During my political lifetime, there have been four moments when the continuing viability of the Republican Party has been cast in doubt: the 1964 landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater, Watergate, the 1992 defeat of George H.W. Bush and the 2008 loss by John McCain.
In each case, Democratic ascendancy proved fleeting, and conservative Republican forces stuck back with devastating impact.
This is not, I should add, a problem exclusive to the Democratic Party.
On Nov. 3, 2004, the day after that year’s presidential election, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee declared that his party had built a “hundred-year majority” in the House. It lasted two years.
There are some strategists — most prominently Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and the author of a new book, “R.I.P. G.O.P.: How The New America Is Dooming the Republicans” — who argue that the 2020 election will produce a resilient Democratic majority coalition made up of what Greenberg has called the Rising American Electorate, which will usher in
A New America that is ever more racially and culturally diverse, younger, millennial, more secular, and unmarried, with fewer traditional families and male breadwinners, more immigrant and foreign born.
This New America, Greenberg continues,
is ever more racially blended and multinational, more secular and religiously pluralistic. The New America embraces the country’s immigrant and foreign character. It now includes the college-educated and suburban women who want respect and equality in a multicultural America.
According to Greenberg, this coalition will drive the country “toward a new progressive era in which Democrats are hegemonic.”
There are, however, a number of flashing yellow lights Democrats may want to consider before proclaiming victory.
For one thing, many of the factors that helped Trump get elected in the first place have not disappeared. Take an October 2018 survey conducted nearly two years after Trump’s victory, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” The survey found that among all voters, 80 percent agreed that “political correctness is a problem in our country,” including 79 percent of those under 24, 82 percent of Asian-Americans and 87 percent of Hispanics — core constituencies of “the New America Greenberg sees as ascendant.
Most significantly, there was a small but highly influential constituency that stood out because a strong majority of its members either look favorably on political correctness or are neutral. Among these voters, defined by the architects of the poll as “progressive activists,” opposition to political correctness fell to 30 percent.
The role progressive activists play in setting the Democratic agenda provided Trump with an ideal target, helping him portray the Democratic Party as dominated by a doctrinaire elite. In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins SNF Agora Institute, characterized these progressive activists as:
Much more likely to be rich, highly educated — and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year. They are nearly three times as likely to have a postgraduate degree. And while 12 percent of the overall sample in the study is African-American, only 3 percent of progressive activists are.
Trump’s efforts to demonize liberal elites resonated in part because of the ascendance of a powerful, upscale, well-educated wing of the Democratic Party that dates back at least to the takeover of the party by antiwar activists and liberal reformers in the aftermath of the 1968 election. Even now, it is shaping the outcome of House contests.
In 2008, according to a 2019 Brookings study (which I have cited before), Democrats represented 18 of the 30 congressional districts with the highest median household income and Republicans 12. Ten years later, in 2018, Democrats held 26 of the 30 most affluent districts, and Republicans four.
At the other end of the scale, in 2008 Democrats represented a majority of the 30 poorest districts, 22-8. After the 2018 election, the poorest districts were evenly split between the two parties.
Greenberg, of course, understands this perfectly well. He pointedly notes in “RIP GOP” that “Democratic leaders contributed mightily to the alienation of voters that produced successive disruptive elections that put the Republicans in power” and argues that “the Democrats will not run in 2020 calling out to every aggrieved group in its potential winning coalition, as Hillary Clinton did so disastrously in 2016.”
While well-to-do Democrats became increasingly preoccupied with moving the party in a progressive direction on social and cultural issues, many low- and moderate- income voters living in less densely settled regions of the country had different concerns.
Anusar Farooqui, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia, writes for Policy Tensor. He argues that the inability of the Obama administration to ameliorate the devastating consequences of the 2008 economic meltdown in much of rural and small-town America contributed to the 2016 swing to Trump in working- and middle-class districts that had voted for Obama:
The strong correlations between education, population decline, and deaths of despair on the one hand, and the electoral swing to Trump on the other, is clear. There has been a breakdown in elite-mass relations.
Vast portions of the country are in serious trouble. A lot of faith was invested in Obama in 2008 in the shadow of the financial crises. That faith was already shattered in 2012, despite the false dawn of Obama’s victory.
Trump, Farooqui continues, “was no surprise. An enterprising political analyst could have looked at the pattern already evident in 2012 and predicted further instability.”
Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at Brookings, has been thinking along similar lines. She wrote me:
Democrats did not do enough when they were in power to tackle the rise in inequality, inadequate education and health care, stagnant wages, and declining communities that would, in time, create a frustrated electorate — all too ready to elect a Donald Trump in 2016.
Sawhill focuses on economic liberalism with little or no reference to the social and cultural issues that have often proven most problematic for Democrats.
“My conclusion,” Sawhill wrote:
Democrats must first win the White House and the Congress and then begin to address the deep-seated problems that have been neglected for far too long. Trump’s current problems make that possible, just as Watergate made Carter’s election possible, but it would be a mistake to move too far left and lose the chance to begin the reform process.
If they are victorious, will Democrats overreach on either the nexus of social and cultural issues or on economic issues? Will they raise taxes on the middle classes to pay the costs, say, of Medicare for all? Or will they take Sawhill’s advice and focus on more easily achievable progressive economic policy aimed at building financial security and an improved standard of living for those in the bottom four fifths of the income distribution?
There are no obvious answers here, despite the flame throwing on both sides of the left-vs.-left-of-center debate. There is a credible argument, as Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard contends, that the public is prepared to support a turn to the left:
The question is whether the mass public had already begin moving to the left before Trump and I think there is reason to believe this is the case.
