The Emerging Democratic Majority
Here’s the feel-good political book to read if you’re still waiting for the hangover of the 2002 elections to dissipate. John Judis (former Washington correspondent for In These Times and a senior editor of the New Republic) and Ruy Teixeira (author of The Disappearing American Voter) think we’re sitting on a powder keg of new Democratic purpose in this country, and we’ve just got to find a way to light it.
They don’t think that the Clinton years were the interregnum in the Bush dynasty, but rather that George W. is just the silver-spooned offspring of country-club lineage and Reaganomics who’s played his hand deftly (or, at least, had expert puppeteers) and represents the last wheeze of a Republican political philosophy that has declining drawing power with a changing electorate. In fact, they believe Bill Clinton was the imperfect avatar of a new age of Democratic ascendance, something they call “progressive centrism.”
How can they believe this in light of the skunking that took place this year on top of the Bush rollbacks of Clinton policy on the environment, social welfare, division of church and state, as well as the Democrats’ sheepish concessions on tax cuts? Doesn’t it look like the great ball of public policy is rolling back down the hill at a faster clip than we’ve seen since the early days of the Reagan Administration?
Well, though they wrote the book prior to the November election, the authors did hedge their bets in light of foreign policy developments. Writing prior to the escalation of Presidential rhetoric about Iraq, the authors gave themselves some wiggle room by asserting that “a continuing public preoccupation with national security will certainly benefit the Republicans…in November 2002 and at least mitigate whatever gains the Democrats might have expected from a recession occurring during the Bush presidency.”
In a post-election (11/8/02) article in the Guardian, Judis explained the Republican payoff in the November elections by citing a CBS/New York Times poll, which found that “Americans preferred Republicans” to carry out the war on terrorism by 52 percent to 30 percent and a Gallup Poll, which found that voters were more concerned about terrorism and war than about economic issues.
Despite the election returns, Judis and Teixeira believe their argument holds. Judis ends his Guardian article by writing that “long-term domination by Bush and the Republicans is unlikely. It won’t end tomorrow, but it could in two or four years.” Let’s hope we live that long.
The thesis for The Emerging Democratic Majority is based on an analysis of electoral and demographic data that the authors believe mark a significant transition in American social and political life. It’s the mirror image of Kevin Phillips’s 1969 analysis of a previous political watershed that ushered in the Reagan counter-revolution. In The Emerging Republican Majority, Phillips argued that the New Deal coalition that had guided national politics for more than three decades was on the verge of collapse based on the imminent defection of the working- and middle-class white voter. A host of issues led to this defection. Foremost was the Democratic embrace of civil rights, led by Lyndon Johnson’s push for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Johnson knew that Democratic leadership on civil rights, juxtaposed against Barry Goldwater’s opposition, would cut deeply into the Democrats’ traditional base among Southern whites. But white blue-collar voters in northern cities also reacted against their party.
Racism became the key building block for the rebirth of the Republican Party. (Witness Trent Lott.) Republicans began to increasingly portray the Democrats as the party of inner-city rioters, hippies, draft dodgers, anti-war protesters, bra burners, and the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Large government programs, which had served the white middle class well in the form of veterans’ housing, the GI Bill, and Social Security, were suddenly being characterized as programs for “welfare queens.” All this was a calculated campaign to separate the Democratic party from its white middle-class bases in the cities and the South, and it worked well, bringing us more than two decades of Republican hegemony, interrupted only by Jimmy Carter’s one term on the heels of the Watergate scandal.
Judis and Teixeira argue that another realignment is taking place. One generation after the Republican realignment, the transition of the national economy will ultimately lead to a transfer of political power in the United States. They make a very reasoned argument, based on changes in work, in values, and in demography. But it requires that you regard the 2002 election as an aberration driven by war rhetoric and a vacuum in Democratic leadership.
As the authors describe, the ’90s saw a steady gain in Democratic voting with increases in Congressional representation in 1992, 1996, and 2000. In 1992, 1996, and 2000, the Democrats increased their presidential vote in each election. (The authors remind us that Nader did indeed cost Gore the election by providing Bush’s margin of victory in Florida and New Hampshire, thereby making the world a much more dangerous place, removing necessary support for millions of poor people and recent immigrants, threatening the little bit of environmental balance we have left, and bringing us the world Ronnie Dugger lamented in these pages.
