1983, with those of the 1981 budget battle. The Social Security proposals put forward by the Reagan administration were formulated by a bipartisan commission, and relied much more heavily on tax increases which were anathema to ideological conservatives than on benefit cuts they preferred. On the key vote in the House 29% of Democrats supported the administration proposal, and Democratic support in the Senate was so great there were no showdown votes.

Similarly, the huge majorities that passed the Great Society legislation in 1965 were largely erased in the midterm election of 1966. Even before the loss of congressional seats, the legislative output in 1966 was modest compared to the deluge of 1965 and LBJ was rebuffed in several legislative battles, including an open housing bill and local government influence over poverty programs.

FDR, who presided over a classical realignment, had massive majorities for 6 years and enjoyed legislative success throughout his first term. But even Roosevelt was rebuffed when he tried to pack the Supreme Court and lost his commanding majorities in the midterm election of 1938. The "second New Deal" was legislated in 1935 and no comparable domestic policy innovation was attempted for the rest of FDR's presidency.

However even in their short political life ideological majorities can produce long term change in public policy. The policy course charted by an ideological majority tends to outlive the congressional majorities that produce it. When midterm elections erase congressional majorities, the political system returns to a more typical incremental mode of policy making. But now the legislation passed in the critical window of opportunity sets the direction for policy. The system of multiple vetoes, which had frustrated policy innovation, now works in favor of the direction and priorities set by the new legislation. Now those who wish to reverse direction are swimming upstream against the current of political centrism. While the political system tends to bounce back to its previous state of incrementalism like a spring that has been compressed, inertia tends to rule in the policy domain. Policies once set in motion tend to remain in motion unless acted on by another force. Thus they survive after the congressional majorities are gone, protected by the multiple vetoes of the political system.
 

Figure 3: STAGES OF IDEOLOGICAL MAJORITIES
 
 

PREPATORY STAGE
LEGISLATIVE YEAR(S)
CLOSING STAGE
 
 
 
Change in Ideological Climate
Massive Programmatic Change
Return to Incrementalism in Congress
Failed Legislative Proposals
 
Permanently Altered Budgetary Patterns
Presidential Election Mandate
 
Changed Terms of Discourse
 
 
Ideological Reaction
 
 

The Stages of Ideological Majorities

Thus, the appearance of unusually large congressional majorities coupled with an ideologically inclined president of the same party is the key historical moment for the possible emergence of an ideological majority. An ideological majority emerges out of a longer-term process, and has impacts long after it disappears, but the crucial elements are an activist president backed by large or unusually disciplined congressional majorities.

Longer-term developments in the ideological and political systems will precede the final emergence of the commanding majorities and produce a permissive, sympathetic environment. Each of the 3 ideological majorities was preceded by massive social, economic, or international crises. The Great Depression triggered the Roosevelt realignment. The civil rights movement forced racial issues buried for a century onto the national agenda. Several crises contributed to the formation of the Reagan ideological majority. The stagflation of the Carter years, and particularly the remarkably high inflation of 1980, contributed to a broad political dissatisfaction with the status quo. The Iranian hostage crisis and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, coming on the heels of the oil shocks, gave the impression of an inability of the United States to control world events and a rapid decline in American power internationally.

Reagan, LBJ, and FDR were all able to translate these crises into mandates for change. Compared to the normally vacuous presidential campaign, Reagan in 1980, LBJ in 1964, and FDR in 1932 each used the presidential campaign to prepare the way for an ambitious legislative agenda, although in different ways. Reagan self-consciously ran as an ideological conservative seeking a mandate for change. His whole political persona, created from the time he confronted student demonstrators and welfare recipients as governor of California through his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 1976, made it clear as president he would follow an ideologically conservative agenda.

LBJ's pre-presidential persona was hardly that of an ideologue, but upon assuming the presidency Johnson set out to prove he was the man who could actually pass the long-standing liberal agenda Kennedy had been unable to translate into legislation. In 1964 Johnson passed the landmark Civil Rights Act and the first war of poverty legislation. His campaign for the Great Society promised much more of the same, as Johnson self-consciously donned the mantle of FDR and the New Deal. His opponent Barry Goldwater, the first true ideological conservative nominated by the Republicans in more than a generation, helped turn the 1964 election into an ideological contest. Goldwater presented, "a choice, not an echo," and with his huge victory Johnson could claim that he had thus gained a mandate for his Great Society.

