Get Ready for a Democratic Era
Karl Rove's grandest aspiration was to create a Republican majority that would dominate American politics for a generation or more. But as the effects of his distinctive brand of fear-mongering fade, it's the Democrats who are poised to become the country's majority party -- and perhaps for a long time to come.
Many conservatives have insisted that the Democrats' wins in the 2006 midterm elections, as well as their recent pickups in some 2007 races, were mere blips. They wish. Political, ideological, demographic and economic trends are all leading toward durable Democratic majorities in Congress, control of most statehouses and, very possibly, the end of the decades-old GOP hammerlock on the electoral college.
This sea change is the result of the electorate's disenchantment with conservative Republicans, beginning in the 1990s. The old conservative majority, as given voice by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, sought to cut federal regulation, to privatize government operations and to slash social spending. But by late in Bill Clinton's presidency, broad public majorities had come to back environmental and consumer regulation, as well as significant new government spending on health care and education. As President Bush discovered in 2005, the public also disliked attempts to gut Social Security.
Moreover, much of the electorate had grown leery of the GOP's fervent identification with the religious right. As early as 1992, mainstream voters were turned off by Pat Buchanan's nasty, divisive "culture war" speech at the Republican National Convention. Attempts by religious conservatives to stop teaching evolution and funding human stem-cell research spurred a widespread backlash, even in states such as Kansas, which Democrats had given up for dead.
This dramatic shift in the public's outlook carried with it a change in the political makeup of the Republican and Democratic coalitions -- in a way that decisively helps Democrats. Even in conservatism's heyday, Democrats received the support of African Americans, Hispanics and a residual group of white working-class voters (especially union members) who had not switched parties in the 1980s and become "Reagan Democrats." That was fine for a base, but not enough to win the White House or to keep Congress. But over the past two decades, two new groups have migrated to the Democratic Party -- and provided the basis for an enduring majority coalition.
First, there are women, who used to vote disproportionately Republican. (In 1960, for instance, women backed the Republican Richard M. Nixon, with his 5 o'clock shadow, over the dashing Democrat John F. Kennedy.) But in the 1990s, troubled by the Republicans' ardor for the religious right and opposition to social spending, they began voting disproportionately Democratic -- especially single women, working women and college-educated women. In the 2000 congressional elections, single women backed Democrats over Republicans by a whopping 63 percent to 35. Even better news for Democrats: Women are more likely to vote than men.
Second, there are professionals, once the most Republican of all occupational groups. In 1960, they backed Nixon over JFK by 61 percent to 38. But as professionals -- including nurses, teachers and actors as well as doctors, scientists and engineers -- have become a larger proportion of the workforce (about 7 percent in the 1950s, and about 17 percent today), they have turned decidedly blue. In the four presidential elections from 1988 to 2000, professionals backed Democrats by an average of 52 percent to 40 percent. The reason: Professionals typically used to see themselves as pro-business entrepreneurs, but by the 1990s, most had become salaried workers, wary of big corporations and the untrammeled free market. Moreover, as members of the post-1960s college generation, the new professionals grew up celebrating Earth Day and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and admiring the (pre-2000) Ralph Nader.
So if the electorate is swinging Democratic, why does the GOP still hold the White House? The reason is 9/11, which revived the Republicans' Reagan-era advantage as the party of national security, an edge that had grown irrelevant since the Soviet Union collapsed. The nation was badly rattled, and the voters who were most worried about new terrorist attacks backed Bush's Republicans in the first two post-9/11 elections, 2002 and 2004.
The attacks gave Republicans another political bonus: As often happens during national crises, Americans reverted to more traditional views of life and family. Opposition to abortion, for example, rose temporarily after the 2001 attacks, with the percentage of voters who said they believe that abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" rising from 17 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2002, based on Gallup Poll annual averages. The more Americans turned inward, the more they feared social innovation and experimentation. Rove's Republicans exploited these fears in 2002 and 2004, using them to suppress the trends pushing toward a Democratic majority.
But after Bush's victory in 2004, the spell cast by 9/11 began to lift. The quagmire in Iraq undermined the Republicans' reputation for national security competence and toughness. And in the absence of new al-Qaeda attacks at home, Americans resumed their slow, steady movement toward a less traditional, more libertarian society -- one in which unmarried men and women now head the majority of households. The more the aura of 9/11 faded, the more the trends that began in the 1990s surged to the fore.
In 2006, the new Democratic coalition -- women, professionals and minorities, augmented by disillusioned Reagan Democrats -- retook Congress. In 2008, it's poised to do even better. Just look at the map.
The old conservative Republican majority was built on white voters in the Sunbelt and Reagan Democrats in Northern suburbs. By 1992, this coalition had already begun to collapse: The Far West (including California), much of the Midwest and the Middle Atlantic (including Pennsylvania and New Jersey) defected to the Democratic Party in the presidential election.
Since Bill Clinton's triumph, states such as California, Illinois and New Jersey have turned bluer and bluer. Meanwhile, the Democrats have consolidated their hold on the Northeast and have begun to make inroads in the Rocky Mountain states -- and even in some Southern border states. Virginia, once a Republican bastion, has elected two Democratic governors in a row and seems poised to make both of its U.S. senators Democratic. In the Southwest, where Rove dreamed of capturing the Mexican American vote, Democrats have been doing strikingly well, backed by Latinos alienated by Republican anti-immigration tirades, sagebrush libertarians fed up with the religious right and moderate transplants from states such as California. In Barry Goldwater's Arizona, a Democratic governor is in her second term, and Democrats now control half of the state's congressional seats.
Or consider Colorado. In 2000, Bush carried the state by nine percentage points, and in 2002, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard easily won reelection. But in 2004, Bush won the state by just five points, Democrats took control of both chambers of the state legislature, and Democrat Ken Salazar won a marquee Senate race. In 2006, Democrats expanded their control of the state legislature and elected Bill Ritter Jr. governor by a landslide. They have an excellent chance of picking up the other Senate seat next year.
Against this blue tide, only the deep South and some sparsely populated prairie and mountain states remain dependably Republican. But the GOP can't take any state for granted anymore. In Republican Kansas, the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are Democrats.
One key to this shift has been the development of post-industrial metropolitan areas -- places that combine city and suburb, that are devoted to the production of ideas and services, and that act as powerful magnets for precisely the professionals and minorities who are most likely to vote Democratic. These areas include greater Los Angeles (which now employs more entertainment workers than aerospace ones), Seattle, Chicago, Boston and even Austin in Bush's home state. Call them ideopolises, and color them bright blue. The Democratic vote in the post-industrial Northern Virginia suburbs, for instance, is the main reason why Democrats have rebounded so dramatically in the Old Dominion.
True, Democrats' growing advantage doesn't necessarily translate into voter registration. In many states, the fastest growing group of voters is independents. But many of these voters have the same center or center-left sensibility as the Democrats -- maybe with an added emphasis on good government and fiscal responsibility. The leftward tilt of independents has only been intensified by dismay about the war in Iraq and by Republican scandals. In 2006, independents nationwide voted Democratic by a margin of 57 percent to 39 percent.
These trends should give Democrats a striking political advantage over the next decade, and perhaps longer. This edge won't necessarily entail thumping, New Deal-style congressional majorities or certain victory in presidential elections. Presidents are chosen for their (presumed) character and leadership abilities, not just for their political program and party. So the United States may well have a Democratic Congress and a Republican president in 2009. But it isn't likely. Republicans, who grew fat and happy during Bush's first term, anticipating decades of rule, face some lean years ahead.
John Judis, a senior editor at the New Republic,
and Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation, are the co-authors of "The Emerging Democratic Majority."