The Emerging Democratic Majority Revisited
On the eve of the Democratic convention, a Danish newspaper asked me whether I thought the “emerging Democratic majority,” which Ruy Teixeira and I wrote about, was still intact. Here is a revised version of what I wrote them.
In 2001, Ruy and I did predict that by the decade’s end, there would be a Democratic majority, although not on the scale of the New Deal majority. We felt vindicated by the 2006 and 2008 Democratic results, which more or less followed our script of a majority based on professionals, women, minorities, and about 40 percent of the white working class. The one thing we didn’t anticipate was the support of young people as a distinct group for the Democrats, which has carried over.
After 2008, I don’t think we were prepared for the Democrats’ hold on the white working class to evaporate as quickly it did in 2010. At least, I wasn’t. I hoped that Obama would use his majority to consolidate a new majority. Obama won some of the Midwestern working class voters back in 2012, but they abandoned the Democrats in 2014 and 2016, helping Trump to win states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
With Trump, we are really in a unique situation. I hear arguments that Trump has transformed the Republican party into a “workers’ party,” and that even if he loses, the Republicans will never be the same again. They will be different, but I doubt if they will become a “workers party.” The Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable will regain their seats around the table.
I did think that if Trump, after the 2016 election Trump, were to get rid of bigotry and nativism, and govern on the principles of economic nationalism, including support for universal health care (which he promised in the campaign) and progressive tax reform, he would lay the basis for a new Republican party. At the least, he could get himself re-elected.
But as president, Trump has succumbed to his worst impulses. The bigotry rides high, the lies, the contempt for democracy, the attraction to foreign dictators, and in much of his legislation, subordination to the Republicans’ business interests or, worse, his own greed. He has never displayed the ability to govern the nation — and that became painfully obvious when the pandemic hit. He is not stupid by any classroom definition, but he has become captive to his own impulses and contemptuous of social and natural science. He is a uniquely bad president, and if he were to lose, I would suspect the Republicans would revert back, with some changes, perhaps, on trade and industrial policy, to the party of 2015.
All this bears on the question of political coalitions. Republicans have enjoyed support over the last decades from senior citizens and college-educated suburbanites who make their living in business rather than the professions. Both of these groups have, on average, abandoned Trump. The latter helped the Democrats win congressional seats in 2018. Senior citizens have flown the coop over Trump’s utter failure to stem the virus. In addition, Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and the recession has cost him support among white working class voters, If Biden and Harris win in 2020, and especially if they win big, it will partly be because of the defection of these voters.
If Biden and Harris win by assembling a coalition that includes these voters, then the question will be whether they can hold them, or whether they will revert back to the Republicans. That will depend on how boldly Biden and Harris proceed. Obama allowed the Republicans to peel away working class voters by his timid approach to the Great Recession, failing, among other things, to go after the bankers who were responsible for it and acceding to conservative pressure to cut spending. if Biden and Harris don’t proceed boldly, I would expect that American politics will revert to the status quo ante — what political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called an “unstable equilibrium” between the parties — where the Republicans and Democrats will exchange political power. Both parties will have to hold together different economic classes. Both will be hampered in general elections by social-minded factions on their extremes.
Some Democrats have argued that as what are now described as minorities become a larger percentage of the electorate, and as Democrats continue to win these voters by two-thirds or more, the party will have gained a long-lasting political hold on the country. But this is wishful thinking. Many Hispanics and Asians and to a lesser extent blacks intermarry. Many of the children identify themselves as “white.” For instance, in 2010, the census found 60 percent of Americans were “white” by European ancestry, but when citizens who had Hispanic ancestors but identified themselves as “white” were included, the number was 72 percent. There is no demographic magic bullet that will gain Democrats a majority.
Having said all that, I would expect the center of gravity of American politics will move somewhat to the left in Democratic and Republican politics. Two deep recessions in a decade will leave their mark in a greater willingness to use the government to cushion citizens from the loss of jobs and health insurance. Competition from China and the loss of industrial jobs will make both parties more willing to support an industrial and trade policy designed to boost American-based industries. Aside from social issues, the difference between the parties will likely be over whether to encourage traditional and non-traditional forms of worker organization and whether to adopt tax policies that dramatically redistribute income and wealth.
Of course, Trump could still be re-elected. If that happens, the country will be plunged into a kind of political chaos that was foreshadowed by the police protests this year and by the breakdown this summer in Congressional relations and the corruption of the simplest tasks of governmental administration. Imagine for a moment how the distribution of a vaccine would be handled. It is not a prospect that for the moment, I want to contemplate.