THE EMERGING DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY

By John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira

Scribner. 214 pp. $24

THE VANISHING VOTER

Public Involvement in

An Age of Uncertainty

By Thomas E. Patterson

Knopf. 254 pp. $25

As every undergraduate knows, political scientists are not a sexy bunch. Science, not politics, is their vocation, which is why they turn the most exciting debates into the dullest equations. But political scientists do have their guilty pleasures. One is realignment theory. Realignments are those rare elections in American history when the voters repudiate established orthodoxy and bring to power a new party coalition whose agenda dominates for decades to come. Think Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Now, say John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, think Democrat in 2004. Or, if you're not easily seduced by academic heavy breathing, 2008.

With a keen eye for demographic and cultural trends, Judis and Teixeira argue persuasively that George Bush's Republican Party is headed for a showdown with the American electorate. In each of the last three presidential elections, the Democratic candidate won at least 266 electoral votes, just four short of the necessary majority. That's no accident, claim the authors, for the fastest-growing segments of the electorate -- professionals, women and people of color -- lean Democratic. These voters, moreover, are concentrated in states with sufficient clout to determine the outcome of future elections. Unless, of course, the Supreme Court decides otherwise.

What's behind this "emerging Democratic majority?" First, the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Workers in the most dynamic sectors of the service economy -- from skilled professionals such as doctors and professors to immigrant janitors and home health-care aides -- do not share the Republican ethos of rugged individualism. Victims of low wages or lost workplace autonomy, these voters are suspicious of the market and sympathetic to government regulation.

Second, they live in "ideopolises," high-tech demographic boom towns, with large enough populations to throw a state into the red or blue column. In cities such as Chicago, college towns such as Ann Arbor, and wired corridors running in and out of Boston and San Francisco, the old urban/suburban divide has broken down, creating extended geographies of diversity and metropolitan living. While the Reagan Revolution had been powered by white suburbanites in the West, South and Midwest, the coming realignment will be the work of a rainbow coalition scattered throughout these ideopolises.

Finally, because these voters commingle in urban diasporas of latte and bookstores, Thai food and Gay Pride, their values tend to be multicultural, secular and tolerant. In other words, Democratic.

The Emerging Democratic Majority is sure to be an important book, not for its predictive value -- as Yale political scientist David Mayhew argues in his just-released Electoral Realignments, so many realignment claims are false that we might as well scrap the entire theory -- but for the shift it marks among journalists and scholars. In 1969, Kevin Phillips predicted that American politics would be pushed to the right by white, middle- and working-class Democrats disaffected with the excesses of liberalism in the 1960s. Since then, pundits and academics have been awfully tender toward these Reagan Democrats, urging the Democratic Party to break with its radical past, to pay less attention to blacks and the poor in favor of the white working-class majority in the suburbs. Indeed, as recently as two years ago, Teixeira co-authored a book with political scientist Joel Rogers making a variant of this claim.

But, as it turns out, voters like what the '60s wrought: diversity and multiculturalism, women's rights, gay rights, sexual freedom. They're not happy about the end of the New Deal or the passing of the Great Society. They're moving back to cities. In perhaps their most interesting chapter, Judis and Teixeira even revive that old warhorse of liberal embarrassment and conservative disdain: George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. McGovern may not have had a recipe for victory 30 years ago, but his attempt to form a coalition of professionals, women and people of color was a harbinger of the future that is now.

While Judis and Teixeira successfully argue that the voters are ready for a realignment, what they don't do is show that the Democratic Party will or can give it to them. The Democrats, as Judis and Teixeira portray them (correctly in my view), will temper, not challenge or reverse, the Reagan Revolution. The Democrats won't raise taxes (or even reverse the Bush tax cut); they'll just not cut them. They won't push for civil rights; they'll just not argue against them.

This is not the politics of realignment. It's what Stephen Skowronek, another Yale political scientist, calls "preemption" -- the petty thrust and parry of a party opposed to the established order but lacking the necessary fire to subdue it. When Kevin Phillips predicted a Republican realignment, he meant Republican; when Judis and Teixeira talk about its Democratic counterpart, they mean Republican Lite.

Judis and Teixeira claim, for instance, that Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign was a portent of the coming realignment. But compare Clinton's echoes of the current dispensation -- "the era of big government is over" and "mend it, don't end it" -- with the rhetoric of real disruption. In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln thundered that "if God wills that" the Civil War "continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' " Listening to Lincoln, we hear how far the Democratic Party must go -- in its talk, not to mention its walk -- before it earns the electorate's realigning vote.

Lest they dismiss these comments as Naderite grumbling, Judis and Teixeira should consult Thomas Patterson's wise and skeptical account of the contemporary electorate, The Vanishing Voter. Today's typical voter, Patterson shows, is not so much Democratic or Republican as nonexistent. Barely a majority of those eligible voted in the last presidential election. And that, argues Patterson, is in large part because most citizens no longer perceive a major difference between the two parties, and do not believe that it even matters who wins the election.

According to Patterson, parties today make "small and immediate promises" -- school uniforms, computers in the classroom, the patients' bill of rights. "Large ideas" and "big, divisive issues" like economic justice are taboo. Ironically, while campaign strategists believe that little policies produce big votes, Patterson shows that they only sow confusion and apathy, leading voters to stay home. Based on 80,000 interviews conducted over the year leading up to the 2000 election, he concludes that the single most important factor inhibiting political participation today is "the decline of the party as an idea." Less than a quarter of those surveyed believe that "the two-party system works fairly well," and nearly a third believe that "the country needs a third party."

Judis and Teixeira may well be right that a realignment is in the making. But if Patterson is also right and the Democrats do nothing to address the issues he raises, the voters might just sit this next one out. *

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is writing a book titled "Fear: Biography of an Idea."