The Disappearance of the The Emerging Democratic Majority: The Failure of a Thesis (Updated)
In 2004, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote an acclaimed and seemingly prescient book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. Their thesis was based on a demographic analysis, which led them to predict the end of any future Republican ascendancy. As Judis summed up their thesis after the Obama landslide of 2008, Obama’s “election is the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 1990s, was delayed by September 11, and resumed with the 2006 election. This realignment is predicated on a change in political demography and geography. Groups that had been disproportionately Republican have become disproportionately Democratic, and red states like Virginia have turned blue. Underlying these changes has been a shift in the nation's ‘fundamentals’--in the structure of society and industry, and in the way Americans think of their families, jobs, and government. The country is no longer ‘America the conservative.’ And, if Obama acts shrewdly to consolidate this new majority, we may soon be ‘America the liberal.’” Therefore, those commentators who argued that the United States was still a center/right nation were dead wrong.
The realignment, according to the two authors, took place reflecting “the shift that began decades ago toward a post-industrial economy centered in large urban-suburban metropolitan areas devoted primarily to the production of ideas and services rather than material goods.” And living in these areas were the three main groups that composed the new Democratic majority: professionals, minorities, and women. With Obama’s victory, Judis predicted, a national crisis would produce “popular willingness to entertain dramatic initiatives.” And, moreover, President Obama would not “face the same formidable adversaries” that had faced Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in previous Democratic administrations.
As for Judis’ advice to the new president, he argued Obama should not move slowly and opt for incremental reforms but move forcefully to a full-fledged commitment to the kind of fundamental transformation of America he promised his left-wing base.
Skip ahead to the present -- a scant two years later. The reality today is precisely the opposite of what John B. Judis predicted. His permanent Democratic majority has turned out to be illusory. As a front-page story in The New York Times explained, the coalition that gave Obama his electoral majority in 2008 is fraying apart at the seams. As the story noted, “Republicans have wiped out the advantage held by Democrats in recent election cycles among women, Roman Catholics, less affluent Americans and independents. All of those groups broke for Mr. Obama in 2008 and for Congressional Democrats when they grabbed both chambers from the Republicans four years ago, according to exit polls.”
Moreover, 57 percent of voters surveyed preferred to vote for inexperienced and untested candidates rather than cast their ballot for any Democrat. The shift was also reflected geographically. “Among poll respondents from the Western United States, more said they expected to vote for Republicans this year than said they expected to vote for Democrats; majorities of voters from that region voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and for Congressional Democrats in 2006, according to the exit polls taken in those elections.” So, contrary to Judis and Teixeira, geography is evidently not always destiny.
In an accompanying story in the same day’s Times, a reporter for the paper found that even in the UAW stronghold of Defiance, Ohio, many of its union residents were drifting over to Republican ranks. This was occurring despite the stimulus and the extension of unemployment benefits that were welcomed by a town where 13 percent of its populace had lost their jobs.
As reporter Erik Eckholm wrote, “bonds to the Democratic Party seem to be loosening here in northwest Ohio, after two years of hardship and a growing sense that many children will be financially worse off than their parents. Skepticism about big government has hardened, especially among the small-business owners who are an increasingly dominant civic voice.” A woman who ran an insurance agency and supported Obama protested that “he rammed health care down our throats,” and she was furious at the bail-outs of AIG and the big banks. The town’s mayor, who worked at GM back when it hired many of the town’s residents, put it this way: “I don’t hear a lot of support for Obama in this area.”
And then there is the response of the kind of urban professional Judis and Teixeira claimed were the mainstay of a new Democratic majority. One of these men, Will Parker, age 24, told reporter Eckholm that it was almost impossible to find the kind of job he was prepared for. He “finished college in 2009 with a degree in marketing and communications. In six months of looking, he found no work here in his hometown and had to take a Web-page job in Columbus, 115 miles to the southeast, that he feels is a dead end. Mr. Parker voted for Mr. Obama and said he now felt ‘voter’s remorse’ because ‘it feels like we’re creating a welfare state.’”
One small businessman, Karl Kissner, a local restaurant owner, explained it this way: “The health care bill caused a breach with the public.” The president’s stimulus plan, claimed Kissner, "created a false bottom" to the recession, making it hard to plan and invest. Mr. Kissner said he was "up in the air" about his vote for governor. But for the Senate this year, he will definitely vote for Rob Portman, the Republican.
No wonder John B. Judis today spends his time blasting the Tea Party movement, which has helped destroy the Democratic majority he thought had arrived permanently only two years ago. While he is smart enough to acknowledge that it is not “fascist,” as many left-wing bloggers claim, he argues instead that it is simply politically backwards. Nor is it racist; it is instead an amalgam of a “middle class cri de coeur,” in which disgruntled economic groups now shift to the populist right rather than the populist left, as had occurred in the 1930s. And many of the Tea Party members, rather than being funded by big Republican money, are actually responding to specific and just grievances.
Judis’ final argument echoes that of Thomas Frank, whose now famous book (and phrase) What’s the Matter with Kansas? revealed a lot about the author’s belief that if residents of a state like Kansas vote Republican rather than Democrat, it reflects their shortsightedness and stupidity. Judis and other liberal and left-wing writers believe that the people just might fail them once again -- a position it seems Barack Obama adheres to also.
Judis no doubt hopes that the Democratic majority will emerge from the ashes, but he has neglected to take into account the actual policies advocated by liberals -- policies that average people see through, but which liberal and socialist journalists cannot understand why the people reject. As Judis writes, “those most likely to benefit from right-wing middle class insurgencies are not the embattled middle classes, but the business interests and the wealthy associated with the Republican Party.”
Judis seems to have no awareness of all those studies which show that major corporate money has been flowing for years to the Democrats, and that regular people, whose interests he believes he and other liberal journalists understand better than they do, are rather fed up with the bail-outs and handouts to the banks and the brokerage houses.
It is his hope, as his column makes clear, that after the Republican triumph the people will return to their senses and turn back in favor of social-democracy, and in so doing, rescue his moribund thesis about the emerging Democratic majority. Somehow, I suspect he will be waiting a long, long time. Perhaps the title of his next book will be What’s Wrong With America?
Today's New York Times has a terrific editorial by Ross Douthat, in which he picks up on the themes I was trying to address, although less eloquently than Douthat does (and less concise). Here are his conclusions:
Thus his sagging poll numbers; thus the debacle that probably awaits his party on Tuesday. It will not be as grave a defeat as many conservatives would like to think: the health care bill may yet be remembered by liberals as a victory worth the price, the demographic trends are still with the Democrats, and the Republicans will return to power unprepared to wield it. But nonetheless, an opportunity has opened for the Right that would have been unimaginable just two years ago — a chance to pre-empt a seemingly inevitable liberal epoch with an unexpected conservative revival.
To achieve a conservative revival, conservatives have to come up with real programs and cogent alternatives, not just rhetoric. And that is a task easier to mention than to achieve. Let us hope we're all up to it.