Demography is Destiny

It's just not immediate.

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Ruy Teixeira has a longish essay at the new online magazine Persuasion arguing that people have misread his famous work, The Coming Democratic Majority, and that Republicans could keep winning elections if Democrats don’t step up.

He begins:

In the months after Barack Obama’s historic victory, the conventional wisdom held that Democrats would now dominate the nation’s politics for decades. “There have been long periods where one party generally has the upper hand,” famous Democratic strategist James Carville remarked at the time. Obama’s victory, the title of Carville’s new book predicted, marked the beginning of just such an epoch: 40 More Years—How Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.

Carville’s analysis was based on a simple narrative: Groups that favor Democrats are growing. Groups that favor Republicans are shrinking. Demographic change will keep swelling the Democratic ranks until Republicans have little choice but to surrender.

It is a narrative I know well, for it is based on a bowdlerization of my own work. In 2002, John Judis and I published The Emerging Democratic Majority. In our book, we argue that Democrats should take advantage of a set of interrelated social, economic and demographic changes, including the growth of minority communities and cultural shifts among college graduates.

But we also emphasized that building this majority would require a very broad coalition, including many voters drawn from the white working class. This crucial nuance was quickly lost. And so, many Democratic pundits, operatives and elected officials have falsely come to believe that demographics are destiny.

The result has been a decade-long electoral disaster. With the exception of Obama’s victory in 2012, Democrats lost just about every important election for the next eight years. By early 2016, the party was down to 44 seats in the United States Senate, 188 seats in the House of Representatives, 18 governorships and 3,164 seats in state legislatures—the fewest elected offices Democrats have held nationwide since the 1920s. Then came the coup de grace: Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States.

If Democrats don’t correct their misunderstanding of what it takes for them to win elections, the next decade could turn out to be just as bitter as the last. But even after ten painful years, their most influential operatives continue to believe that demographic changes will inevitably give them a decisive advantage. So it is time for me to set the record straight.

He follows this up with a longer account of what his book argued, a bit of a history lesson of Republican successes, and an argument with which I agree fully:

. . . Democrats needed to adopt a form of “progressive centrism.” The party should proudly emphasize the ability of government to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. But its governing ideology could not present itself as standing in radical opposition to the country’s founding values . . .

I also agree with him that Joe Biden is doing a better job of that than did Hillary Clinton.

But Carville was right, too. Democrats have in fact dominated electorally since 2008. Obama won the popular vote in 2008 and 2012 and Clinton won it in 2016. Biden is very, very likely—almost certain, in fact—to win it in 2020. Further, as Steven Taylor has pointed out here repeatedly, Democrats have won far, far more votes for House seats in just about every election.

While Teixeira may well be right that Democrats didn’t capitalize on changing demographics as well as they could have because they’ve alienated the white working-class with identity politics, Republicans have done as well as they have for two main reasons: institutions that are rigged in their favor and manipulation of the system. The first is obvious and well-trod: the Senate gives Wyoming’s 563,626 voters the same representation as California’s 37,253,956 and the Electoral College reinforces that advantage. Second, Republicans have been more ruthless in gerrymanding House districts to their advantage and, frankly, making it hard for Democratic-leaning groups to vote.

Further, demography works both ways. The fact that black and, especially, Hispanic voters constitute and ever-increasing chunk of the electorate and young would-be voters have radically different values than the older voters they’re gradually displacing means that it’s much easier to mobilize the groups that see the America they grew up with going away. But that’s by definition a limited-term phenomenon.

Whatever successes playing to the fears of the elderly and lower-class whites have had in the short run, it’s unsustainable in the longer run.

I’m old enough to remember when California was a reliably Republican state in Presidential elections. A combination of a growing Hispanic population and a nativist ballot initiative changed that overnight. This year, it’s not inconceivable that we’ll see that happen in Texas. States like Virginia and North Carolina are already shifting, seemingly permanently, into the Democratic column.

The trends Teixeira and Judis pointed to two decades ago are continuing. Combined with the excesses of Donald Trump, they may well announce themselves in November.

Now, demographics isn’t destiny in the sense that party loyalties aren’t permanent. The Republican Party was, after all, the party of Abraham Lincoln and had the overwhelming support of Black voters for generations. Changes in policy positions of both parties flipped that over time.

To the extent the GOP continues to focus on mobilizing disaffected white voters, it’ll lose national-level elections. But it would only take one charismatic, well-financed candidate to rebrand the party. The problem is that it’s not at all obvious at the moment who that might be.

UPDATE: The Related Posts feature in the sidebar called my attention to posts on the same theme I’ve written in the past. “Time Running Out For GOP?” (Feb. 2012) was far more optimistic about the party’s ability to reform. “Republican Apocalypse … Now?” (June 2019) more pessimistic than today’s.