Trump “may be the last gasp of a dying policy regime of Reagan conservatism that started to end with the election of Obama,” according to Enos. If that’s true,
then Democrats will have much more freedom to enact liberal policy reform because the policy mood of the median voter has already moved left and would have done so even without the extra push provided by Trump.
Along similar lines, Gary Jacobson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California-San Diego, wrote in reply to my inquiry:
The Republican coalition is on the defensive, threatened by demographic changes, and the overall trend of public opinion is in a more liberal direction, certainly on social issues but probably on environmental and economic issues as well.
Jacobson sees little or no prospect for a renewal of
a strong rightward shift in aggregate opinions on national issues more generally. Support for gay marriage, etc., is here to stay, and demands for action on climate change will only grow because the consequences of inaction are becoming increasingly obvious and prospectively dire.
Let’s shift from academics back to political practitioners for a moment. Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, succinctly described the danger of Democratic overreach: “I am deeply concerned about Democratic presidential candidates getting too far over their ski tips.”
Democrats, in Begala’s view,
should do all they can to reduce their losses among high-school educated, rural and exurban voters, but with Dems solidifying their hold on the rising American electorate (people of color, younger voters and unmarried women), adding college-educated whites would make the Democrats dominant.
In this political climate, Begala continued, the best thing a Democratic presidential candidate can do is
tell voters that Trump has proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. I did not hear one candidate raise that in the last Democratic debate, but it is the issue most likely to defeat Trump.
Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of the campaign finance reform advocacy group Democracy 21 and an adviser to the House Democratic leadership on impeachment, notes that if Democrats win the presidency, they will no longer have “uniform opposition to Trump as their organizing principle.” In those circumstances, “they will need a president with a program to avoid constant policy arguments,” he said, adding “I doubt they will overreach with a left agenda.”
Matt Grossmann, a professor of political science at Michigan State, pointed out that
the last two Democratic presidents have had large agendas and attempted to move policy substantially leftward across issue areas, resulting in public opinion moving in a conservative direction in response and contributing to historic midterm losses in 1994 and 2010.
The next Democratic president, he continued,
will face pressure to make large-scale changes in health care and the environment and to address numerous issues of importance to the party’s myriad constituencies.” But no matter what a prospective Democratic administration does, it “will likely generate a conservative backlash either way.
In one of the more interesting essays on the danger of Democratic overreach, “Left-Wing Policies Aren’t Risky for Democrats. Unpopular Ones Are,” Eric Levitz, a senior writer for New York Magazine, made the case that:
There is no tight correlation between a policy’s ideological extremity — as judged by its distance from status quo policy or the dictates of political theory — and its electoral viability. Many “far left” ideas are broadly popular (e.g., installing workers’ representatives on corporate boards, soaking the rich, giving federal jobs to all the unemployed), while some “centrist” ones are politically toxic (“entitlement reform,” the individual mandate for health insurance).
Within this context, Levitz writes, there are
some aspects of progressive ideology that put the left in perpetual tension with majoritarian intuitions. The left exists to oppose arbitrary hierarchy and champion those who are oppressed and exploited by the status quo social order.
What this constant tension suggests, in Levitz’s view, is
that the left can’t presume its moral truths are self-evident to the 99 percent it claims to champion, or the 50-plus percent of voters whose support it aims to win.
Instead, he writes:
If progressives wish to maximize their near-term power, then their electoral strategy must account for majoritarian sentiment. Which is to say, it must be formulated around unsentimental answers to questions like: Where are voters with us, and where are they against us? What is the probability of changing the public’s mind on [unpopular policy x] within the duration of a single election cycle (i.e. time is the public’s opposition to our stance)? How salient is [unpopular policy x] with swing constituencies? Is there a way to mitigate the electoral detriment of [unpopular policy x] without abandoning our commitment to advancing that goal?
Levitz describes the strategies it might take for the Democrats to stay in power, if they win full control of the government, a counterpoint to the often-repeated contention that demographics will inevitably put Democrats in power.
In that context, Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, wrote:
For about 20 years, Democratic strategists have been arguing that demographic change will soon provide Democrats a durable advantage. They failed to foresee the force of the white backlash against these demographic trends.
Trump, Hetherington continued,
might well be the last Republican who can win a national election by exploiting race the way he has. But political parties are sophisticated organizations that can and do make strategic adjustments when they need to.
I came back to Stan Greenberg with a few questions. He remains firm in his conviction that “these are different times.” First of all, he says, the Republican Party is shrinking. Trump has driven “McCain conservatives and socially liberal moderates” out, Greenberg said, leaving “a shattered party that will have trouble mounting opposition to the new president and agenda.”
On the left, Greenberg argues, there is
the unity of liberals and moderate Democrats on issues. Democracy Corps released a memo which showed what an extraordinary number of moderates wanted to tax the rich, for government to play a big role in health care, and address the big gender and race gaps.
Greenberg also asked rhetorically:
Do you really think the Democratic nominee is going to be running on Medicare for All and do you really think that will be the dominant health care filter when the president is running on abolishing protections for pre-existing conditions and failed to rein in prescription drug costs?
In conclusion, he put the situation this way:
Look at the change in the country in the proportion who believe there is an unfinished agenda for women and African Americans. A sizable majority believe that — and particularly true for all Democrats and millennials.
Recent history has shown regular swings back and forth from left to right. Both Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated a capacity to self-destruct, but also to reinvent themselves. If Democrats are lucky enough to sweep the elections in 2020, they will face an enormous challenge: maintaining internal cohesion while retaining sustained public support.
This challenge has proved insurmountable in the past and it may well continue to feel that way — until it is, once again, surmounted.
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Thomas B. Edsall has been a contributor to The Times Opinion section since 2011. His column on strategic and demographic trends in American politics appears every Wednesday. He previously covered politics for The Washington Post. @edsall
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