In contrast, in 1932 FDR did not run an ideologically consistent campaign in order to seek a specific mandate. However, the massive realignment triggered by the Depression had already begun in the 1930 election. The magnitude of the Depression crisis had already created the belief that something drastic had to be done. Historians generally portray FDR as having little idea exactly what he was going to do once he took office. But the political landslides of both 1930 and 1932 clearly gave him a mandate to do something.

So each of the three ideological majorities were preceded by major political, social, or international crises, broad social movements pressing for policy change, and general ideological ferment. Thus one could draw the generalization that another condition of an ideological majority is a triggering crisis or broad social movement for change. However, the election of 1994 should give pause. Even though the election of 1994 did not produce a successful ideological majority, it did produce the kind of large shift in party power in Congress that would have produced an ideological majority if the Republicans had also controlled the presidency. But in 1994 there was no major social, economic, or international crisis, and social movements for change were no more active than usual. The Republican congressional victories in 1994 were based on a purely political crisis--a loss of confidence in Congress generally and the Democrats who had controlled Congress for so long. Thus I have chosen to speak of a broader permissive ideological climate rather than identify social movements or social or economic crises as necessary preconditions for the emergence of an ideological majority. Certainly highly activist social movements or major economic crises can help trigger an ideological majority but they are not sufficient conditions and may not even be necessary conditions for one.

Why the Eisenhower and Carter Partisan Peaks did not Produce Ideological Majorities

The importance of the conditions of presidential ideological leadership and of an electoral mandate can be seen by comparing the Eisenhower and Carter administrations with the three administrations that produced ideological majorities. Figure 2 showed the high point of Democratic and Republican congressional strength under party government since the critical realignment of 1932. The Democrats peaked under FDR, LBJ, and to a lesser extent under Carter. The Republicans peaked under Eisenhower and Reagan. Three of these five cases produced ideological majorities, but the other two did not. Why not?

In the other two cases, the Carter and Eisenhower administrations lacked the crucial ideological consistency. Nor did their parties in Congress have the requisite political discipline to produce an ideological majority. While both Carter and Eisenhower campaigned on vague promises of political change, neither presented a strong agenda for shifting the ideological and policy direction of the country either during their election campaigns or during their early years in office. In fact, both tried to diffuse perceptions of their ideological positions by claiming to be liberal on some issues but conservative on others. Thus, neither Eisenhower nor Carter received an electoral mandate to change the ideological direction of policy.

Eisenhower in particular was a general with a nonpartisan background. He was elected during the Korean War when the principle issue of American politics was how to conduct the Cold War. His campaign and his presidency focused on foreign affairs. At that time his own Republican party was split between its conservative Western and Midwestern wing and its more liberal, northeastern wing which had secured the Republican nomination for Eisenhower over the Midwestern conservative Taft. Eisenhower never challenged the basic parameters of the welfare state established during the later New Deal, nor did he propose any bold new directions in domestic policy.

In contrast, Jimmy Carter did, in fact, attempt to provide policy leadership. He presented a major initiative, his energy program, but it was defeated in Congress. Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion of the failure of Carter's energy program, but certainly one factor was that Carter had not prepared the nation for dramatic policy innovation in his vague campaign appeals in 1976. Carter could not plausibly claim that his campaign in 1976 had provided him a mandate for major changes in energy policy the way that Johnson could at least claim an electoral mandate for the Great Society and Reagan could claim a mandate for conservative economic policies. Perhaps more important, while the Democratic party had historically large congressional majorities, it lacked ideological cohesion. The internal struggles between the "new" Democrats symbolized by McGovern and the "old guard" symbolized by Humphrey, coupled with the historic North-South divide, had left the Democratic party bitterly divided. Thus Carter's, with his much documented lack of political leadership skills, was unable to translate even the unusually large Democratic majorities he enjoyed into a cohesive force for change.
 

