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By Jay Cost

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A Note on the "New Progressive America"

My thanks to Ruy Teixeira for commenting on my response to his report. Seeing as how he has put up the overwhelming share of the effort here, it is appropriate to allow him the last word on the substance of our debate.

I do want to offer a clarification on my broader position, which was outlined in detail with Sean Trende here. Teixeira writes:

Cost may choose to believe it's of no real significance that growing demographic groups and areas of the country are strengthening progressives, while conservatives are holding their own only where America is stagnant and declining. He may even be able to convince conservatives that he is right. In doing so, however, is he doing them a disservice? The longer conservatives believe nothing has really changed, the longer they will resist doing what they need to do: change their positions, soften their ideology and move toward the new progressive center of American politics. After all, it may be a progressive center, but it's still the center. And eventually conservatives are going to have to deal with that.

My position is not that "nothing has really changed," and by implication that the country is still a center-right country. Similarly, I would not counsel conservatives to do nothing.

Instead, my position is this: American electoral politics is full of change. That is the principal reason I am generally skeptical of arguments about enduring majorities - left or right. There's just so much change in our electoral politics that an enduring majority is a highly problematic category.

I draw this conclusion based on five observations about the last forty years:

(1) The parties typically share control of the institutions of government.

(2) The longest time any party has held the presidency and the Congress together was four years. In both instances, subsequent electoral defeats were decisive and humiliating.

(3) Voters typically have low levels of political information, which makes it difficult to develop genuine ideology.

(4) The electorate as a whole is known to vary its preference on non-ideological factors, like the performance of the economy and the President's management of the government.

(5) The purpose of the political party is to acquire the majority. Historically, this has meant that the parties respond to setbacks, often by redrafting elements of their message.

I would not argue that there are not stable features in our electoral politics. Most of the electorate is partisan, so it stays put from cycle to cycle. This also does not mean that there have not been realigning features - as one group switches from one side to the other and stays there. Urban ethnics did in 1928/32 and Southern whites have been moving since 1948. My initial response noted the shift of white Catholics and the white working class. So, long term forces matter.

The conclusion I draw from these observations is that while there is stability and realignment, we need to remember that non-realigning features account for much of the cycle-to-cycle swings in the balance of power, which never take us very far from 50/50 for very long. Too many analysts forget that, and explain the most recent electoral results via realignment. That is why, for most elections in the past, you can find somebody somewhere who claimed it was somehow realigning.

Generally, I think realignment is one of those concepts that over-promises and under-delivers. It might account for the political dynamics from the Civil War to the Great Depression, but I do not think it explains nearly as much about the contemporary scene. So, I do not buy Teixeira's "new progressive America" - but for the same reasons I didn't buy the arguments for a "new conservative America" four years ago. If some conservatives find solace in my argument today, it is accidental. Four years ago, progressives might have found it comforting.

Similarly, these observations imply a clear suggestion to Republicans: innovate, innovate, innovate! Conservatives who presumed that previous victories implied a long-term majority were simply wrong. Political fortunes have swung back and forth over the years in part because political parties, once removed from office, work hard to get back into the majority. This is what Democrats were busy doing while some Republicans were celebrating their "enduring majority" (How many times did they trumpet their victories in 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties?). Now, it's time for Republicans to get to work.

What should they do? That's outside my area of expertise. I do know - and Sean Trende and I pointed out here and here - that, as Teixeira said, Hispanics moved to the Democratic Party between 2004 and 2008, and this was a contributing factor to the party's losses in several states. Far from asserting that this is of "no real significance," I would suggest that this is a great place to start.

-Jay Cost