Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Democratic majority that emerged — and disappeared

Well, it looks like the PC coalition cracked a lot sooner than I thought it would. Both the radical left (e.g. the left-anarchists) and the center-left coalition that is the foundation of the Democratic Party’s electoral base seem to be falling apart due to the rivalries among their component parts. Meanwhile, the lurch to the left that came with the election of Obama seems to have provoked a push back to the right. What seems to be fueling this trend are class divisions and demographic change. The affluent are moving rightward for the sake of their class interests, and working class whites are moving rightward due to perceived demographic threats. I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of conservative minorities in recent electoral cycles, no doubt due to the ongoing integration of the elite and middle class sectors among the traditional minorities into the system.

By Michael Barone

Washington Examiner

John Judis, co-author of the book The Emerging Democratic Majority, now says in an article in National Journal that that majority has disappeared. His title: “The Emerging Republican Advantage.”

The original book, published in the Republican year of 2002, forecast accurately the groups that would make up the Democratic majority coalition that emerged in the 2006 and 2008 elections: blacks, Hispanics, gentry liberals, single women, young voters.

But as Judis writes now, that coalition has come apart. That’s partly because of diminished support from Millennials and Hispanics, but mostly because of additional white working-class defections and erosion among suburbanites unhappy with higher government spending and taxes.

In fact, he now says that the majority he predicted endured for only two elections. President Obama was re-elected with a reduced 51 percent of the vote, but Republicans won the House in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and the Senate in 2014. Democratic strength in governors’ mansions and state legislatures is at its lowest level since the 1920s.

That’s in line with voting patterns that have been steady for two decades. In three of the last four presidential elections, both parties have won between 47 and 51 percent of the vote. And in nine of the 11 House elections from 1994 to 2014, Republicans won between 48 and 52 percent of the popular vote and Democrats a bit less, between 45 and 49 percent.

Democrats have had the advantage in presidential elections because their clusters of base voters give them more safe electoral votes. Republicans have had the advantage in House and legislative elections because their voters are spread more evenly around the rest of the country.

To put this in historical perspective, neither party has really had a permanent majority for an extended period, as Sean Trende argues persuasively in his book The Lost Majority. And the two political parties’ coalitions over the years have been of a different character. The political cartoonists are right to portray them as two different animals.

The Republican Party has always been built around a demographic core of people considered by themselves and others to be typical Americans, even though they are not by themselves a majority. Northern Yankee Protestants in the nineteenth century, white married people today. When they come up with policies that have broader appeal beyond that core, they can win majorities. Otherwise, they can’t.

The Democratic Party has always been a coalition of disparate groups that are different from the Republicans’ core. Southern whites and Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century; blacks and gentry liberals today. When they cohere, Democrats can win big majorities. When they split apart, the party is a disorderly rabble.

During most of George W. Bush’s presidency, Republicans had viable policies. Bush was re-elected, but with only 51 percent of the vote. Then, with violence in the streets of Baghdad and New Orleans, the Republican majorities disappeared.

That, plus a strategy of running candidates tailored to local political terrain, gave Democrats majorities in 2006 and 2008. They had a chance to extend those by coming up with policies generally deemed successful and which held their disparate coalition together.

They failed on both counts. Big government policies — the stimulus package, Obamacare — proved generally unpopular. And other Democratic policies began splitting the party’s coalition. Gentry liberals’ environmental policies antagonized blue collar unions and Jacksonians from West Virginia to Oklahoma, once one of the party’s mainstays.

Hispanics in target state Colorado were turned off by gentry liberal priorities — abortion absolutism, gun control, opposition to fracking. Asians in California were repelled by attempts to re-institute racial quotas and preferences in higher education that directly harm them. Millennials were socked with high health insurance premiums even as they searched for jobs from their parent’s basements. Israel supporters have been dismayed by Obama’s Middle East policies.

Even if they haven’t achieved permanent majorities, American parties have had enduring public policy successes. Social Security (passed 1935) and the Taft-Hartley labor law (passed 1947) are examples.

But it’s not clear the Obama Democrats accomplished that. The 2009 stimulus package’s steep increases in spending were cut back by the 2013 sequester. Tax increases may be pulled back. The administration has had to make dozens of revisions to the still-unpopular Obamacare and may have to accept serious rollbacks if it loses King v. Burwell in the Supreme Court in June.

Republicans looking to 2016 should be aiming not at creating a permanent partisan majority but at developing public policies that could, unlike Obama’s, be successful and enduring.

2 replies »

  1. I still think your thesis of a general cultural left political dominance for the next few decades still holds. There will be occasional Republican administrations, but they will have to hew to the centre to win.

    Just like from 1960’s to 2008, where the only winning Democrat administrations were Carter and Clinton, and they only got in by being conservative centrist Democrats, the same will apply in a reverse fashion to Republicans.

  2. Right. I think Judis’ latest argument weakens the earlier argument somewhat, but hardly negates it.

    Judis’ new argument doesn’t address the basic demographic questions. All of the primary GOP constituencies are shrinking in size, and they have no new constituencies that are likely to make up for the loss in the future.

    I’ve suggested before that as the cultural right shrinks in size and continues to lose power, it may becoming increasingly militant in terms of offering resistance. It may be able to draw from the center some who resist a further leftward drift. As class divisions widen and demographic change takes place, the GOP may be able to pick up more socially or economically conservative minorities, e.g more Allen Wests, Herman Cains, Mia Loves, etc. Also, as the GOP loses power nationally, it may strengthen its position in the red zones. That seems to be happening now.

    All of these factors combined may keep the GOP from going the same way as the Whigs, but I agree that other than an occasional moderate Republican administration the Democrats still seem to be positioned to be the dominant party in national politics for a while.

    My guess is that decades hence “conservatism” in the US will look a lot like the Obama Democrats now,e.g. neoliberal economics, liberal internationalism, multicultural, feminized, gayized, etc. The “liberals” of that time will look like the Scandinavian Left or the present day academic Left (see the present state of the Green Party for a prototype). By that time, “cultural conservatives” generally will look a lot like today’s white nationalists, i.e. a very small but militant political minority that is thoroughly removed from power.

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