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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

To Have and to Have Not

Longtime political reporter Tom Edsall has a long and fascinating piece of analysis up at The Atlantic on the present and future shape of the two major party coalitions. While none of the data he discusses is terribly surprising, he does suggest some real internal problems with the emerging Republican coalition, which is increasingly made of up married white folks, but includes those who are “haves” only because they “have” government benefits that are perceived as vulnerable to budgetary competition from “have-nots”:

It’s entirely possible that, if the deficit forces continued zero-sum calculations, the definition of the center-right coalition of “haves” will be expanded beyond its original boundaries, stretching past the wealthy, the managerial and business class, the gun owners, the anti-taxers, the home schoolers, the property rights-ers, the Western ranchers, Christian evangelicals, and the self-employed to begin to include members of what conservative operative Grover Norquist called the “takings” coalition—men or women who get federal benefits. A Republican Party hungry for victory would welcome as new members Social Security and Medicare recipients—“takers” who simultaneously consider themselves part of the universe of “haves” and of Norquist’s “leave us alone coalition.”

Add in people who are self-consciously dependent on federal defense spending, and you can see how a Republican coalition of public- and private-sector “haves” could be formidable if not terribly stable.
Demographic trends, though, are very dangerous for the GOP, as this Edsall nugget shows:

While there is no doubt that the increase in the number of racial and ethnic minority voters works to the advantage of the liberal coalition, white voters remain a wild card. In 2008, whites made up 74 percent of the electorate, and McCain carried them 55-43. There are precedents for much higher Republican margins: in 1972, Nixon carried 67 percent of the white vote, and in 1984 Reagan won 64 percent. Conversely, Bill Clinton only lost the white vote by one percentage point to George H. W. Bush in 1992. The one clear conclusion to draw from these figures is that if the GOP is unwilling to make major policy shifts, especially on immigration reform, a crucial issue to many Hispanics, the party will have to drive its margins among white voters back up to the Nixon-Reagan levels.

If anything, the current pressure on the GOP from its rank-and-file, including the Tea Party Movement, is in the opposite direction from any position on immigration policy that could attract Hispanics. So there will be a strong temptation on the Right for indulging heavily in what might be called White Identity Politics. In light of Edsall’s insight on the “haves” in the GOP coalition who are dependent on government spending, White Identity Politics could involve racially-tinged distinctions between the “deserved” government benefits received by white middle-class retirees and the “undeserved” government benefits received or sought by poorer or darker folk. That’s a dynamic that’s already been abundantly apparent in the Republican assault on health reform.
Looks like today’s political turbulence will be with us for quite a while, particularly if relatively high unemployment and budget deficits persist, accentuating the zero-sum politics of group competition that Edsall sees in the data.

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