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.