V. The Policy Consequences of Ideological Majorities

Why Presidential Success Scores Do Not Capture Ideological Majorities

Most commonly, political scientists have measured the impact of presidential administrations on public policy by assessing the percentage of important bills proposed by the president that have passed through Congress each year. (Mayhew 1991, Edwards) Congressional Quarterly calls these presidential success scores, others have coined the term presidential "batting averages." Presidential success scores are reasonable measures of the quality of presidential-congressional relations. But the problem with simply counting pieces of legislation that pass Congress is that some pieces of legislation are clearly more important than others. The impact of the Social Security Act of 1935 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on the life of the nation has been several orders of magnitude greater than most other bills presidents have shepherded through Congress.

Presidential success scores cannot capture the process whereby presidents scale up or scale down the magnitude of the proposals they formally present to Congress depending on their perception of the opportunities and obstacles facing them. Mayhew found that during the period of Democratic Congresses and usually Republican presidents, divided government did not significantly affect presidential success scores with Congress compared to the periods of Democratic party government.

Yet one cannot imagine Bill Clinton even proposing massive expansion of the government's role in the health care system to a Congress in which Newt Gingrich was Speaker. Instead after the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, Clinton adjusted his legislative agenda to the new political realities. In the sharp partisan atmosphere following the Republican takeover of Congress, Clinton's success scores went down (Congressional Quarterly Weekly Reports). However, Clinton, like any president, was determined to stay in the game, and tailored his legislative agenda so that he would remain a force in the legislative process. In a situation of divided government, sometimes presidents and Congresses will pick fights with each other to establish their separate identities, as in the case with the budget stalemates of 1995-96. But both the president and members of Congress recognize that neither can accomplish anything without some accommodation. President Clinton's success scores recovered to more normal levels in 1996 and 1997. This process of mutual adjustment makes simple presidential success scores a less than ideal measure of the long-term policy impact of presidential initiatives.

Annual presidential success scores cannot capture the special importance of legislative years like 1935, 1965, or 1981. Even Congressional Quarterly, which is the semi-official keeper of presidential success scores, recognizes in its own publications that certain legislative years are special. The normally staid Congress and the Nation characterized the 1965 legislative year as "amazingly productive" with a "breathless pace. (1969, pp. 2, 3)"

Measures which taken alone would have crowned the achievements
of any Congress were enacted in a seemingly endless stream.
Congress and the Nation also highlighted the historical importance of the first Reagan budget (Vol VI, pp. 3, 27, 33, 37).

When Ronald Reagan captured the presidency in 1980, he mounted the most serious assault on federal spending and tax policies in nearly 50 years...Within seven months Reagan had succeeded beyond most observers' expectations...Reagan pushed the largest tax and spending cuts in history through Congress in less than 8 months...Reagan...achieve(d) a dramatic about-face in the direction of government...(B)y the end of his first term Reagan had changed the terms of debate about economic policy in Washington.

The Budgetary Consequences of Ideological Majorities

Historical study of the relationship between key pieces of legislation and changes in the federal budget offers the most promise for assessing the long term impact of presidential initiatives. The starkest demonstration of the impact of the FDR, LBJ, and Reagan ideological majorities can be seen in changes in the percentage of national income allocated to particular forms of government spending as indicated in Figure 1.

The measure of government spending used in Figure 1 is spending as a percentage of GDP, which is a very accurate but deceptively conservative form of measurement. It corrects for the effects of both inflation and long term economic growth, so it is a highly reliable and valid measure. One small weakness is that it is overly sensitive to short term economic fluctuations because in recessions government spending goes up and tax revenues go down, producing a temporary spurt in the index. More important, when calibrating government spending by percentage of GDP, the numbers tend to be small and thus they tend to understate the magnitude of policy change. For example, in 1999 a 0.1% change in GDP devoted to a particular program equals roughly 8,000,000,000 dollars. A 1% change in GDP equals more than $80 billion today.

Each of the ideological majorities identified above had a massive effect on at least one key measure of government spending. The most enduring fiscal legacy of the New Deal was the creation of the Social Security program. From a baseline of zero in 1935, the program has grown to 4.6% of the GDP in 1996. (all budget data from the Office of Management and Budget) The most enduring

fiscal legacy of the Great Society were the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Federal health care spending was a mere .4% in 1962, but it has grown to 4.4% of the GDP in 1996, the lion's share being Medicare and Medicaid. The Reagan budgets cut taxes but did not reduce overall federal spending, and thus the chronic fiscal crisis of recent years was created. As a result, the percentage of the GDP devoted to interest payments rose sharply, from 1.2-1.3% throughout the 1960s and 70s to 2.6% in 1996.

