Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Fight For The White House: Emerging Majorities


Back in 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote a book called The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he predicted that the Republicans would dominate American politics for some time to come.

He was more or less right, as least as far as the White House is concerned. A year earlier, in 1968, Nixon had become president; after that, the Republicans won another four elections in a row, the only exception being Carter's rather short lived victory in 1976.

So from 1968 onwards (and discounting, just for the moment, the Carter interregnum), the US elected a string of Republicans presidents all the way up to 1992. That year, of course, Bill Clinton managed to wrest the White House out of GOP hands.

Clinton went on to win a second term, and left office as one of the most popular presidents in recent times (in spite of severe scandals). And soon afterwards, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published a book that in many ways took Kevin Phillips's idea and turned it on its head. It was, aptly, called The Emerging Democratic Majority, and in it, they argued that it would not be the Republicans, but instead the Democrats who would prevail in the foreseeable future.

In some ways, the authors did not make an auspicious start. Their book was published in 2002, two years after George W. Bush has reclaimed the White House for the Republicans. And in 2004, Bush quite comfortably won a second term.  It was not until 2008 that their theory seemed to bear fruit: that year, Barack Obama surprisingly won the Democratic primary race and, not so surprisingly, went on to become the 44th president of the United States. He was, of course, re-elected in 2012.

So is this, in fact, the proof (or, at least, the beginning of the proof) of a Democratic surge? Will the Democratic nominee end up winning in 2016 as well? And perhaps again in 2020?

Well, maybe. Sort of. In a we'll-probably-never-really-know sort of way. Here's why.

The basis of Judis's and Teixeira's theory is a relatively simple one. They state that the growth of minority populations (especially the Hispanic population), along with increasing Democratic strength among well-educated white professionals, will allow Democrats to outperform Republicans. Not for ever, mind, but for a considerable while to come.

That basis seems quite strong. The Hispanic population is indeed growing, and, yes, they predominantly tend to vote Democratic. The same is true of well-educated whites. Blacks (whatever their level of education) have almost always voted Democratic. Asians tend to more or less vote Democratic as well. So, at first glance, it would seem that the EDM thesis (as it is often referred to) is sound: the population is changing, and the changes favour the Democrats.

When you start to think about it, though, you begin to realise that it is just a theory, and that real life tends to be a bit more complicated and unpredictable. For example, look at each of the following Democratic victories. What's the first answer that pops into your head when you ask yourself why they won?

-               Carter in 1976. Surely his victory stems primarily from the debacle of Nixon (or, if you prefer, Watergate).
-               Clinton in 1992. Clinton was certainly helped a very great deal by the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. That, and a certain "Read My Lips" pledge.
-               Obama in 2008. Think Iraq. Think, more generally, of Bush's abundant weaknesses and the domination of rather sinister characters such as Rumsfeld and Cheney.

These are not, of course, the only reasons Democrats won those elections, but they are decidedly important ones. And the thing is these reasons have little to do with any grand theory; instead they are simply the result of how the electorate viewed the guy in charge and whether they thought him (or his party's successor) fit for the job. 

To this example could be added many others, some similar, some very different. Take, for instance, the very real desire for change that occurs after four of eight years of things being the same. I'm certain this played a part in the Republican's defeat in 2008, and I'm also certain it played a part in Al Gore's defeat in 2000 (in spite of Clinton's popularity and the strength of the economy). And whilst it's impossible to predict exactly how things will work out in 2016, I think it's safe to say that this is a factor that will pop up again.

Take, also, the fact that every action leads to a counter re-action. It may well be true that, say, the growing Hispanic population favours the Democrats, but what if, in turn, the shifting demographics lead more whites to vote Republican? And what happens when more Hispanics become relatively affluent? Will they start voting Republican? (As an aside: earlier this year one of the authors of The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis, basically recanted his thesis, pointing out factors like the ones just mentioned.)

So clearly the outcomes of elections are dependent upon a wide variety of factors (did I mention the economy?), many of which profoundly but at times incomprehensibly influence each other. No election, let alone a whole string of elections, can be explained by virtue of a single all-encompassing theory.

And yet, having said that, there is still to my mind a fairly strong case to be made in favour of the EDM thesis (that is, when it comes to the presidency; the theory does not apply to Congress). The reason is simply that, whilst its conclusion need not necessarily be inevitable, it is certainly logical, whilst the foundation on which it resides is, in large part, true. In short, it makes sense.

There is, additionally, a final fact to consider. It is this. All through time, political parties shift and change. If their message becomes unpopular, well, they tend to change it. And, in doing so, they often manage to become popular again. So is the Republican Party doing this? The answer, at present, seems to be a fairly emphatic "Hell, no!". Republicans are, in fact, doing the exact opposite; they are doubling down on most of their previous mistakes. Hispanics? Women? Gays? They seem to want to alienate all these groups as quickly and as decisively as they possibly can. 

In doing so, they may well be pandering to their base (a part of their base, at any rate), but they run the very real risk of realizing their own worst nightmare.    

No single theory will determine the future of politics. But when backed by a great party, it certainly might seem that way.   

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