I disagree somewhat with 2012-me, simply because I see racism and nativism as more core to the party’s message in the Trump era. I don’t disagree with 2019-me that the institutions of our system are broken but the examples of Trump and, to a lesser extent, Michael Bloomberg demonstrate to me how flexible party labels can be.

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FILED UNDER: Politics 101, Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    “I’m old enough to remember when California was a reliably Republican state in Presidential elections. A combination of a growing Hispanic population and a nativist ballot initiative changed that overnight.”

    In a historic first, Latino students are the largest group admitted to University of California’s freshman class

    La escritura manuscrita está en la pared.

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  2. Dan says:

    I think the biggest issue for Democrats is not # of Senators, but the limit on total Representatives. If Representatives were spread across the states in correct proportion, the EC becomes a minor problem.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Demography is Destiny*

    *If you show up and vote.

    What has hurt Dems over the last thirty years is the gap in partisan participation between presidential election years and off year elections. The notable exceptions being 2006 & 2018. The turnout failure contributed to rise of Newt Gingrich in 94 and the 2010 disaster that was exacerbated by gains r’s made in state houses and state legislatures allowing them to Gerrymander the House to the point that Dems need ~+9% vote totals to control the chamber.

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  4. DrDaveT says:

    I also agree with him that Joe Biden is doing a better job of that than did Hillary Clinton.

    I’m dying to know which of Hillary Clinton’s positions you believe “stood in radical opposition to the country’s founding values.”

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  5. Scott F. says:

    To the extent the GOP continues to focus on mobilizing disaffected white voters, it’ll lose national-level elections. But it would only take one charismatic, well-financed candidate to rebrand the party. The problem is that it’s not at all obvious at the moment who that might be.

    To win national-level elections without the rigging and manipulation, they’re going to need new ideas for that charismatic candidate to promote. It’s not at all obvious what those will be.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    The Democratic coalition is kept together by the Republican Party. Absent Republican racism there’s no particular reason black and brown should be on the same team. Absent a repugnant GOP there’s no particular reason gays are part of it, or Asians, or whites for that matter. Republican racism, misogyny and bigotry creates the Democratic coalition.

    Coalitions can be strong in the moment, but weak over the long haul as the bonds uniting them are weakened by success.

    Which is why I don’t see the current alignment as permanent. Either the GOP will outgrow its racism or it will shrivel and be replaced by some more potent political force and become irrelevant except as a spoiler party, a sort of LP-KKK hybrid. If the GOP shrinks significantly the action moves to the Democrats who may well splinter into factions, perhaps even separate parties.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I’m dying to know which of Hillary Clinton’s positions you believe “stood in radical opposition to the country’s founding values.”

    It’s not always about policy so much as positioning. Biden and Clinton are relatively indistinguishable ideologically. But he’s much better at connecting with the white working class voters that Judis and Texiera thought naturally part of the coalition than she was. Part of it’s simple empathy. But her “basket of deplorables” dismissiveness didn’t help her.

    @Scott F.:

    To win national-level elections without the rigging and manipulation, they’re going to need new ideas for that charismatic candidate to promote. It’s not at all obvious what those will be.

    I’m less convinced than I once was that platform is the main issue—although I agree that something other than warmed over Reaganism would be refreshing. A centrist positioning him/herself in opposition to the extremes of the Warren-Sanders-AOC wing of the Democratic Party could well be appealing.

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    But her “basket of deplorables” dismissiveness didn’t help her.

    Yes, it’s not always a good idea to tell the truth.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The Democratic coalition is kept together by the Republican Party. Absent Republican racism there’s no particular reason black and brown should be on the same team. Absent a repugnant GOP there’s no particular reason gays are part of it, or Asians, or whites for that matter. Republican racism, misogyny and bigotry creates the Democratic coalition.

    I think that’s largely right.

    Once the Cold War ended and anti-Communism was no longer a binding force, the Republican coalition doubled down on identity politics. The Democrats’ doing the same gives a new version of the GOP an opening. But, again, I don’t know who or what the New Republican coalition is.

    Few if any red states have party registration, so it’s not like the current Republican base is immutably in charge of the nominating process. But they have a strong interest in not letting go.

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  10. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The Democratic coalition is kept together by the Republican Party.

    Spot on. This is reflected in the difficulty Dems have in getting the Hispanic/Latino vote out in numbers that reflect the size of the group and Hispanic/Latino ~ 30% past support for GWB and John McCain. Grover Nordquist believed that r’s could win the support of the emerging Muslim minority, that dream be shattered by r racism.

    I don’t believe that the woke left of the Dem’s understands this.

