Ezra Klein interviews Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, for The Ezra Klein Show at The New York Times. An excerpt of the interview transcript is cross-posted here:
EZRA KLEIN: From New York Times Opinion, this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
So last week on the show we had Simon Rosenberg giving the very optimistic case on the Democratic Party, the view that the Democratic Party is doing great, they are winning at a rate we have not seen since F.D.R., and that all of this panic about the state of the party, about its prospects in 2024, is misguided.
Today is the other argument, the argument the Democratic Party is not doing great. That, in fact, it’s doing quite badly. That it is losing something core to who it is, core to its soul, and it’s losing it because it is making bad strategic and even, as you’ll hear in his views, substantive decisions. So Ruy Teixeira is very well known in Democratic policy circles, longtime pollster and political strategist. And he wrote in 2002, alongside John Judis, a famous book called “The Emerging Democratic Majority.”
When this book comes out, things are looking real bad for Democrats. It’s the 9/11 era, George W. Bush is super popular. And here come Teixeira and Judis to say, actually things look pretty good for Democrats, that if you look at how the country is changing, the growth of nonwhite voters, the growth of the professional class, if you look at how those and other groups vote for Democrats, that just based on demographics you should expect the Democratic slice of the electorate to really grow. And if it grows, Democrats are going to begin winning.
Now it’s a weird time for that book to come out. George W. Bush wins again in 2004. But in 2008, reality begins to look a lot like what they’ve been describing. And then in 2012, when Obama wins on the back of huge, huge turnout among nonwhite voters, he has a share of the white electorate that is about what Dukakis had when he loses in 1988.
When Obama wins with that coalition, it really looks like Teixeira and Judis were right. And even the Republican Party seems to think so. It begins to think it has to moderate on immigration and put forward a kinder face. And then, of course, comes Donald Trump and upends us once again, wins when people think he cannot. And that sets off a set of soul-searching. What was wrong in the emerging Democratic majority? What did Teixeira and Judis get wrong? What did Democrats get wrong?
And so now they have a new book out called “Where Have All The Democrats Gone?” And this book’s fundamental argument is that most of what they said came to pass. But one thing happened that they had worried about in that book, and people didn’t really pick up on, which is that in order for that Democratic majority to happen, Democrats needed to keep the working class. And they, in particular, needed to at least hold down the ground they were losing with the white working class. And that did not happen — Democrats getting stomped among the white working class. There is some evidence of them losing at least some working-class Black and Hispanic voters, particularly men.
So the question is, why? It’s a question that Judis and Teixeira are trying to answer in the new book. You will hear in here that the view is both political and, I would say, substantive. Right? There’s an argument about what is good policy and also an argument about why that policy, why a much more moderate Democratic Party would be a more politically-effective one.
And so I wanted to offer this as the second way of thinking about the Democrats right now. That they have lost a constituency that, at their very soul, they are built to represent, and that they should be treating that as a real emergency. And then there’s the question of, what do you do about it? It’s a place where I think Ruy and I have some different views, but I was grateful that he joined me here.
Ruy Teixeira, welcome to the show.
RUY TEIXEIRA: Hey. Thanks for having me, Ezra.
EZRA KLEIN: So I want to begin with the older book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which gets published in 2002 and later takes on this status as a kind of artifact of a certain era of Democratic triumphalism. But it was helpful to me to remember that it was in 2002, which was a really bad time for the Democratic Party. So tell me what you were seeing then that made you write the book. What was the context for it? Because at that time it was counterintuitive.
RUY TEIXEIRA: The context in which John Judis and I wrote the book was looking at the way the United States had evolved away from the Reagan coalition through the Clinton years and the very early part of the 21st century. If you looked at how their political base was changing and how the country was changing, it was clear that Democrats were going to benefit from the sort of inevitable rise of the nonwhite population, which was heavily Democratic. We saw the realignment of professionals toward the Democrats. We saw dramatic shifts in the voting patterns of women, particularly single, highly-educated working women.
And we looked at the more sort of dynamic Metropolitan areas of the country that we called ideopolises, and it was clear they were realigning toward the Democrats. So you could put these sort of demographic, ideological, and economic changes together and say, well, it looks like the way the country’s changing overall is moving in a direction that’s consistent with what we called at the time Democrat’s “progressive centrism,” and if they played the cards right, could conceivably develop a dominant majority that might last for some time. Even though, of course, it didn’t mean they’d win every election or even the very next election after the book was published, which was 2002.
Roiling underneath the surface there, Ezra, was a caveat we had in the book about the white working class, because we were very careful to note that secular tendency of the white working class to move away from the Democratic Party was a problem, and the Democrats really needed to stop the bleeding there and keep a strong minority share of the white working class vote overall nationally, maybe around 40 in the key Rust Belt states that were heavily working-class, more like 45. And if they did that, they could build this coalition. But the political arithmetic would get vexed and difficult if the white working class continued to deteriorate in their support for Democrats.
