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By Jay Cost

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New Progressive America? A Response to Ruy Teixeira

Ruy Teixeira has published a new report at the Center for American Progress (CAP), entitled "New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority."

Here is the gist of Teixeira's argument:

Obama's 53 percent of the popular vote is the largest share...received by any presidential candidate...[since] George H.W. Bush...So, separated by 20 years, we have two elections that are practically mirror images of one another...

How did conservatives do so well in one election but progressives so well in the other? The answer: In those intervening 20 years, a new progressive America has emerged with a new demography, a new geography, and a new agenda.

Let me say at the outset that I will not argue that Teixeira's thesis is wrong. Instead, my position is that it is underdetermined: the facts support alternative conclusions not consistent with his assertion.

Generally, I approach arguments like Teixeria's with a high burden of proof. Electoral history over the last forty years indicates a norm of divided government in which both parties share control. Furthermore, for the years when there was unified party government - the majority party lost power relatively quickly in a decisive, broad-based defeat.

Thus, even well constructed arguments about enduring majorities are going to have a tough time convincing me. Unfortunately, Teixeira's argument has problems in its execution. I count three, significant difficulties.

First. Teixeira makes use of long-term estimates of population change to argue for a "new demography" that will "reshape our country in a fundamentally progressive direction." He cites projections in growth among Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans so that by 2050, "the country will be 54 percent minority." It is outside my technical expertise to dispute those estimates - though I am generally skeptical of predictions about anything that is such a long way off.

I would dispute the political implications of these demographic projections. Teixiera's argument about future political demography assumes a static quality to American politics that is ahistorical.

For instance, consider that while John McCain lost the nationwide popular vote by seven points, he won the white Catholic vote by five points. From a historical perspective, this is remarkable. John Kennedy won 81% of non-Hispanic white Catholics, Lyndon Johnson 79%, and Hubert Humphrey (who lost in a three-way race) still won 55%. Forty years ago, any liberal analyst would have concluded that the white Catholic vote belongs to the Democrats. Yet today, we see the GOP holding white Catholics amidst a popular vote wipe out.

Similarly, who would have ever thought that the "white working class" - the backbone of the New Deal coalition for decades - would support the Republicans by 18-points as the nation supported the Democrats by 7? That is the most dramatic proof that voting coalitions are not static - and that we cannot extrapolate future alignments from current ones.

Electoral politics is not akin to Newtonian physics, where you derive your equations and then predict everything from here to eternity. Instead it's unpredictable. Why? One reason is the parties. They select issue positions and emphases to steal the other side's wavering voters and undermine its voting coalition. Again, recent electoral history has demonstrated that both parties are quite adept at this game. In light of that, how can we know whom Hispanics, Asians, "professionals," young voters, or anybody will support in 2048? I'd suggest we cannot. Using demographic estimates to predict long-range political preferences is an impossibly difficult task.

Second. Teixeira cites election data from the last 20 years without introducing the appropriate context. For instance, he writes:

[P]rogressives have been gaining strength among white college graduates. In 2008, Obama only lost white college graduates by four points, compared to an 11-point deficit for Kerry in 2004 and a 20-point deficit for Dukakis in 1988.

I do not dispute these numbers, but I disagree that this is evidence of a "new progressive America." There are many reasons voting results change from cycle to cycle. Though the concept has been vastly overworked, some of that change is due to "realignment." However, much of it is clearly not - and if the appropriate electoral context is excluded, you're bound to overestimate the extent to which realignment is a factor.

Return to the previous quotation. Democrats have gained 16 points in 20 years among white college graduates. Is this realignment, or the ebb and flow of non-realigning factors? I'd suggest the latter explains much of the difference. Consider the following chart. It tracks the average growth in the economy in the third and fourth quarters, the incumbent president's job approval in the pre-election Gallup poll, and the incumbent party's share of the presidential vote.

National Conditions and Incumbent Party Performance in Presidential Elections.jpg

Clearly, non-realigning factors play an extremely powerful role. This is why political scientists can build accurate predictive models of presidential elections based on a few simple variables.

Without this context, it is prohibitively difficult to tease out realigning factors between 1988 and 2008. The former is a year in which the economy was growing and the Republican President was popular. 2008 reflects the inverse. This makes it hard to conclude that realignment is accounting for the change among college educated voters, or any subgroup. I'm open to the idea that realignment is at work, because I think to an extent it is - but that means you must control for the non-realignment factors known to influence presidential elections. Teixeira does not do that, which means his statistics do not support his conclusion.

