Friday, July 26, 2002
Apologies to my few readers out there, but it has been a very hectic week and I am nursing a bad cold.
That said, a couple of words about John Judis's latest declaration that the Democrats are headed toward being a majority party. He says pretty much the same thing every year for the past 5 years or so.
His point is: Democrats do well among singles (particularly single women), working women (particularly single working women, most particularly single working women with children), non-church-goers, American blacks and Caribbean immigrants, Hispanics, East Asians, and the professional classes, and all these demographic groups are growing. Hence, ultimate victory for the Democrats. This is an excellent analysis of why Pete Wilson was the last governor of California, and why even Gray Davis is the odd-on favorite for re-election. But is it true?
No, for three reasons.
First, accepting the thesis amounts to accepting that liberals are right on the ideology, particularly on the culture war. Non-church-goers are growing as a percentage of the population. So is the percentage of the population that adheres to "hard-line" religious views: Mormons, Pentecostals, evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, etc. Similarly, the numbers of single white women with children continues to grow; so do the numbers of home-schoolers. Who's going to win the demographic battle? Depends on which trend you think is going to dominate in the long term. If you agree with Democrats, you'll think that their trend will dominate; if you agree with the Republicans, you'll think that their's will. There's no strong argument here in the end. It does seem to me, though, that the regular church-goers have rather more children than the non-church-goers.
Second, the longer immigrants remain in America, the more likely they are to vote Republican. Blacks (both native and immigrants) and East Asians seem to be something of an exception; East Asians arrived more likely to vote Republican because of anti-Communism, but their children have rapidly assimilated to the professional-class that is indeed trending strongly Democratic, while African-Americans have a unique antipathy to voting Republican that will not change without some major event to precipitate a shift. Among Hispanic-Americans specifically, there is a clear trend towards voting Republican with rises in income and generations since immigration. So the short-term and long-term trends for the most important immigrant group may cut opposite ways: short-term, high immigration may help the Democrats (as it has in California), but longer-term these may be fertile fields for the GOP to harvest. (It's also worth noting that Hispanics are well-represented in the "faith-oriented" groups that most strongly affiliate with the GOP.) In any event, it's quite clear that the Republican Party is trying very hard to figure out how to appeal to Hispanic voters; it seems rather complacent of Judis and Teixeira to assume they will fail on the basis of the California experience, when Pete Wilson's GOP there did so much to actively alienate this group.
Third, and most trickily, while Judis and Teixeira are right that on a national-political level the professional class tends strongly to vote Democratic, on a local level this is far from the case. The reason is that these voters are concentrated in urban areas that are frequently captive to lunatic or corrupt Democratic machines. The Giuliani and Riordan victories were not accidents; they show the potential for reformist Republicans to capture power in areas that are overwhelmingly Democratic by registration but where the Democratic Party is totally disfunctional. It is not impossible to see the GOP taking advantage of this trend longer-term, its reformist, progressive wing reborn on a regional basis. The biggest barrier is the GOP label, which is now associated with a regional, Southern-oriented national party that has little to say to urban America. But the Northeast is not naturally a one-party region, and the revitalization of its urban metropolises has happened frequently under GOP auspices, which gives the party a real opportunity to make long-term converts, if it seizes it.
What I think is most notable about the argument is that Judis and Teixeira have changed the demography without changing their position. They have long argued that there is a natural Democratic majority because Democratic economics appeals to working people. They are not arguing this anymore; indeed, they praise the Clinton Administration's "fiscal moderation" - i.e. Eisenhower Republicanism. The GOP has moved the discussion on economics so far to the right that even Judis and Teixeira have taken notice, and accepted that the DLC vision of the Democratic Party is the only plausible way to victory. They are now counting on what amounts to a coalition of cultural liberals because their economic story didn't pan out: white males voted overwhelmingly for Bush in the last election.
The reason the GOP is on the defensive now is simple: they have been the aggressive party, pushing their ideas and their bases' interests, for 20 years, and they are over-extended. Clinton changed people's perceptions: they now think of the Democrats as the party of stability and the GOP as the party of change, and voters will always cycle between these poles. (In that light, the change in women's voting preferences make perfect sense: when the Democrats were the party of change, women voted Republican; now that they are the party of stability, women vote Democratic and men vote Republican.) But the party of change controls the conversation. The national Democratic party has only three concrete proposals for change: national health insurance, gay marriage, and gun control, and Judis and Teixeira know that the last two are very risky electorally. Everything else on the Democratic agenda consists of stopping the GOP agenda: stopping school choice, stopping Social Security privatization, protecting established abortion rights, preventing changes in environmental regulations or tort law, preserving affirmative action, trimming back tax cuts, watering-down welfare reform, preventing new trade liberalization rounds, protecting the privileges of public-sector unions - that's the agenda, one dictated by GOP attempts to change the way things are done. Which means the GOP controls the conversation and the Democrats win when the GOP over-reaches in its efforts to produce change. The Democrats may score some significant victories - and they should, if only to keep the GOP honest. But we will not be in an era of Democratic majority until Democratic ideas dominate the national conversation.