Judis and Teixeira paint a portrait of a post-industrial America whose economy is organized around metropolitan areas and high technology, information technology, creative enterprise, and services. By 2000, eighty percent of the American workforce was producing services or ideas. The authors use the word “ideopolis” to characterize these new economic centers. (Even in recession, economist Richard Florida must be making a mint as the guru of the “idea city” formulation.)
And they find the voting patterns in these centers are changing significantly, creating a new Democratic coalition. Gore gained 54.6 percent of the vote in these centers, compared to 41.4 percent for Bush and 3.3 percent for Nader. These centers accounted for 43.7 percent of the national vote in 2000 and are the fastest growing regions of the country. Most significantly, professionals are the fastest growing labor group in these centers and in the country as a whole, and their conversion to the Democratic Party is an important factor in the potential emergence of a Democratic majority.
It is also changing the suburban vote. Three decades ago, the suburbs were havens for white-flight professionals. The increasingly African American and Hispanic inner cities voted Democratic, while the white suburbs voted Republican and opposed most public policy that benefited the urban core. Well, that’s changing. The suburbs are increasingly diverse. As they’ve grown, they’ve taken on many of the problems facing cities. Most important, the “ideopolis” suburbs and cities increasingly see themselves as one metropolitan community, whose economic health depends on urban as well as suburban vitality and whose social health requires great diversity. As a consequence, the suburbs of these economic centers are also voting increasingly Democratic.
Who are the constituent parts of this incipient Democratic majority? In part, they are what the authors call George McGovern’s revenge: minorities, women and professionals. After passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, African American voters moved solidly into the Democratic column and began voting in greater numbers. The African American percentage of the electorate grew from less than 6 percent in 1960 to nearly 12 percent in the 1990s. With the exception of Cubans, Hispanic Democratic support has been strong, based largely on immigration and economic policy, while the Hispanic percentage of presidential voters increased by more than 40 percent between 1992 and 2000. Asian-Americans represent the fastest growing population in the country. Traditionally, Americans of Chinese and Vietnamese descent voted Republican, while those from Japanese and Filipino families tended to vote Democratic. But party differences on economic and immigration policy have begun to change that. In 2000, Chinese Americans backed Gore by 64-21 percent, while Vietnamese voters favored Gore by 54-35 percent. Polls in 2000 showed all Asian-American voters favoring Gore by more than 2-1.
In 1960, women voters backed Richard Nixon, 53-46 percent, compared to men, who supported John Kennedy, 52-48 percent. Then in the ’60s that began to change. By the 1980s, the gender gap asserted itself. In 2000, men supported Bush by 53-42 percent, while women supported Gore by 54-43 percent. You can create a laundry list of the reasons for this sea change: increasing participation in the workforce by women; Republican stands on the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, and Title IX; the Religious Right’s influence in the Republican Party. The political results of the shift have been huge. The women’s vote made up the Democratic deficit among male voters in twelve states, enabling Gore to win those states.
During the 1990s, the number of professionals in this country grew by 30 percent and is projected to be the fastest-growing occupational group through the current decade. Though they currently comprise 15.4 percent of the workforce, professionals also make up more than 20 percent of the voters in this country since they vote at higher rates than other groups. Back in 1960, when professionals represented a much smaller part of the work force, they supported Nixon by 61–38 percent. Over the four most recent presidential elections, professionals have supported the Democratic candidate by an average of 52–40 percent. Judis and Teixeira cite several reasons for this shift. As a group, they include many more women and minorities than 20 years earlier. Their sense of autonomy is increasingly restricted. Doctors, once GOP bedrock, now look to the Democrats in their fight to wrest control of health care from insurance companies. Rick Perry’s veto of a bill providing swifter payments to doctors was not atypical. It was a typical Republican response on medical care and is leading to a new political alignment in the medical profession.
In addition, today’s professionals grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. A large number care fervently about the environment, consumers’ rights, women’s rights, diversity and campaign finance reform. While they may balk at large government programs, they are social liberals who believe government has a responsibility to level the playing field through incremental reform and will support tax increases to reduce the deficit and fund such things as environmental protection and public education while protecting Social Security and Medicare.