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    James, here’s one of your replies in that 2012 thread:

    In fact, it’s Rick Santorum and only Rick Santorum who is making access to contraception an issue. The “religious liberty” argument in going after the now-abandoned Obama administration policy was neither a dog whistle nor a code word for anything else; it was about a specific policy. Even most ultra-conservative Republicans think birth control should be legal.

    I think recent history has shown you were off base here. Anti-contraception is not a broadly motivating issue for Republicans, but rather is intensely motivating to at least three of the fanatical blocs in the part: Racists who are intensely concerned that whites use contraception at a higher rate than minorities and so have smaller families; Opus Dei variety Catholic nutballs who believe it to be highly immoral; run of the mill anti-woman Christians who believe child bearing to be the only value women have and putting that off gives them ideas above their station.

    It is not for nothing that it has been a couple of decades since any one in the reliably anti-abortion Party has proposed access to birth control as part of the answer.

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  12. Michael Cain says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Just a comment to note that in their gerrymandering lawsuit, the Wisconsin Democratic Party admitted that there is a natural gerrymandering effect in that (a) their voters tend to live in cities and (b) their voters don’t want to see those cities split across districts any more than necessary. They said up front that they had no problem with the fact that they needed a +7% margin statewide in order to get a 50/50 split of state legislative seats. They objected to the situation where a +9% margin left the seats split 60/40 in favor of the Republicans.

    Where I live in Colorado, the 1st US House district is the City of Denver plus just enough of a bordering suburb to meet equal-size requirements. The 1st votes 80% for the Democrat in the House elections. Also, the City and its voters will fight to the death to have a “Denver” district even if it means the Republicans get an extra House seat overall.

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  13. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:
    This is an oversimplification, but at the core, the Democratic Party proposes responding to the pressing issues of our times – climate change, increasing wealth inequality, a financially unsustainable health system, and systemic social inequities both gender-based and racial. The Warren-Sanders-AOC wing of the party is only “extreme” in terms of how fast and how far the country should move to address these challenges. I believe there are more conservative approaches in response, but until the Republican Party at least acknowledges that these conditions are real and not hoaxes, I don’t see what a centrist opposition could possibly be.

    As Michael notes, the Democratic coalition is kept together by the Republicans’ xenophobia and misogyny. I’d expand that to include their denialism. I consider myself a pragmatist and a technocrat more than a partisan, but I’ve been firmly in the Democratic camp since Gingrich because from that time to today the Republicans have shown nothing but the demonization of liberalism and various versions of “America is exceptional, so we’re going to shove our heads in the sand.”

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  14. gVOR08 says:

    I read the whole Teixeira piece at the link. The “basket of deplorables” remark, out of context as usual, was the only actual example he could come up with to support his thesis that Dems have abandoned the non-college white working class. His essay is another example of Murc’s Law, the fallacy that only Democrats have agency in American politics.

    Teixeira avoids the 800 pound gorilla. Race. What’s really happened is that Republicans have gotten really good at activating racism. I have a mental picture of Trump as Pappy O’Daniel from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou sitting with his advisers and his idiot son-in-law bemoaning that Lee Atwater was right and they can’t say, “ni-clang”. What to do, what to do? Jared says, “We could run on governing for the common working man. Voters like that common man stuff.” Trump whacks him with his hat and says, “We’re Republicans you Reformicon ninny! … Oh wait, we are Republicans, we’ll lie about it.” But then one of the minions observes we can say “immigrant” and Trump jumps on it, “Immigrant, immigrant, immigrant! That’s the ticket!”

    Dems haven’t abandoned white non-college voters, Teixeira admits Biden is doing a better job with them than Hillary, although again he seems unable to cite examples beyond optics. (Other 800 lb gorilla, he’s male.) But Teixeira avoids the real question, how? How does Biden counter the Republicans’ racist appeal without alienating the D base? How?

    As to what Rs will do if and when they admit defeat, they’ll do what conservatives have always done, divide and conquer. Trump has dug the hole pretty deep with Hispanics, but Republicans are able to square the circle. They’ll lie. Once Trump is gone, they’ll have always supported the Dreamers. They’ll find any difference of between Hispanics and Blacks and drive a wedge in. Or invent differences.

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  15. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Yes, even in fairly drawn districts the will be differentials due to concentration residency and that works to the Dems advantage in Massachusetts. Then we have situations such as Pennsylvania.

    That meant Republicans held about 72% of the House seats in the state, despite winning just 54% of total votes in Pennsylvania congressional elections in 2016.

    If nationally, all districts were fairly drawn the resulting congress should track party registration, plus one party leaning independents. There are other examples of Gerrymandered districts hurting one party of the other, Maryland comes to mind as well as North and South Carolina.

