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Fault Lines Loom for "Dominant" Dem Majority

By Sean Trende - April 19, 2013

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But in another sense, it was classic coalition politics. Rather than funding the program through, say, the payroll tax, which disproportionately affects younger, downscale voters, Democrats opted to cut Medicare, which is used by older voters, who increasingly lean Republican. Democrats did manage to shore up their base among younger voters, who were the only age group to vote Democratic in 2010. But they paid a price with older voters, who swung a net of 20 points from 2008 toward Republicans; the Democrats’ showing with this age group was the worst for either party since 1982.

A similar calculation underlies the president’s recent decision to embrace Medicare cuts and “chained CPI,” which trims Social Security somewhat. Thirty years ago even these modest steps would have been unthinkable for a Democrat. After all, older voters were the Democrats’ strongest age cohort in congressional races from 1988 through 1994 and their second-strongest in 1982 and 1986.

It’s clear today that some sort of major spending cuts will have to be enacted at some point in the next few years. It’s natural that President Obama would want to protect the Democrats’ core voting groups from being affected by those cuts, but those core groups no longer include all senior citizens. Given that the chained CPI concession apparently comes with a carve-out for lower-income seniors, the strategy here is clear.

But it’s also problematic. Liberals were outraged at the proposed concession, and some Republicans were quick to pick up the mantle as protectors of Social Security -- but also of their older, whiter base. This raises a question that few are asking, but more should contemplate: Will a Democratic Party comprised mostly of younger minority voters continue to be guided mostly by the concerns of white liberals? The interests don’t always intersect; the Social Security/Medicare issue is a good example of that.

Our politics haven’t always been driven by a liberal/conservative divide. That is a fairly recent innovation; ethnic and sectional divisions are more the norm. If the country does end up minority-majority by 2050, the Democratic Party will likely be supermajority-minority by that point; no one can predict with any certainty what effects that will have on the overall political cleavages in the country.

To be sure, the cleavages exposed here are of different sorts: young vs. old, minority vs. white, upscale vs. downscale. The Democratic Party has chosen to go in different directions with their coalition in different circumstances. And to be sure, Republicans have major issues of their own.

For now, the most important thing is to recognize that these cleavages exist. Retirement programs will continue to consume an ever-greater share of government spending; without changes, taxes will be needed to offset the debt; and the choices made by whichever party is in power will only cut these cleavages differently.

Political coalitions are ultimately like water balloons: When you push down on one side, the other side pops up. Both parties are going to have to make tough choices in the next decade regarding where they would like to push on their coalitions. And if either party handles these choices clumsily, there’s a good chance the balloon will pop. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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