No, The Democratic Party Is Not ‘Decimated’
Reports of the demise of the Democratic Party have been greatly exaggerated.
In the months prior to the Presidential election, polls continued to point toward what seemed like an inevitable victory by Hillary Clinton that amounted to either a narrow victory or a landslide equal or greater than George H.W. Bush’s win over Michael Dukakis in 1988 that would result in a loss of Republican control of at least the Senate and possibly even more down-ballot damage. This led many pundits and analysts, including yours truly, to speculate about the future of the Republican Party and what would happen to various factions of the Grand Old Party after it suffered what seemed would be its third consecutive loss in a Presidential election and its fifth loss out of the last seven such elections since 1992. That didn’t happen, of course, and the reasons why it didn’t happen and why the polls and the prognostications ended up being so wrong have been one of the primary focuses of political coverage since Election Night right along with the predictable coverage of Trump’s first days as President-Elect, his choices for Cabinet positions, White House Staff positions, and the Supreme Court. Seemingly inevitably, these discussions have been joined with claims about the supposed ‘decimation’ of the Democratic Party, which seem to have instantly replaced all the speculation about the fate of the Republican Party that was so prominent prior to the election. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, for example, provided charts showing what he called “The decimation of the Democratic Party” on Election Night. Bump’s Washington Post colleagues John Wagner, Ed O’Keefe, and Karen Tumulty wondered “What’s next fo Democrats?,” Slate’s Jim Newell argued that “The Democratic Party establishment is finished.” Speculation is already turning to what kind of bench the Democrats will have to challenge President Trump in 2020.
Speculation such as this is, of course, inevitable to some extent, and we’d be dealing with similar headlines about the GOP right now if Trump had lost even by a narrow margin. As Eugene Volokh notes, though, any such reports of the demise of the Democratic Party are greatly exaggerated:
It might be a bit early to talk about “the party’s carcass” just yet, or to dismiss its appeal to racial minorities, to women, or, under the right circumstances, to the poor — or the rich:
- The Democratic Party won a plurality of the popular vote.
- It dominates California, the most populous state; it has huge power in New York and Illinois, two of the next four states by population.
- It won the last two presidential elections before this one, by substantial margins.
- It would have won the electoral vote in this election if there had been tiny swings in a few states.
- The mainstream media, which continue to be extremely influential (though less so than before), overwhelmingly lean Democratic.
- The incoming Republican president — though undeniably, if surprisingly, effective at getting elected — has shown himself quite capable of unforced errors.
- Precisely because the party will have control of the presidency, the Senate and the House, as well as a Supreme Court that will be seen as sympathetic to Republicans, it will be held responsible if it fails to adequately address the nation’s problems — and those problems, foreign and domestic, are going to be very hard to address.
There’s no “carcass” of the Democratic Party — there is a powerful force which commands the allegiance of much of the nation’s population, and which is likely ready to capitalize on the Republican Party’s inevitable missteps. It was let down by a candidate who proved to be weak, and a party establishment that (along with most of the rest of the country) badly erred in evaluating the political mood of a substantial chunk of swing voters.
Volokh is right, of course. In addition to completely forgetting about the strengths the Democrats have outside of Washington, D.C., the arguments of those who are speaking and writing about the decimation of the Democratic Party and even suggesting or hinting that losing one Presidential election spells doom for the Democrats are incredibly naive and short-sided. For example, the Democratic Party has won four of the last seven Presidential elections, that it was won the popular vote either by a plurality or majority in that time in every Presidential election since 1992 with the exception of the 2004 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry (and in that election lost the popular vote by only 2.4 points), that the party gained seats in the House and Senate even though they fell short of taking control of either body, that they have suffiient numbers in the Senate to control a filibuster and therefore maintain a voice in drafting legislation and Supreme Court nominations unless the Republican leadership in the Senate takes the atypically radical step of eliminating the filibuster altogehter, that they continue to dominate in garnering support from minority groups such as African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans, and that that the party maintains substantial political power in many parts of the country including, as noted above, California and New York.
In addition to the actual facts about the political power of the Democratic Party even after November 8, 2016, history alone should demonstrate just how overwrought these predictions of doom actually are. Going as far back in American political history as 1928, there have been numerous occasions where one party or the other suffered a devastating defeat only to bounce back later. In 1928, Democratic nominee Al Smith was crushed by Republican Herbert Hoover in a huge landslide, only to see Hoover similarly defeated in a landslide election in 1932, an election that also saw Republicans lose Congressional and Senate seats in massive numbers. From that election in 1932 up to and including the Election of 1948, Republicans lost five Presidential elections in a row and didn’t win control of Congress back until the mid-term elections in 1946 when they won back control of the House and Senate. Despite those loses, Republicans came back and won huge victories in both 1952 and 1956 and only lost the Election of 1960 by a narrow margin. Republicans again suffered setbacks with a devastaing landslidge for President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, only to come back and win successive elections in 1968 and 1972, after which they lost in 1976 by a narrow margin and then came back and won three straight landslide Presidential Elections from 1980 through 1988. Since 1988, as I noted above, Republicans have only won three of the last seven elections since 1992, and only one of those victories came with a majority of the popular vote. The other two have come in the historically rare occasions of candidates who won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. In what may be examples of the two most stark Presidential droughts in American history, the period from 1800 to 1828 saw the Jeffersonian ‘Democratic-Republican’ Party win all but one election, and that one loss came when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives because the party Jefferson built was represented by two candidates and nobody had an Electoral College majority and in the twelve Presidential Elections from 1860 through 1908, Democrats lost all but two before they regained power with the election of Woodrow Wilson. Finally, Democrats lost control of at least one House of Congress for the first time since the 1950s, in the 1994 House and Senate midterms, then regained control in 2006 and expand their majorities in the House and Senate elections of 2008, only to see them lose control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
Given all of that, the idea that the Democratic Party is decimated because it narrowly lost one election, or because it lost three Presidential elections over the last twenty-four years — with two of those being under the historically rare circumstance of winning the popular vote but losing the Presidential election — is utterly silly just as it was silly to speculate or panic about the demise of one or the other of the two major political parties after the elections I note above. If we’ve learned nothing from the past, it ought to be that American politics can be very cyclical and that a political party or ideology that appears to be down at one point will most likely bounce back in the future, whether that future is as close as two years away or as far as twenty-eight or thirty-two years in the future. Additionally, it’s worth noting that most of the history I recounted above occurred between 1860 and 2016 and that the two major parties have remained the Republican and Democratic Parties. This contrasts with the period from 1788 through 1860, when the identity of the “main” parties in American politics only changed twice (from Federalists to Whigs to Republicans) or possibly three times if you contend that there is an appreciable difference between the Democratic-Republican Party and the Democratic Party that took shape after the election of Andrew Jackson. This tells us that the two party system we have will, more likely than not, continue long into the future absent a realignment unlike anything we’ve seen since the 19th Century ended.
None of this is to say, of course, that the two political parties can’t or won’t change. To argue that position would also be to ignore history. Changes in party ideology and the identity of party coalitions have changed too many times to recount for purposes of this post. Indeed, the results of the just-concluded election could indicate that we are at the dawn of an ideological realignment between the parties that arguably hasn’t occurred for at least the last thirty years or more. Whether the changes that appear to be coming from both parties will be positive or negative depends on your view on the issues and on factors that aren’t fully known just yet. Those are the subject of a different nature best addressed in future posts. For the time being, though, you can largely safely just ignore the predictions of doom and gloom for the Democrats. They may be changing, just as the Republicans probably are, but that’s a common part of the American history.