Emerging Democratic Majority -- RIP?

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If you follow debates about demographics and political coalitions, you were hit with something of a bomb blast when John Judis’ inaugural piece in the National Journal came out in late January.

Judis is one of the original co-authors of the ur-text for the modern debate, the 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” In it, he and Ruy Teixeira suggested that the growth of the minority population, combined with emerging Democratic strength with professionals and residual Democratic strength with working-class whites, would allow Democrats to win the majority of elections in the medium term. This has become informally known as the emerging Democratic majority thesis.

Judis’ lengthy essay is a big deal, and well worth reading. He argues that Republicans have managed to bring together middle- and working-class whites, as well as middle-class Hispanics, who don’t see the obvious advantages to the Democratic platform that poor and upper-class voters do. This has allowed Republicans to win expanded majorities in the House and Senate and to compete effectively for the presidency. In short, Judis now sees an emerging Republican advantage.

This is a debate I’ve been involved in since my earliest days at RealClearPolitics. My own book, “The Lost Majority,” started as a rebuttal to Judis and Teixeira’s book, but became more of a companion to it (more on this later). While I don’t see a meaningful Republican advantage emerging long-term, Judis’ views and mine seem to be otherwise more or less in accord. In the end, political coalitions in a large, diverse republic such as our own are, and always have been, inherently unstable. Issues that bind groups together in one election disappear, while new issue cleavages threaten to break groups off. Coalitions are ultimately like water balloons: When you press down on one side, another side pops up. The Democratic coalition of the late aughts proves to be no exception.

Is the emerging Democratic majority thesis now dead? It’s important to remember that Judis is just one author, albeit an extremely influential one, and that an awful lot of smart people, to my knowledge, still endorse the theory and are doing important work on it: Teixeira, Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz, William Frey of the Brookings Institution, and Ron Brownstein of National Journal (though he, too, seems to be wavering a bit).

More importantly, even if every one of these authors had co-signed Judis’ article, “Emerging Democratic Majority” would still remain incredibly valuable.  While the debates over demographics and future elections have become filled with triumphalist rhetoric about ascendant coalitions and Republicans potentially suffering a Whig-like extinction, these are the views of popularizers and partisans who have latched onto the book for their own purposes. 

“Emerging Democratic Majority” itself contains none of these things. Yes, in my view it relies too heavily on realignment theory, and its predictions about the future are overconfident (though these, too, are much more nuanced than writings by subsequent authors might suggest). But while Judis and Teixeira’s book is today remembered as being about demographic and political trends, at its core it was really about ideology. It grew out of an in-house fight among Democratic factions in the wake of the 2000 loss. One side thought Al Gore lost because he hadn’t emphasized social issues enough to energize the upper middle class.  The other thought that Gore lost because he wasn’t populist enough to win over working-class voters.

Judis and Teixeira sought to split the horns of this dilemma by synthesizing the two claims, arguing that Democrats should embrace what they called “progressive centrism.” Progressive centrism remains a somewhat vague term, but in essence it was epitomized by Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign: Embracing populist/progressive goals, but opting for solutions that were free market enough to not scare off upper-middle-class voters (in the case of economic issues) and respectful enough of traditions not to scare off working-class voters (in the case of social issues). 

To them, progressive centrism was crucial to the future success of the Democratic Party – it was the cement that would bind an otherwise-unwieldy coalition of minorities, liberals, working-class voters and suburbanites together. Because these groups were growing, a party that held on to them would become a dominant force.

The problem was twofold. First, in two-party systems, the other party always adapts: It figures out ways to counteract winning messages (e.g., Cory Gardner embracing over-the-counter birth control in Colorado), or utilizes emerging issues to help steal groups from the other coalition. Because governing inherently involves picking winners and losers, there are almost always groups for the out-party to steal. 

Second, progressive centrism was always going to be difficult to maintain as a dominant ideology. Over time, the more ideological factions tend to exert the strongest pull on the party. When they win, they believe that history has finally swung to their side, and when they lose, they tend to believe it was the moderates’ fault. This tendency in the Republican Party has drawn the most media attention of late, but you can see this play out within the Democratic Party from 1996 to 2008 in the progression of nominees: Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama.

Obama’s campaign was centered on the notion of rejecting Clinton-style centrism as too cautious and cynical. Though Obama wasn’t really a “netroots” candidate, this theme had been bubbling among the Democratic base for a few years, finding its purest expression in the successful primary campaign against Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2006 (people today forget that similar campaigns were nearly successful against Sens. Michael Bennet and Blanche Lincoln in 2010). But as I noted in 2009, it is difficult for an actual presidency founded on the rejection of Clintonism to hold that coalition together once in office (despite the fact that Obama often governed more like a progressive centrist than his supporters would have liked).

This all remains highly salient today. I think Judis and Teixeira’s point about the strength of progressive centrism is a powerful one; in fact, if the theme of the book had been more “this is what the Democratic majority will look like when Democrats are successful,” I would agree (and indeed, a hefty portion of the book is dedicated to just that argument). Today, however, a large portion of the Democratic Party’s intellectual class seems more interested in the weaker, predictive part of Judis and Teixeira’s book rather than the prescriptive portion of it. That is, they see demographics both as destiny and as an opportunity for abandoning Clinton-style centrism. But if the book is correct, this is exactly backwards: Clinton-style centrism is the way to harness these demographics. Abandon it, and you risk abandoning the majority. 

Note Judis’ case study of Maryland. His point here is basically this: There is a limit to white suburbanites’ willingness to embrace new taxes, even in a deeply blue place like the Old Line State. Yet as others have noted, the ability to raise taxes for new social programs without touching those voters is limited. Embracing a full-throated progressive program places real strains on these voters’ loyalty to the Democratic Party.

In 2016, Democrats have as their likely nominee possibly the single strongest candidate for putting the old Democratic coalition back together again. I think with an adequately strong economy and a campaign founded in progressive centrism, Hillary Clinton could very well put together a broader coalition than Obama’s, and a victory that eclipses his. Whether her party allows her to run such a campaign is probably the most important question of 2015; this book explains why.

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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