An Ideological Realignment Driven by Demography
Political scientist John Sides argues:
The term “realignment” gets thrown around casually, sometimes suggesting nothing more than “something big is happening.” But the term has a more precise meaning—indeed, it must have a precise meaning in order for it to mean anything. A realignment is predicated on three things. First, there has to be a dramatic and permanent shift in the party coalitions. Second, the shift in coalitions needs to usher in an extended period of party control. Third, the shift in control needs to bring about a notable shift in policy. One can see how the “New Deal coalition” approximates this definition, since it ushered in decades of one-party dominance in Congress, particularly in the House, and brought about not only the New Deal but arguably the Great Society. No such thing has happened since Obama was elected in 2008. It is true that the demography of the country is changing slowly, and groups that have tended to vote Democratic are becoming more numerous. So the Democratic party coalition has the potential for continuing growth. Will that growth translate into enduring power and policy change? It certainly didn’t in 2010. Yes, the 2010 electorate was not the 2012 electorate. But that’s the point: a realignment doesn’t take midterm elections off.
Under Sides' rubric, Ronald Reagan was not a transformative President. After all, in 1982, Reagan's Republican Party lost 27 House seats and control of the Senate. Indeed, Sides' argument sounds eerily similar to David Broder's assessment of Reagan after the 1982 midterms (via Ezra Klein):
What we are witnessing this January is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phase-out. "Reaganism," it is becoming increasingly clear, was a one- year phenomenon, lasting from his nomination in the summer of 1980 to the passage of his first budget and tax bills in the summer of 1981. What has been occurring ever since is an accelerating retreat from Reaganism, a process in which he is more spectator than leader.
Broder was wrong and so is Sides. Why? Because realignments are about more than just raw counts of who was elected. It is just as much a question of realignment of ideology. Ronald Reagan's lasting achievement was the idea that tax cuts were always good, no matter what. And until this election, that was a dominant ideology in the political discourse (notwithstanding the fact that the largest peacetime recovery in the Nation occurred after the Clinton tax hike in 1993.) For the last 4 Presidential elections, Democratic candidates have defended the view that the wealthy need to pay their fair share of taxes against the Republican view that tax cuts, especially for the rich, are always needed and always good. I would argue that with the 2012 election result, the Democrats have finally captured the upper hand in the electorate with regard to this ideological argument. The why of this victory of ideas is important - and it is due to demographic changes.
It seems odd to have to argue this point against a political scientist, but Sides is more of a horse race political scientist than a studier of ideology. And indeed, Sides seems to be offering a rather typical contrarian TradMed horse race pundit piece here instead of rigorous analysis. His analysis, such as it is, of the demographic changes and their electoral meaning, is the tell:
[T]he “Obama coalition” may prove to be exactly that: a coalition specific to Obama. When he is no longer at the top of the ticket, will groups like Latinos and African-Americans turn out in such numbers, and with such strong support for the Democratic candidate? [...] Moreover, it is entirely possible that Republicans can make inroads into this coalition. After all, they don’t need to win 75% of the Latino vote to win a presidential election. Even 40% might suffice.
This ignores history, a very bad thing for a political scientist. Consider the 2000 election. Al Gore won 62% of the Latino vote. And that against a Republican candidate who was especially appealing to Hispanic voters, a Texas governor with a history of Latino outreach. (Ironically, Gore also received around 43% of the white vote, the same pecentage that Obama garnered in his landslide in 2008.) To emphasize the point, Michael Dukakis received 70% of the Latino vote (and Dukakis outpolled Obama with the white vote, garnering 40% to Obama's 39%) in his landslide loss in 1988.
The Obama coalition is, certainly in terms of Latinos and African Americans, a Democratic coalition, not formed just for Obama (it is pretty funny to think of Latinos as an Obama constituency alone when you consider that Hillary Clinton was winning Latinos by 2-1 over Obama in the 2008 primaries.) This is not meant to slight President Obama and his campaign team, who did a remarkable job in garnering high turnout in these key constituencies. But the idea that it was President Obama who first formed this electoral coalition, as Sides suggests, is unadulterated bullshit.
And it misses the importance of the 2012 election result - that a new governing coalition may have formed, one in which a candidate who gets less than 40% of the white vote wins the election by over 3 percentage points and in an electoral college landslide.
Shockingly, Sides seems oblivious to the significance of this development. He writes:
[T]he growth of pro-Democratic constituencies is happening far too slowly to insulate the party from the natural swings that occur because of economic fundamentals. If there is a recession in 2016, the Republicans will be likely to take back the White House.
If this was the first election cycle of such a development, that would be true. But it isn't. The trend of growth of the nonwhite portion of the electorate has been consistent for decades now. Consider that in 1988, the electorate was 85% white. In 1996, it was 83%. In 2004, it was 77%. In 2012, it was 72%. It will only get smaller in the coming years.
The electoral future, as defined by demography, belongs to the party who wins non-white voters (unless of course, the white vote becomes monolithically Republican, which seems unlikely.) And that is the Democratic Party.
And not just because of immigration policy. In a good piece in the Boston Globe, Joshua Green wrote:
[M]inorities’ alienation from the Republican Party goes far beyond language and immigration to the very heart of the conservative worldview.
Take the repeal of Obamacare, a conservative rallying point that was central to Mitt Romney’s campaign. An exit poll by the firm Latino Decisions showed that by a large margin — 61 percent to 25 — Hispanics want to keep the health care law in place.
On the other great Republican obsession, deficit reduction, Hispanics once again differ sharply with Republicans about what to do. Seventy-seven percent want to pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy or combining higher taxes with spending cuts; only 12 percent favor cuts alone.
And despite what Krauthammer thinks, Hispanic voters do not share the Republican position on abortion. Exit polls showed that 66 percent of them believe that abortion should be legal, a higher percentage than the population overall.
Before the election, whenever reporters pointed out these kinds of obstacles, the Romney campaign would reply that Hispanics and other minorities were going to vote on the basis of their economic interest. Unemployment, for example, is much higher among Hispanics and African-Americans than it is among whites. The Romney campaign ending up being right about this: Hispanics said their most important issue, easily eclipsing immigration, was “jobs and the economy.” But they still voted Democratic.A survey last year by National Journal/Heartland Monitor goes a long way toward illuminating why. Minority voters tend to view government as a positive, and effective, facilitator of economic opportunity and prefer that it take an active role in regulating the marketplace. Whites generally don’t share this view. Asked about government’s role in the economy, 64 percent of white Republicans said that “government is the problem.”
To win Latinos will require a wholesale ideological change by Republicans. And to win Presidential elections, Republicans will have to win Latinos. This is the very definition of an ideological realignment. And it is due to demographics.
Sides appears to unconsciously suffer from the view held by many in the Beltway Media that only the ideological views of whites matter. It is this blindness that leads him to miss what is right in front of him - an ideological realignment resulting from demographic changes in the electorate.
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