EZRA KLEIN: You mentioned something there, which is the ideological trends of the time, like the professional class becoming more Democratic. That hadn’t always been true. So what did you see happening ideologically in the parties around that time that was shifting these coalitions?
RUY TEIXEIRA: Right. Well, the professionals part was really important in our analysis. And if you looked at professionals, not only were they becoming a much larger part of the US occupational structure and of the electorate and, of course, they vote way above their weight in terms of turnout, but they were moving in a direction in terms of their views on cultural issues which was quite liberal.
Then also professionals, by virtue to some extent of their position in society and their occupational structure, they tend to be more public-spirited. They tend to be more sympathetic to the role of government. And those views seemed to be strengthening as professionals became a larger part of the American electorate. And we thought that was really going to help the Democrats. And, in fact, that turned out to be true, in a strict quantitative sense. They did, in fact, realign heavily toward the Democrats. It really starts in the late ’80s, kind of strengthens in the ’90s, and goes forth in the 21st century to the point today where professionals, by and large, can almost be considered a base Democratic group.
EZRA KLEIN: So then tell me what happens on the way to the Democratic majority. So you have this new book called “Where Have All The Democrats Gone?” It just published in late 2023, and it’s a bit of an update. Why didn’t this durable Democratic coalition emerge?
RUY TEIXEIRA: Well, point number one is something that we foreshadowed in “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which was that the Democrats had a potential Achilles’ heel in their coalition in terms of the white working class. If that group started moving away smartly from the Democrats again, that would throw the whole thing into question. And that did, in fact, happen after Obama’s victory in 2008.
If you look at 2010 election where the Democrats get crushed to lose 63 seats, it’s a lot because white working-class voters bail out from the Democratic Party in lots of areas of the country, particularly the upper Midwest. 2012, Obama manages to get re-elected, and that was viewed or characterized as the return of the Obama coalition. But the part of the Obama coalition they missed is, he ran a kind of populist campaign against the plutocrat Mitt Romney, running on the auto-bailout and other things like that, and he really managed to grab back a lot of those white working-class voters in the upper Midwest. And if he hadn’t done that, he would have lost that election.
But the coalition of the ascendant kind of analysis that Democrats had been playing with becomes ever stronger. In fact, after 2012, in an odd sort of way, the Republicans even embraced it with their post-election autopsy. The Democrats were riding this demographic wave, it was going to wash over the country, and the Democrats were going to potentially be dominant.
But I think Trump — [LAUGHS]: Trump had a different opinion. He thought that, in fact, there was a wellspring of resentment among the working class in the United States that a politician like him could tap, and that the Democrats were going to have a lot of difficulty defending against, and that turned out to be the case.
So that’s part of what happened to the Democratic coalition. Another part of the Democratic coalition that is — I mean, the change that’s really still unfolding today that’s very important is, if you look at 2020, even though Biden did manage to squeak through in that election, not nearly as big a victory as they thought they’d get, he managed to hold what white working-class support they had, in fact, increase it a little bit. But what was really astonishing is the way Democrats lost nonwhite working-class voters, particularly Hispanics. There was big, big declines in their margins among these voters, declines that we’re still seeing today in the polling data.
So one way to think about 2020 and where we are today, is that racial polarization is declining but class polarization, educational polarization, is increasing. And that’s a problem for a party like the Democrats which purports to be the party of the working class.
EZRA KLEIN: Well let’s pick up on this question of the working class and how do we define it. At different times we’ve talked about the working class here, the white working class. What is your measure of the working class?
RUY TEIXEIRA: I use the standard definition at this point, which is those voters lacking a four-year college degree. There’s obviously different ways you could do it. If you’re going to use a more traditional definition, which is essentially impossible to operationalize in most polls, you would use blue-collar and low-level service workers as opposed to managerial and professional workers.
You could do it by income. There’s no right, scientific way to do this. But the way I typically do it is to look at the four-year degree and more, and less than a four-year degree. And that’s pretty standard at this point, and it’s certainly the easiest thing to operationalize in polls.
And it’s not like it’s without substantive value. I mean, we look at the economic and cultural trajectory of non-college as opposed to college folks, and they look very different. I mean, this has been a country, in the last 40 years, that has been much, much better to people with a four-year college degree than people who lack it. That’s very well-established in all the empirical data.
So it’s not like we’re making something up here. It does really capture a lot about people’s economic trajectories and the jobs they have and their position in the society.
EZRA KLEIN: One thing you do see is that, depending on which definition you choose, the situation looks a little bit different. So if you look at who wins college educated voters and who wins non-college voters in 2020 and 2016, Trump does. But if you look at who wins voters making less than $100,000, Biden does. And if you look at who wins voters making more than $100,000, Donald Trump does. And you can slice that even a little finer. You look at who wins voters making between $0 and $50,000, Biden. Between $50,000 and $100,000, Biden. And then above that it tends to tilt more towards Donald Trump.
So why do you prefer an educational definition here than an income definition? And what different things might the two tell us?
You can read the rest of the interview transcript and listen to the podcast here.