An Excerpt from “A long-term success strategy for Democrats, with Ruy Teixeira,” a transcript of Geoff Kabaservice’s interview for the Niskanen Center of Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, co-founder and politics editor of The Liberal Patriot:
Geoff Kabaservice: I can’t neglect mentioning that in 2002 you published a bestseller co-authored with John Judis which a lot of listeners will have encountered, which is The Emerging Democratic Majority, which the New York Times later called “one of the most influential political books of the 21st century.” And the title of course was playing off of Kevin Phillips’ 1969 bestseller, The Emerging Republican Majority. That book was in part demographic projection, but it was also a strategy calling for the Republican Party to exploit tensions over civil rights and social change, basically, and attract voters in what he called “the Sunbelt” in the South and the West and weld them to the traditionally conservative areas of the Midwest. Out of curiosity, how do you assess the Phillips book in hindsight?
Ruy Teixeira: I think it was pretty prescient. I think he did a crackerjack job, and it certainly worked for quite a while. And I think he did ID a lot of the emerging trends that were reshaping politics. Eventually the analysis ran out of gas; the country was changing in ways that were actually going to make that strategy less useful and call it into question.
And in a sense, that’s what The Emerging Democratic Majority was about. It was about looking at the ways in which the country was changing — demographically, economically, ideologically — and basically making the argument that Democrats were a better match for those changes, and if they played their cards right they could take advantage of appealing to these emerging constituencies that were more oriented toward what we called in the book “progressive centrism.” And by doing that, they could accentuate the contradictions in the Republican coalition and start to move some of these voters in their direction and be able to build — maybe not an FDR-style realignment, but a durable advantage in the electorate.
I think we were right about a lot of things, but one thing we didn’t really… There were a couple of things we didn’t really understand at the time, even though in 2008, when Obama won such a solid victory and the Democrats looked like they were in the catbird seat, a lot of people thought, “Well, they did figure it out.” But one thing we didn’t really emphasize enough — it was in the book, but people totally ignored it — was the idea that you’ve got to have a very strong level of white working-class support. That doesn’t mean you have to carry them by a majority, but given the actual demographic nature of the United States and given the way certain voters were concentrated in certain states, it just was a case mathematically that you needed to have a pretty strong minority of this vote. And if that started going south on you, it did call the whole strategy into question.
So that was widely ignored, particularly after 2012, interestingly enough, despite the fact that if you take a serious look at the 2012 election, the reason Obama wins certainly isn’t just because the so-called “rising American electorate” turned out for us. It’s because he clawed back a lot of white working-class voters in the upper Midwest from the 2010 debacle by running against Romney as a populist and trying to capitalize on the auto bailout and all that. So that was a message that was not understood, that that was key to the Democrats’ victory in that election. And they just immediately forgot about it and continued putting their chips down on “the rising American electorate.” And then of course we get to Trump in 2016 where he basically rides white working-class voting shifts to the presidency, to everyone’s dismay. So that was one thing I think people didn’t understand about our analysis. If there was a sort of underpinning, it was that the Democrats had to retain the loyalties of a very significant segment of the white working-class voters.
But the other thing was we talked about progressive centrism. We thought Democrats were in a pretty good spot in terms of sort of promoting social tolerance, promoting anti-discrimination, trying to help lift up the most benighted among us. And America really was turning into much more tolerant, liberal society in that sense, and the whole anti-government fever to some extent had declined. Professionals were becoming increasingly influential as a part of the electorate and certainly culturally, and they were inclined toward at least a moderate government activism type of approach. They were public-spirited, public-oriented in a way that, say, managers weren’t, who more into the bottom line.
We had a whole analysis along those lines that suggested that if the Democrats could harness that progressive centrism with a sort of incremental approach to improving things and trying to be in that cultural sweet spot of being progressive but not alarming to traditionalists, that they would benefit over the long haul.
And as we saw in the teens, basically, I think that that totally comes apart. The Democrats really do move very sharply to the left on pretty much any even vaguely cultural issue you can name. We finally got a country where gay marriage was okay with everybody, and they said, “Nope, not enough. We’re going to move toward a society where your kids are taught gender fluidity in kindergarten and there can be 85 different genders and people should declare their pronouns. And oh, did I mention that you have white privilege? And you should probably examine and scrutinize your life very carefully because you are an oppressor.”
