Magazine April 30, 2012, Issue

Trend Is Not Destiny

The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs — and Who Will Take It, by Sean Trende (Palgrave Macmillan, 240 pp., $27)

When the time arrives to draw up the curriculum for the Walter Lippmann Pundit Training Academy — think clown college, but less amusing — Sean Trende’s book ought to be at the top of the reading list.

This is a remarkably informative and insightful primer on American elections, chockablock with trivia, charts, and historical tables. Most important, the young pundit who reads it will learn the risks inherent in his profession’s most dangerous activity: predicting the future. If he’s not careful, our pundit might end up like Herbert Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Ogden Mills, who told his former boss in 1936 that it looked “almost impossible” to revitalize the Republican party after its Depression-era defeats. Or like sociologists Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley, who predicted in 1953 that the Democrats “may find themselves defeated by Levittown” and its suburban voters. Or like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote in the summer of 1972 that George McGovern was “the leader of a coalition of citizen participation, a coalition for change, as broad as FDR’s in 1932.”

Those are just a few of the incorrect forecasts that Trende mentions. (My favorite comes from an anonymous commentator in 1893 who wrote of the “belief in many quarters that the Republican Party is about to disappear.”) But he devotes a special degree of attention to knocking down the notion, first put forward by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in 2002, that upscale white professionals, minorities, and young people constitute an “emerging Democratic majority” that will dominate American politics for years to come.

The problem with such theories, Trende argues, is that they assume that current conditions will persist indefinitely. In truth, political coalitions are unstable: They resemble amoebas that divide once they grow past a certain size. Events intervene. Demographics change. The belief that a given election “realigns” politics in the direction of one party over another leads to hubris, overreach, and defeat at the polls.

The Judis-Teixeira thesis is a fair-enough description of the coalition that helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, gave Al Gore a popular-vote majority in 2000, returned control of Congress to the Democrats in 2006, and brought Barack Obama to the White House in 2008. But it cannot account for the GOP’s unusual midterm-election gains in 2002, George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, and the Republican shellacking of Democrats in 2010. The idea turns out to be unfalsifiable: Liberal victories confirm Judis and Teixeira, while Republican victories are mere detours along the road to the emerging Democratic majority.

Not only do Judis and Teixeira have trouble fitting the last decade of American politics into their theory, they also assume that the people voting for Democrats now will be voting the same way in 2030. But consider, for example, the Hispanic vote. The percentage of the electorate that is Hispanic has remained stable at about 8 percent for years. That vote swings Democratic, but it is nowhere near as monolithic as the black vote. Trende notes that Republicans have improved their performance among Latinos since 1996 and that the Latino vote, again unlike the black vote, tracks with income: The richer the voter, the more likely he is to vote Republican. There is every reason to believe that, as Latinos assimilate into American culture and prosper, their voting behavior will resemble that of earlier immigrant groups.

#page#That’s also true of the young people who supported Obama by a two-to-one ratio in 2008. After all, the young people who supported McGovern in 1972 went for Reagan in 1984 and were Bush’s strongest supporters in 2000. How one votes when one is 18 years old matters far less than the condition of the country in a given election year. Trende searches the data and concludes: “Every age group here leans Republican at least once over the years, and every group leans Democrat at least once.” It’s a wash.

The one thing consistent about American politics is its inconsistency. “The type of instability we’ve witnessed recently is really the rule in American politics,” Trende writes, “whereas extended dominance of [a party in] either the presidency or the House is the exception.” But that does not stop partisans from hyping the most recent election results as a mandate for drastic change, and a reflection of vast and insuperable transformations in the composition of the electorate.

The Republicans did this after 2004, when Bush led his second term with a Social Security initiative for which he had not strenuously campaigned. The president could have rather used his reelection as an opportunity to change strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan — but the failure of his Social Security reform left him adrift. The situation got worse when Bush attempted an immigration amnesty and Iraq spiraled out of control in 2006.

The Democrats are just as guilty of over-interpretation. When LBJ launched the Great Society after his landslide victory in 1964, Democrats were dealt setbacks in 1966 and 1968. It happened to Clinton after the 1992 election, when the president who had campaigned on welfare reform decided to let the first lady redesign the American health-care system instead. On issue after issue, Clinton did not resist the liberal pull of the Democratic Congress. His reward was the Republican Revolution of 1994.

In 2008, Trende adds, “Barack Obama’s coalition was not novel. It wasn’t even that broad. It was a narrower version of Clinton’s.” But that did not stop him from signing into law the stimulus, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank, a string of bad liberal policies that ended only after the Republicans recaptured the House and picked up seats in the Senate in 2010.

The pattern is striking. Electoral majorities might not be durable, and political coalitions may come apart. But one finishes this book with the strong sense that there has been a national ideological consensus in post–New Deal politics, and that it was Eisenhower who embodied it: He favored Social Security and defense but was also, Trende writes, “skeptical about expanding [the welfare state] to other areas.” Departure from this norm invites public rebuke.

If The Lost Majority has a weakness, it is that there are so many data and insights in so few pages. Trende dashes without a pause from a lucid and revisionist discussion of southern politics to a lecture on the flaws of predictive modeling: The reader is flung from one fascinating idea to another without much time to catch his breath. Many of Trende’s topics would be fertile ground for an entire book, and I join Trende’s many fans in looking forward to his next one.

– Mr. Continetti is editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon.

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