Until something better comes along, I am prepared to nominate "The New Direction of American Politics," a volume soon to be published by The Brookings Institution, as the most convincing interpretation yet presented of the Ronald Reagan era in American government.
The 400-page study by 15 scholars, edited by John E. Chubb and Paul E. Peterson, makes a persuasive case that what we are witnessing is historic -- one of those big swings or "realignments" that serve as landmarks in the nation's development.
Chubb and Peterson and the authors of the political-parties chapter, Thomas E. Cavanagh and James L. Sundquist, are careful to say that they are not predicting long-term Republican dominance of the national government.
They do say the Republicans have advantages that reach well beyond the personal appeal of Reagan: the tilt of the Electoral College to the West and the South, the superiority of their national fund-raising and political organizations, the growing tendency of swing voters -- especially younger ones -- to think of themselves as Republicans. But they readily concede that in certain circumstances and with the right candidates, Democrats may be able to win national elections.
The real value of their book is to lift the argument about the significance of "the Reagan revolution" out of the swamp of speculation about the 1986 and 1988 elections and deal with the phenomenon that has already occurred.
They are particularly helpful in clearing up the puzzlement many of us who cover politics have felt about the seeming immutability of the Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and state and loca government.
Their sensible suggestion is to think of an ocean wave breaking on a seawall. The wave is the tide of voter sentiment that throws one party out of office and installs the other. The leader of the incoming party (Reagan, in this case) has the responsibility to devise policies that meet the public demand. If he does -- as Reagan did in his first term -- the first wave may be followed by another even more powerful. The 1984 election was that second wave.
But even after that second wave, the Democrats are more strongly entrenched in the House and in state and local government than they were when Reagan was first elected. How can this be a political realignment?
Their answer is to think of the seawall as the institutional framework against which the big waves are pounding. The stronger the seawall, the longer it will take for the waves to break through.
They make two points that really help clarify the picture and resolve the seeming paradox. The first is historical. The older the nation, the stronger its institutional structure.
In our early history, the shift of power from Washington's and Adams' Federalists to Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans was so traumatic that the air was filled with charges of treason, and institutions almost cracked. A bit later, the rise of the Republicans helped bring on the Civil War, and the Union dissolved.
The second point is structural. Today, institutions are far more deeply entrenched and resistant to change. The presidency and (to a lesser extent) the Senate become the immediate focus of change, because they are seen as the most powerful parts of the government. Contests for their control are so competitive that shifts in popular sentiment register quickly and strongly.
By contrast, members of the House have built up individual defenses against national political tides, using their influence over districting decisions, office staffs, service functions, and access to communications and campaign finances to insulate themselves.
State and local officials have gone even further by arranging, in most cases, that their elections not coincide with the choice of the president.
There are two implications in this analysis -- both encouraging to Republicans. One is that if you accept the wave and seawall analogy, then you have to think that as long as the Republicans provide policy changes that meet the public mood (tax reduction and simplification, for example), they will continue to make inroads against the institutionalized Democrats. (Be ready for Republican gains in governorships in 1986, I say.)
Second, once the sea has broken through, do not expect to see the same shoreline again soon. As Chubb and Peterson say, "The terms of political debate and the course of public policy have been fundamentally transformed. . . . An economic downturn or a foreign policy reverse may rejuvenate the Democrats, but the policies they once espoused will not be as resilient. Big deficits, strong defense commitments and doubts about the welfare state will shape the political and policy future -- whatever the fate of parties or presidents in particular elections."