So this boutique kind of cultural leftism bled out of the universities into the wider cultural realm and basically took over the media, the advocacy groups, the foundations, the Democratic Party infrastructures. It was really quite remarkable and happened in a relatively short period of time. And certainly it had a big cohort component to it: the generations that came out of the universities in the 21st century have really been much more oriented in this direction. And they pushed it, and they found willing collaborators and older people and institutions and so on.
Anyway, that’s a long story and we try to break it down a lot in our new book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone? We try to put some meat on those bones of how that transformation happened. I try to explain it in various different areas and how that relates to the other big thing we say happened, which was a great divide between the college-educated and the non-college youth, particularly in certain areas of the country. It’s a lot about regional inequality, it’s a lot about the left-behinds in the country, it’s a lot about areas of the country dependent on farming, manufacturing, resource extraction, and so on: places outside of the post-industrial, cosmopolitan metropolitan areas, which now basically are the Democratic heartland, in that sort of way.
And these people became increasingly disenchanted with the Democrats, partly on economic grounds because of what happened in these areas and these communities where they did feel like they were left behind and looked down on. And then you wind up in the 21st century (particularly in the teens) with the Democratic Party, the former “party of the people” of the common man and woman, developing these seeming obsessions with things that just do not resonate at all in the lives of tens of millions of working-class people out there. It became less of a working-class party. It is no longer the party of the working class, just on strict nose-counting criteria. So that’s important.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think it’s actually important to point out to listeners that although you get a lot of grief from the Democratic left online, and although you do offer a lot of tough love toward your party, you are not an independent or a Never Trumper or anything like that. You’re an ardent Democrat. And I think back to a famous post that you and Peter Leyden made on Medium five years ago where you wrote that bipartisan cooperation had already become impossible at that time because of Republicans’ refusal to work with Democrats in good faith or compromise in any way — and this is of course before Trump. And you wrote that the Republican Party “over the last 40 years has maneuvered itself into a position where they are the bad guys on the wrong side of history.” And you added that the future of the country really depended on a Republican Party being thoroughly defeated, not just for a political cycle or two but for a generation or two. Have you had any reasons since 2018 to revise that opinion?
Ruy Teixeira: Yeah, I’ve definitely revised my opinion. I do think that neither party is really capable of any kind of solid realignment of American politics at this point. I really overestimated… I was in a space at that point where I was trying to figure out… I didn’t have a lot of faith in the Republican Party, obviously, but I was sort of hoping that the Democrats would concentrate on taking advantage of the contradictions in the Republican Party while keeping their wits about them and their sanity about them. That just didn’t seem to happen. Partly too… I wrote it with Peter Leyden and he was a little bit more sure that the Republicans were down for the count than I was. But as it turned out, I think just in many ways that was an overinterpretation of what was going on.
It was not too hard, and it was correct in many ways, to argue that the Republicans in their current iteration (and certainly in today’s iteration) have really lost track of what it is, what they need to be to be a successful conservative party. But it also became the case over time that the Democrats lost track of what it would take to be a successful and productive liberal party, and how to be the actual party of the ordinary America, which is their historical brand and where they’ve had the greatest success.
California’s a good example of that, because we had assumed when we were writing that California really was a bit of a blueprint for the future. But pretty much all the questions one might have raised about that at the time just became much worse over time. Pretty much every weakness the California Democratic Party had in its approach to politics and policy have just gotten way, way worse, and they haven’t really corrected themselves. So, yeah, I would no longer say California is much of a model for anything. And I think what we should be looking for is better behavior, better policy, and better politics out of both parties.
So I’m no longer so sure the job of all good people is to wish for the Democrats to drive the Republicans out of business. Not that that was likely to happen anyway, but you know what I mean? I don’t think they need to be defeated for a generation at this point. Really, we’re on a seesaw between the parties going back and forth, and what we need is for one party or the other to make a decisive move to the center and to reform themselves in such a way that they are going to be attractive to a solid majority of the American people in some sort of durable way.
Of course, we can’t leave out the possibility this could go on for a long time. It certainly could happen. We could have this sort of despicable, uncomfortable, everybody-hates-it equilibrium between the parties for another number of cycles. There’s no law that says it has to be resolved.