Politics & Policy

Demography Isn’t Political Destiny

Events change and attitudes change with them, for every demographic.

After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the phrase was on the lips of progressive prognosticators everywhere. A permanent alignment had arrived. The growing ranks of Latinos, the reliably liberal voting patterns of blacks, the Republican party’s longstanding problem with single women, plus the fact that surveys found young people — a.k.a. “millennials” — to be the most liberal generation in decades all proved that the aging, white GOP was destined for near-eternal rump status. In a Time magazine cover story featuring Obama as a Photoshopped FDR, Peter Beinart wrote that the “coalition that carried Obama to victory is every bit as sturdy as America’s last two dominant political coalitions: the ones that elected Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.”

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg eulogized Republicans:

Their coalition no longer works in the changing demography of the day, and is dangerously old; their Southern strategy . . . has become a relic of the past; their tech and media tools have not kept up with the times; their ideas have become spent and discredited. . . . They are an aging and frayed bunch, living off the fumes of a day and politics gone by.

#ad#The New Republic’s John Judis penned an essay, “America the Liberal,” proclaiming that Obama’s

election is the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 1990s, was delayed by September 11, and resumed with the 2006 election. This realignment is predicated on a change in political demography and geography. Groups that had been disproportionately Republican have become disproportionately Democratic, and red states like Virginia have turned blue. Underlying these changes has been a shift in the nation’s ‘fundamentals’ — in the structure of society and industry, and in the way Americans think of their families, jobs and government.

In fairness, most of these analyses offered the caveat that Obama could blow this golden opportunity. The problem is that most of the prognosticators advised Obama and House speaker Nancy Pelosi to do exactly what they did: Cram a hard progressive agenda down the voters’ throats.

And look at them now. Forget the fact that indispensable independents have almost completely abandoned Obama and his party. Disregard GOP victories not only in Judis’s “blue” Virginia but in Massachusetts and New Jersey. That’s old news. Also never mind that, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Monday, Pelosi has a favorability rating of 8 percent among independents.

Obama’s “sturdy” coalition is coming apart like wet Kleenex in a blender. For the first time since polling on the question began in 1982, Republicans now have a decisive advantage with women. Obama’s support among young voters is stagnating. A recent survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics is just one of several studies showing that millennials’ enthusiasm for politics and for Obama is waning. Young people still lean liberal, but less so and with much less enthusiasm. In a hypothetical ballot between Obama and a generic Republican, Obama leads by a whopping 1 percentage point. An economic hangover brings sobriety even to the young, it seems.

There’s much merit to the idea that “demography is destiny” (a phrase credited to Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon, co-authors of the 1970s book The Real Majority). But it can also lead you astray. Minus immigration, if you know how many baby girls are born in a given year, you’ll have a good idea of how many grown women there will be X number of years down the road. Ditto blacks, Latinos, etc.

But identity politics can poison demography’s predictive power. Knowing how many women there will be in 2050 won’t tell you how they’ll vote. For instance, today we assume that white Christian male voters yield conservative politics. But if that truism were a political constant, you would never have gotten the Progressive era or the New Deal.

Yes, the GOP still faces significant challenges. Heck, an electoral bonanza notwithstanding, Republicans are still fairly unpopular.

But if the first half of the Obama presidency proves anything, it is that straight-line predictions lead to political hubris. Events change and attitudes change with them, for every demographic.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

Most Popular

Film & TV

A Sad Finale

Spoilers Ahead. Look, I share David’s love of Game of Thrones. But I thought the finale was largely a bust, for failings David mostly acknowledges in passing (but does not allow to dampen his ardor). The problems with the finale were largely the problems of this entire season. Characters that had been ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Great Misdirection

The House Democrats are frustrated, very frustrated. They’ve gotten themselves entangled in procedural disputes with the Trump administration that no one particularly cares about and that might be litigated for a very long time. A Washington Post report over the weekend spelled out how stymied Democrats ... Read More
World

Australia’s Voters Reject Leftist Ideas

Hell hath no fury greater than left-wingers who lose an election in a surprise upset. Think Brexit in 2016. Think Trump’s victory the same year. Now add Australia. Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison shocked pollsters and pundits alike with his victory on Saturday, and the reaction has been brutal ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More
Film & TV

Game of Thrones: A Father’s Legacy Endures

Warning! If you don't want to read any spoilers from last night's series finale of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Right now. There is a lot to unpack about the Thrones finale, and I fully understand many of the criticisms I read on Twitter and elsewhere. Yes, the show was compressed. Yes, there were moments ... Read More