This brings us to the prodigal sons of the Democratic Party. Judis and Teixeira see evidence that an increasing number of white working-class voters are returning to the fold, particularly following the recession of the early ’90s. Unionized white voters particularly responded, giving Clinton an average 23 percent margin in 1992 and 1996 after going for Reagan in ’80 and ’84 and barely favoring Dukakis in ’88. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in union membership over the past three decades, but there have been other important changes in the working class ranks as well. Women now make up almost half of the white working class. And there has been a shift in these occupations from factories to hospitals, schools, offices, retail and government employment. Working-class white voters also grew up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, meaning they, too, care more about quality of life issues and economic security and less about race than their parents’ generation. While Gore lost the white rural working-class vote by 20 points, he won the urban vote by 3 points. Nationwide, he received 52 percent of the white working-class women’s vote but only 40 percent of the men’s vote.
The authors’ emerging majority, then, hinges on a set of reasonable assumptions. “It is fair to assume,” they write, “that if Democrats can consistently take professionals by about 10 percent, working women by about 20 percent, keep 75 percent of the minority vote, and get close to an even split of white working-class voters, they will have a achieved a new Democratic majority.”
But as Jimmy Carter’s pollster Pat Caddell warned in 1976, “a coalition…is not a consensus….The trick is finding a mixture of rewards and factors that will hold 51 percent of the voters together in a reasonable stable block.” Judis and Teixeira label that mixture “progressive centrism” and liken it to Republican progressivism of one century ago. It includes social liberalism, support of science and technological entrepreneurship, an embrace of diversity, regulatory authority to protect the environment and economic security, and reasonable, thoughtful, but strong foreign policy. This, they contend, is the formula for Democratic success for a long time to come–a formula the Republicans may mouth but can’t deliver on given their ties to the Religious Right and particular corporate interests, such as the petrochemical industry.
In fact, the authors believe the Democrats were ready to launch this era of Democratic hegemony in 1998, when Kenneth Starr stepped in. Just as the Republican era was delayed by the Watergate scandal, the authors believe the new Democratic majority was thrown off-course temporarily by the Clinton/Lewinsky tribunal. They thought they had their Elvis in Clinton. “He was able to bring together all the different sides of his complex political character–and by extension the different strategies for a Democratic majority,” they write. This included his populist attack on Republican tax cuts for the rich, his DLC-driven welfare reform, his child of the ’60s stand for civil rights and women’s rights, and his promise to “build a bridge to the twenty-first century.” Oh, well.
Judis and Teixeira believe that if the Democrats can develop the leadership and program to galvanize this emerging majority, then the new age of Democratic power is at hand. What they don’t address adequately is the power of money.
How was George W. Bush a viable presidential candidate in the first place? He was created by a combination of moneyed interests who were able to put up this plain-talking, good ol’ boy from Texas (aka a Yalie from a powerful Connecticut family) who acted like he cared about average people, the environment, and supported a national patients’ bill of rights only to prove otherwise once in office. The power of money to manipulate elections makes it much more difficult for people to vote in their own best interest because they can’t determine who represents that interest or if anyone does.
Clearly this is a moment of transition in the American economy, which generally means a transition in our politics. Tom Ferguson has argued that the real transition of political power is from one set of moneyed interests to another–from General Motors to Bill Gates, for instance. And the rest of us try to make the best out of what that transfer means for us. Kevin Phillips and William Greider have argued that these transitions are from eras of concentration of capital to eras of greater distribution of capital. Phillips, in particular, argues (most recently in Wealth and Democracy) that the marketplace has turned American politics into another commodity to be purchased and that too much decision-making about Ameri-can economic life is in the hands of the financial world, in the guise of the Federal Reserve. Despite Bill Clinton’s leadership, Phillips argues, disparities in wealth continued to grow in the ’90s and now threaten the very fabric of our democracy.
Unless the Democratic Party addresses these disparities head-on–through a return to greater corporate regulation and adequate, egalitarian taxing formulas to rebuild income security f
r the average Amer
can and access for middle- and low-income Americans to higher education and quality health care–then the emerging Democratic majority will only be able to quibble over the crumbs that fall off the dinner table where the captains of finance dine and will, itself, evaporate in a few short years.
Former Observer editor Geoff Rips lives in Austin.