The growth of overall government spending since the New Deal can look rather smooth when looked at through the lens of a relatively conservative measure like percentage of GDP. But when one disaggregates and looks at the categories of spending, one sees more movement. In particular, when one recognizes that the fiscal impact of historic legislation like the Social Security Act or the Medicare and Medicaid bills is felt over long periods of time rather than simply during the year of passage, one can see how just a few pieces of legislation can shape patterns of federal spending for generations.

The budget figures show the long-term policy impact of ideological majorities. In the cases of programs passed under FDR and LBJ, entitlements were created that grew over the years. In the early years of the Social Security program, only newly retired workers were eligible for benefits and they got only small checks since they had paid little into the system. But over the years a larger and larger percentage of the retired population came from workers who had paid into the system and the number of years they had paid into the system was larger. A significant portion of the growth in human resources spending in the 1940s and 50s resulted from the Social Security entitlements passed under FDR. Similarly, the expansion of coverage of Medicare and Medicaid entitlements created during the Great Society drove rising federal expenditures in health care throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Gains in life expectancy mean that even today both entitlement programs have a demographic tendency to expand.

The Reagan budget of 1982 did not create new entitlements, but it did create a new fiscal reality that has dominated national policymaking even to today. The tax cuts in the first Reagan budget significantly reduced the fiscal capacity of the federal government. As long as Republican presidents vowed to veto any tax increases, there was no room for expansion of any programs unless others were cut. The early Reagan budgets also increased military spending, thus further squeezing domestic programs. Yet Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, showed little willingness to make the kind of cuts in domestic programs that would match the cuts in taxes.

Thus the politics of the 1980s and 90s were dominated by the chronic fiscal crisis. The key to George Bush winning the presidency in 1988 may well have been his "read my lips" pledge not to increase taxes, just as the key to his undoing in the 1992 election may have been his breaking that promise once in office. In any case, hamstrung by the deficit, the Bush administration offered no significant domestic policy initiatives, and its greatest domestic policy achievement was probably the budget summits that reduced somewhat the economic consequences of the Reagan era deficits.

Even when the Democrats temporarily regained party control of the national government, newly elected president Clinton decided that reducing the deficit had to be his top domestic priority, putting on the back burner health care reforms and human capital investments promised in his campaign. (Woodward) Budgetary issues dominated the Clinton administration's domestic agenda throughout his presidency, whether it was passing the first year deficit reduction package, battling with the new Republican majority elected in 1994 until the federal government itself was shut down several times, or basking in the glow of bipartisan compromise early in Clinton's second term as the robust economic growth of the 90s allowed Democrats and Republicans to announce relatively painless budget balancing deals. Yet even though the era of massive deficits may be over, payments on the deficit rung up in the 1980s and early 90s will remain a major allocation of federal funds into the 21st century.

Differences in the Magnitude of Policy Consequences of the Three Ideological Majorities

In arguing that the three most important shifts in public policy since the 1930s were brought on by the three ideological majorities, I do not mean to imply that the policy impact of all three ideological majorities was equivalent. In fact, the New Deal had greater long-term impact on domestic policy than the Great Society, and the Great Society had greater impact than the early Reagan budgets. The New Deal created the modern welfare state, including the massive Social Security program. It was essentially programs created by the New Deal that drove spending on human resources from virtually zero before the Depression to 5.3% of GDP in 1965. The Great Society expanded and elaborated on the structure laid down by the New Deal. From 1965-1975 when the policy momentum of the Great Society legislation was being felt, human resources spending rose from 5.3% of GDP to 11.8%. The impact of Reaganomics on total human resources spending was real but much more limited than often claimed by both supporters and opponents. From 1981-1991 human resources spending dipped from 11.9% to 10.6% of GDP. In 1990 and 1991 it rose again, then hovered between 12.6-12.9% of GDP from 1992 to 1996. Even the budget deficits, which I have argued were the most important political and policy legacy of the Reagan administration, have at least temporarily disappeared in the late 1990s, although spending on debt retirement will continue for another generation. But even though the impact of Reaganomics was less than that of the New Deal or the Great Society, it stands out as a major policy shift compared to normal periods of incrementalism.