We can see this problem again when Teixeira argues about the increasing liberal tilt of the "growing areas of the country." He writes:

By and large, progressives received their strongest increases in support in the fast-growing, dynamic metropolitan areas of states, particularly the largest ones...The result is a political map with a distinct lean toward progressives, a lean that should increase in coming years.

Again, maybe. But is it not also plausible that the growing areas of the country were especially affected by the sudden, dramatic contraction in the economy that was occurring on Election Day, and that they responded (as the country as a whole typically has since 1840) by swinging to the out party in especially large numbers?

In other words, without the necessary context, every increase in the Democratic Party's share of the vote last cycle becomes a sign of growing liberal strength. This is an underdetermined inference.

Third. Teixeira argues that "the American people's views on what government can and should do" are changing. Again, I am not going to disagree with this per se. Instead, I'll suggest that the evidence Teixeira cites is unpersuasive.

Specifically, he references a series of polling questions (many done by CAP) whose wording is so vague it is impossible to infer any political implications. Here is a sample:

(1) "Religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights."

(2) "A positive image of America around the world is necessary to achieve our national security goals."

(3) "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves."

(4) "Government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers."

(5) The government should "invest in alternative energy like wind, solar and bio-fuels to create jobs, and reduce dependence on foreign oil."

Unsurprisingly, these questions elicited a high degree of public support, sometimes up to 75% in the CAP survey.

These sorts of questions would indeed damage the Republican Party...if it were a silly, oversimplified caricature of what it actually is. The problem is that these questions present a false choice, implying that one side is in favor of these items, and the other side opposed. Not really true - the actual political divides are much more subtle. The fact of the matter is that many Republicans are at least partially sympathetic to all of these assertions. Certainly, no mainstream Republican politician would suggest, for instance, that Social Security disability payments should be eliminated, or that workplace safety regulations should be done away with. I recall that John McCain talked frequently about biofuels on the campaign trail last cycle, and one major goal of the surge was to gain the trust of local Iraqi populations.

These questions do not directly capture the salient political cleavages in the country. Thus, they cannot be taken as evidence of a "new progressive America." Certainly, they hint at such cleavages, but they are worded in such a non-specific, general way that they do not reflect the actual debate, which is why they can garner such broad support.

Of course, there are answers to several questions that Teixeira cites that genuinely show liberal leanings on actual policy matters (like universal health care). Then again, as Teixeira notes, the CAP Study also found decidedly conservative responses to questions like this:

(1) "Limited government is always better than big government." (55% agree)

(2) "Free market solutions are better than government at creating jobs and economic growth." (57% agree)

(3) "Government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient." (61% agree)

(4) "Government programs for the poor undermine individual initiative and responsibility." (48% agree, 21% neutral)

(5) "Social Security should be reformed to allow workers to invest some of their contributions in individual accounts." (57% agree)

Liberals can argue that there is an incipient liberalism in the data, and conservatives can argue that there is an incipient conservatism. However, I'd suggest another idea: the country is in many respects non-ideological.

One characteristic of ideology is issue constraint. An ideological thinker decides his positions based upon abstract principles, which therefore constrain the policy options he can endorse. For instance, an ideologue who thinks that the free market is better than the government would be constrained on his views of health care. To be ideological, he must oppose government managed care.

This data - as well as many surveys - suggests that a large segment of the country does not have such constraints on their views. The CAP study finds 55% of the public advocating limited government, and 65% advocating that the "government guarantee affordable health coverage for every American." There is substantial overlap here, which indicates that some subset of the population is answering in inconsistent ways, which implies non-ideological thinking.

In conclusion, I'll recapitulate my main points. Generally speaking, I am skeptical of arguments like this - even those that are well executed. Unfortunately, Teixeira's argument has problems in its execution. He uses oversimple assumptions about the links between future demographics and politics; he fails to separate realigning forces from the normal back-and-forth of electoral politics; and he relies on inconclusive polling data to argue that there has been an ideological shift in public opinion.

This is not to say that Teixeira is wrong. He may be right, and we may be entering 10, 20, even 40 years of a "new progressive America." My point is that he fails to make the case. Other theories - such as one that predicts continued, heated party competition amidst a substantially non-ideological public - are just as consistent with the evidence he cites.

-Jay Cost