As President Obama reminded us in the long-ago high noon of his presidency, “Elections have consequences.” One of the consequences of the Democratic whacking in the midterms is that political analysts are taking another look at the relative standing of the two major parties. In 2008-9 there was a lot of triumphalist Democratic (and despairing Republican) analysis about a long term Democratic majority. The tone is changing now, and analysts are working to understand why the GOP dominates Congress and state governments in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1920s.The most substantive rethink so far comes from John Judis, one of the clearest, best-informed, and least sentimental thinkers on the American left today. The man who predicted an “emerging Democratic majority” would rule American politics for the foreseeable future now sees an “emerging Republican advantage” in American politics. In a piece of solid analysis in the National Journal, John Judis argues that the Democrats are losing support among not only the white working class, but also the growing American “middle class”—college graduates without postgraduate degrees who tend to work in offices and make between $50,000 and $100,000. Many Democratic operatives and strategists have adopted Judis’s book The Emerging Democratic Majority as the guide to political success. The view expressed in the book—that the minority and youth vote would buoy the fortunes of the Democratic party—is clearly influential with the current Administration and with many Democratic candidates who have adopted identity politics as a key to victory.But now the facts have changed, and Judis is taking another look. He begins with a searching investigation voting patterns in the recent midterm elections. Judis takes a deep dive into polling numbers and finds that many Democratic candidates lost because they failed to carry the vote in two groups—the white working class and the middle class.Democrats have known for some time that they were blowing off the white working class. Once the bread and butter of the Democratic Party, white workers without a college education have been turned off by a combination of cultural dissing and a perceived Democratic preference for minorities and the marginalized over struggling white working people. But to lose the middle class is more serious. For one thing, unlike the white working class, it is growing. And minority voters inside the middle class don’t necessarily break for Democrats at the same rate that minorities outside it do. Hispanics in Judis’s middle class (definition: college grads but no post-B.A. degrees, income between $50,000 and $100,000 per year) vote Republican in greater numbers than Hispanics generally do.There is more dispiriting news for Democrats in the Judis piece. Millennials are widely considered something of an electoral lock for the Democrats. Seen as more liberal, less white and more economically stressed than preceding generations, a rising tide of left-liberal Millennial voters looks like an answer to Jeremiah Wright’s prayers. Many political analysts (gloating on the left, despairing on the right) see the Millennials as moving the United States into a new kind of politics.Maybe. But as those of us old enough to remember the 1970s know, that is more or less exactly how the young Boomers were seen. The unconventional, anti-racist, anti-war Boomers were going to change American politics in much the same ways people now think the Millennials will. But, as Judis notes, the Millennials also seem to be fizzling as agents of transformational, left-leaning political change. As he writes:
It is true that these voters were an important part of the original Obama coalition, but they are not quite as enthusiastic about the Democrats as they once were. In 2006, 60 percent of young voters backed Democrats in House races; that number hit 65 percent in 2008, fell to 60 percent in 2012, and slid to 54 percent in 2014. Moreover, an ongoing study by the Harvard Institute of Politics has found a steady deterioration in young voters’ support for Democrats since its peak in 2008. “Our recent polling,” the study wrote last fall, “shows that on a wide range of issues and questions, young voters … now look very much like the electorate at large—pessimistic, untrusting, lacking confidence in government.”
If middle class Asians and Hispanics are going to “vote white”, and if, like the once-hyper liberal and unconventional Boomers before them, the Millennials become more mainstream as they mature, then the American political future may look a little bit more like our past than most Daily Kos readers would like.This leads Judis to a truly astounding conclusion:
In the wake of the dramatic gains Republicans have made during Obama’s presidency, I now read the history of the last 80 years much differently. The period of New Deal Democratic ascendancy from 1933 to about 1968 may well prove to have been what historians Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore have called the “long exception” in American politics. It was a period when Americans, panicked about the Depression, put on hold their historic aversion to aggressive government economic intervention, when the middle and bottom of the American economic pyramid united against the top, and when labor unions could claim the loyalty of a third of American workers. That era suffered fatal fissures in 1968 and finally came to a close with Reagan’s landslide in 1980.It now appears that, in some form, the Republican era which began in 1980 is still with us. Reagan Republicanism—rooted in the long-standing American distrust of government, but perhaps with its roughest theocratic and insurrectionary edges sanded off for a national audience—is still the default position of many of those Americans who regularly go to the polls. It can be effectively challenged when Republicans become identified with economic mismanagement or with military defeat. But after the memory of such disasters has faded, the GOP coalition has reemerged—surprisingly intact and ready for battle.
This is a huge admission for an American progressive thinker to make. If the New Deal/Great Society was a blip on the screen of American history rather than a decisive turning point, the whole discussion about the nature of American political culture and the relationship of American and European political history needs to change. The social democrats and progressives of the 1930s and 1940s, like their heirs today, generally look toward European social democracy as the “right” model for social development in a capitalist setting. America’s failure to conform to this path of development was seen as temporary. In the New Deal-era version of this ideology, the European immigrants of the 1880s-1920s plus the urbanization of America’s traditionally agricultural population would lead to a New America that looked an awful lot like the emerging social democracies of Scandinavia. The emergence of Reaganism in the 1980s put paid to that idea; the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis was a way to revive the old progressive vision of the future for the 21st century, with Hispanics and Asians cast in the role of the turn-of-the-20th-century Europeans.If Judis and other progressives are now moving away from idea that Hispanics will do what the Jews, Italians and Poles didn’t, the American left faces a profound rethink. To abandon the idea of American history as the inexorable march of “modern” ideas triumphing over Anglo-Saxon individuality and other outmoded 19th century concepts requires more than a few tweaks to progressive thought here and there. In my own case, coming to see the New Deal era as the “great exception” led me to a deep re-examination of my understanding of American history and led to much of the analysis of American politics that underlies my book Special Providence. It will be interesting to see where these ideas lead John Judis.Republican triumphalists, however, would be wise to treat the new (and very judicious and nuanced) Judis with caution. As Sean Trende has argued, and Judis himself acknowledges in the piece, the concept of “permanent realignments” is overdone. In politics, coalitions rise and fall and break up and reform, and reality is always going to be more complicated and unpredictable than “permanent realignment” models would suggest. The future may not belong to some permanently realigned Republican coalition, but Judis’s analysis suggests that skepticism towards the social democratic project is not going anywhere—and may be far stronger and more resilient than progressives thought. That said, American politics remains one of the most complicated systems on Planet Earth, and independent minded citizens of this country can and will surprise even the shrewdest of analysts with their creative responses to the changing challenges and conditions they face.