It is tempting to argue that the different magnitude of the policy consequences of the three ideological majorities is caused by the differences in the size of the electoral victories of the three presidents and parties. The absolute size of FDR's majorities and the shift in the partisan composition in Congress was greatest in the 1930 and 32 elections. In contrast Reagan had the smallest congressional delegation and the smallest margin of victory of the 3 administrations that produced ideological majorities. LBJ's victory fell in between. The policy consequences of FDR's ideological majority was the greatest, Reagan's was the least, and again, LBJ's fell in between.

Alternatively, it could be argued that the political system is manifesting a declining ability to produce major policy innovation. FDR's ideological majority came first and was the greatest, LBJ's came next and its policy consequences were smaller than FDR's, but greater than Reagan's, which came last. However, because there are only three cases perhaps it is best to resist any generalizations about causality and simply note the correlations and the time order of events.
 

VI. Failed Attempts at Ideological Majorities

Just as not all presidents seek ideological majorities, not all presidents who do seek them are successful in creating them. Sometimes presidents miscalculate and attempt major policy innovation without the requisite conditions for success. Jimmy Carter's failed energy program and Bill Clinton's failed national health insurance plan are cases where presidents sought to create an ideological majority and failed. Space precludes a detailed analysis of the causes of these failures, but in both cases, some of the conditions enumerated above for a successful ideological majority were lacking.

Clinton's health plan lacked almost all the conditions of a successful ideological majority--an unusually large Democratic delegation in Congress, a clear electoral mandate, and a period of incubation by a congressional minority. Carter's energy plan, on the other hand, had most of the prerequisites. However, it floundered due to a lack of an electoral mandate and the lack of cohesion of the large Democratic majority, especially in the Senate where Democratic majorities were thinner than those enjoyed by FDR or even LBJ.

The Republican Contract with America can also be seen as an attempt to create an ideological majority that would alter the basic direction of domestic policy. The Republican "revolutionaries" of the 104th Congress had some but not all of the conditions for an ideological majority. The election of 1994 produced historically an unusually large and cohesive Republican congressional delegation. The decision of the vast majority of Republican candidates for the House of Representatives to nationalize the campaign and run on the provisions of the contract turned the 1994 election into a kind of referendum on the proposals of the contract, which the Republicans won, giving them at least a perceived mandate to pursue the legislative proposals of the contract. The Republicans of the 104th Congress were clearly ideologically cohesive and had the votes to get their program partway through the legislative process.

However, 1994 was not a presidential year, and without control of the presidency, the Republican revolutionaries could not complete the legislative process with Democrat Clinton standing in the way. Nor were they able to turn the 1996 election into a decisive mandate for their policy positions. While the Republicans held on to control of Congress, Clinton was reelected and continued to be the stumbling block for a conservative revolution in domestic policy.
 

VII. Conclusion

Most of the time the fragmented American political system manifests incremental policymaking. But incrementalism cannot explain the rare, but historically significant periods of policy innovation. Realignment theory has accounted for the rare, but massive, shifts in the partisan balance that have produced the greatest periods of policy innovation in American history. But the American political system has not produced a classical realignment in 70 years. There is a need to explain lesser, but still historically significant, shifts in both the partisan balance and domestic policy. Thus the need for the concept of an ideological majority.

This article has identified 3 ideological majorities, each of which share the common characteristics of policy innovation, presidential ideological leadership, and unusually large and/or cohesive congressional majorities. It has also briefly discussed the failed attempts of Carter, Clinton, and the Republican controlled 104th Congress to mobilize ideological majorities, each of which lacked some of the conditions for the successful creation of an ideological majority. I do not mean to suggest that all presidents will attempt to create ideological majorities, nor that all attempts at ideological majorities will be successful. The theory of ideological majorities cannot predict the behavior of future administrations, but it should be useful in analyzing when presidents will offer programs for massive domestic policy change, when they will succeed, and when they will fail.
 
 

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