When Kevin Phillips published his brilliantly prescient book, The Emerging Republican Majority, in 1969, he couldn’t have known that Watergate, the forced resignation of Richard Nixon, and the 1974 Democratic landslide would obscure the fundamental soundness of his analysis.
And in 2002, when John Judis and Ruy Teixeira (a co-editor of TDS) published their own counterpart to Phillips, The Emerging Democratic Majority, they had the misfortune of going to press within months of 9/11, and on the eve of a smashing Republican midterm victory.
Phillips’s long-range view of electoral dynamics, of course, was ultimately vindicated by Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1980, and down the road, by the Republican breakthrough victory in 1994.
Does the Democratic comeback in 2006 portend a similar vindication for the Judis/Teixeira hypothesis? That’s the question they examine in an important new article just published by The American Prospect, Back to the Future.
Their conclusion after examining the evidence is quite clear:
[T]his election signals the end of a fleeting Republican revival, prompted by the Bush administration’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the return to political and demographic trends that were leading to a Democratic and center-left majority in the United States.
Moreover, say Judis and Teixeira, the demographic categories that were trending Democratic in the 1990s have actually been augmented:
Just as important as these victories is who voted for Democrats in 2006. With few exceptions, the groups were exactly those that had begun trending Democratic in the 1990s and had contributed to Al Gore’s popular-vote victory over George W. Bush in 2000. These groups, which we described in our 2002 book…included women, professionals, and minorities. But in 2006 they also included two groups our book slighted or ignored altogether: younger voters (those born after 1977) and independents. These voters can generally be expected to continue backing Democrats.
It’s become commonplace for Democrats and others to observe that 9/11 (and later, the runup to the Iraq War) made national security a suddenly preeminent public concern, to the benefit of Bush and the GOP. But Judis and Teixeira go further, suggesting a psychological process they call “de-arrangement”:
The focus on the war on terror not only distracted erstwhile Democrats and independents but appeared to transform, or de-arrange, their political worldview. They temporarily became more sympathetic to a whole range of conservative assumptions and approaches. In the past, voters had trusted Democrats to manage the economy, and in 2002 that preference should have been strongly reinforced by a recession that occurred on Bush’s watch. Instead, voters in that election believed by 41 percent to 37 percent that Republicans were “more likely to make sure the country is prosperous.” Recessions could also be expected to reinforce populist perceptions of the economy, but in 2002 the percentage of voters who believed that “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer” hit its lowest level in 15 years.
This “de-arrangement” began to subside in 2004, and dissipated largely by 2006, as the electoral trends of the mid-to-late 1990s began to reassert themselves, especially among single women, Hispanics, and professionals, all rapidly growing elements of the electorate. And Democrats also made striking gains in the white working class, a shrinking category of the electorate nationally, but one that is still large and crucial in many battleground states of the Midwest. Suddenly voters began to care about economic insecurity again, even though by most measurements the economy was doing better than in 2002 or 2004.
Judis and Teixeira are especially happy to note the impressive Democratic margins in 2006 among “millenials”–young voters born after 1977–and self-identified political independents. But it’s this latter category especially that gives them some pause in predicting the size and shape of a future Democratic majority, or the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. Independents, often hostile to “big government,” fiscally cautious, and in some regions of the country, possessing a notable libertarian strain, hold views sometimes at odds with self-identified Democrats, despite their increasingly evident Democratic voting habits.
It’s the indies, and to some extent professionals, they suggest, who make the “emerging Democratic majority” a potentially unstable coalition rather than a mass movement. And their article ends on a cautionary note. While enactment of some popular, landmark domestic legislation (e.g., universal health insurance) could solidify the Democratic majority, the dynamics of the Democratic coalition, along with built-in resistance to change in Washington’s governing institutions, could make that difficult or even impossible. And without such transformative, “realigning reforms,” the Democratic majority may turn out to somewhat fragile, and beset by the kinds of intraparty tensions that tend to divide the Left from the Center. The 2008 election, they suggest, could provide a critical test of Democrats’ ability to manage their coalition, particularly since presidential elections inherently make it harder to accomodate the sort of state and regional customization of campaigns that worked well for Democrats in 2006.
As the foregoing summary suggests, the new Judis-Teixeira article dwells a bit more heavily than did the original book on the connections between Democratic policies and messages, on the one hand, and the demographic trends that give the party its great opportunity, perhaps responding to critics of the book who viewed it as an exercise in “demographics as destiny” triumphalism. And some readers of this article may well conclude that Judis and Teixeira are too quick to dismiss the post-9/11 national security climate as ephemeral, and insufficiently attentive to the counter-measures power-hungry Republicans might take to expand their own ideology-bound base into a coalition of their own.
But in the welter of post-2006 analyses that so often take a snail’s-eye view of what happened last year, Judis and Teixeira are helpfully refocusing Democrats on the big picture and the long-range trends that will determine whether the party has truly emerged from its winter of discontent, and can look forward to the real governing majority that has eluded it for so long.