    Due to the brutal beating Dems took in 2010 and the resulting number of states where r’s had control of the legislature and governors mansion, the r’s were pretty much able to control congress for the decade if they were smart. But they weren’t.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    Once the Cold War ended and anti-Communism was no longer a binding force, the Republican coalition doubled down on identity politics.

    I’ve been reading Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein’s deep dive into the Goldwater campaign and the birth of movement conservatism. They may have doubled down with Trump, but Goldwater was pretty committed to a race driven Southern Strategy at the height of the cold war. Goldwater doesn’t seem to have been personally racist, which matters not at all, but while they never voted for Rs, the southern states were fully represented in the nominating process. And Nixon famously ran a Southern Strategy while the Cold War was a hot war in Vietnam.

  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The Democratic coalition is kept together by the Republican Party.

    I use a basketball analogy. Republicans have been the party of business. (One could argue that Ds are better for business, but business sees Rs as the party of business.) As such, the Rs have a built in respectability advantage and a big money advantage. This makes them the default party, except when they screw up: the Great Depression, Nixon, the Great Recession. They’re the Harlem Globetrotters. But like our political system, the rules require two teams, so we have to have the Washington Generals. We have to have two parties. If you want to cripple OSHA or ensure nothing is done about AGW or depend on government contracts you become Republican. Democrats are then a coalition of whoever can’t fit in the GOP coalition: unions, environmentalists, many new industries, minorities.

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  18. @Dan:

    If Representatives were spread across the states in correct proportion

    More accurately, if there were a lot more representatives, then that would dilute (but not eliminate) the EC’s Senate issue. But the fact that we have not increased the size of the House since the early 1900s when we had ~90 million citizens is part of the problem.

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  19. @Michael Reynolds: When there are only two baskets, odd coalitions form. The system keeps white rural folks and Wall Street bankers in the GOP as well.

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  20. BTW: when we try to figure out why Biden, who isn’t all that different ideologically than HRC, the complexities of figuring out why are likely influenced by the following variables more than anything noted above:

    1. Sexism
    2. Trump’s performance in office, especially in the pandemic.
    3. Economic performance, especially 2Q, of this year.

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  21. Michael Cain says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes, I’d like to see a lot more Representatives. Next apportionment will result in what, about 760,000 people per House member? Assuming 435 stays untouchable, Colorado will get its eighth Rep in 2022. Chances are excellent that there will be three safe Republican districts, four safe Democratic districts, and one that is competitive. Everyone in the competitive district will be unhappy because it will be split across suburban and rural areas.

  22. Dan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: More accurately, if there were a lot more representatives, then that would dilute (but not eliminate) the EC’s Senate issue.

    It would make it way less likely for a president to win the popular vote, and lose the EC. And it has the benefit of actually being fixable.

    As the system is now, all three elected offices favor small population states in the sense that each citizens vote counts more in a small state than a large state.

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  23. Sleeping Dog says:

    Double the size of the house and have the new seats be “at large”

  24. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s not always about policy so much as positioning.

    I’m sorry, that is not at all what you said the first time. You said that Joe Biden has done better than Hillary Clinton at “not present[ing the Democratic Party] as standing in radical opposition to the country’s founding values.” That can only be true if Hillary Clinton has, in some way, presented the Democratic Party as standing in radical opposition to the country’s founding values. Not merely failing to uphold; not merely opposing; radical opposition.

    If that’s not what you meant, you might want to retract the original. And maybe even apologize to Ms. Clinton, since that’s an outrageous accusation if you are just making it up out of thin air.

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  25. An Interested Party says:

    But it would only take one charismatic, well-financed candidate to rebrand the party.

    Is that all it would take? Republican policies are opposed by most Americans…

    Dems haven’t abandoned white non-college voters, Teixeira admits Biden is doing a better job with them than Hillary, although again he seems unable to cite examples beyond optics. (Other 800 lb gorilla, he’s male.)

    Let’s not forget that misogyny is just as potent a force as racism is in this country…

  26. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner:

    But her “basket of deplorables” dismissiveness didn’t help her.

    Once again, let’s look at the full context of her remarks:

    You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. (Laughter/applause) Right? (Laughter/applause) They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic — Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.

    But the “other” basket — the other basket — and I know because I look at this crowd I see friends from all over America here: I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas and — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that “other” basket of people are people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but — he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

    Here Hillary argues something that I doubt even you, James, would seriously dispute: that a large number of Trump’s supporters are driven by racism and bigotry. Immediately after she says this, however, she notes that just as many of his supporters have legitimate grievances.

    Was it smart for her to use this language? No. But the claim that she was being dismissive of the concerns of working-class Americans is nothing but a bareface lie.

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