A touchstone of my thinking is the election of 2008, which in my mind I refer to as “the critical election that wasn’t.” For historians, the term “critical election” has a special meaning. It does not mean simply an election that is vital or all-important; it means one that changes the party system itself by re-defining what one or more of the political parties represent. In a critical election, the parties themselves undergo significant change, as the central ideas around which they are organized are reformulated in ways that are fundamental, many-sided, and long lasting.
Whereas every presidential election cycle introduces some new ideas and personalities, not every election produces change in the parties’ basic ideas and tenets. A critical election is a rare sort of generational event that attains landmark significance because, by aggregating ideas in a new and different way, it charts a new direction for the country and opens up new possibilities. When such an election occurs, the basic message of an entire political party is transformed. Political parties sometimes die; new parties emerge. So, critical elections are about more than the candidates and their characters; they are about the ideas that define our nation and how these ideas come to be embedded in a structure of power.
There have only been a handful of critical elections in our history, and it’s no wonder, because when critical elections occur it can be kind of scary. The parties are usually in a state of crisis, and the nation’s political discourse as a whole is usually in a state of heightened controversy. Yet critical elections, which involve massive levels of thought, input, and organization at every level of the citizenry, are necessary. They’re salutary. They’re the means by which the parties retain their usefulness by meaningfully organizing large blocks of citizens around constructive national ideas and goals. Through them, new strategies and principles are given a fighting chance to redress our most pressing problems and controversies.
The key agents in critical elections are gifted ideologues and statesmen who understand how to combine new ideas in a synergistic, holistic way that can appeal to a majority of the citizenry. Without critical elections, the parties become calcified, leaving voters without constructive options, and leaving the nation itself without worthy and inspiring goals, which are necessary to its continuance and integrity.
The idea of a critical election is somewhat esoteric, but it’s a concept that helps us makes sense of what’s happening with the parties. Although Americans may not be conscious that some such redefinition is in the offing, there are signs that both the Democratic and Republican parties are losing their salience and no longer meaningfully organize the mass of the electorate around the issues and goals that matter most to voters. As a consequence, circumstances are ripe for independent party movements or for the redefinition from within of either or both of our dominant political parties. Depending on your temperament, this prospect could be either welcome or alarming.