The Agenda

Should Republicans Fear a Progressive Realignment?: An Exchange with Sean Trende

Jonathan Chait’s “2012 or Never” has been warmly received by many of our friends on the political left, and it offers a clear and arresting thesis:

The modern GOP—the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes—is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests. And this impending doom has colored the party’s frantic, fearful response to the Obama presidency.

Though Chait is careful to add a number of caveats, but his essay embraces the argument advanced a decade ago by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis in The Emerging Democratic Majority, i.e., that a growing number of minority voters and college-educated voters will give Democrats a powerful built-in electoral advantage that will in turn result in a “progressive realignment.” Chait interprets the pervasive conservative sense that the 2012 presidential election is “make or break” through this lens.

Having recently read The Lost Majority, a brilliant critique of what we might call realignment thinking, I thought I’d ask its author, Sean Trende, the Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics, to answer a few questions prompted by Chait’s essay. For an introduction to Sean’s broad argument, check out this excerpt from the book’s introduction. I should note that Sean was kind enough to answer my questions while he was on the road.    

Jonathan Chait seems to be arguing that Republicans fear that America’s ongoing demographic transformation will reduce the GOP to permanent minority status. Leaving aside the question of whether or not this fear is real, should it be? That is, do Republicans have much to fear from the changing composition of the electorate?

The simple truth of the matter is that the GOP is going to have to change to survive, but this is true of all political parties. And the thing is, political parties do change. Thirty years from now the GOP will probably not be opposed to same-sex marriage, for example. The Democrats will have to change as well, quite frankly; a majority-Latino Democratic party — likely a necessary precondition to a majority-Latino general electorate — is going to have different priorities than a party that is by-and-large led by white liberals.

But I think this whole “demographic doomsday” scenario is overblown. Judis and Teixeira sketch out one path for the future, but there are a host of other possibilities. For example, are we really sure Latinos continue to go into the Democratic Party? Immigration is an important issue for these voters, but it isn’t the only issue, nor is it the predominate issue, nor is there even consensus on the issue. One-third of Latinos who thought immigration was “very” or “extremely” important in 2008 voted Republican. As Latino immigration drops off, and Latino population growth increasingly comes from second- and third- generation Latinos, the salience of the issue will likely decrease as well.

This has further implications, because as Latinos become more assimilated in the country, they tend to pick up GOP voting habits. If you control for ideology or income, the Latino vote isn’t terribly different from the white vote. This has obvious implications as the Latino immigration surge of the ’90s and ’00s gives way to children and grandchildren who go to college, start businesses, and move up the social ladder. My guess is that the future of Latinos is the future of the great wave of European immigration from the turn of the 19th Century, whose descendants generally vote Republican today. But we can’t really know for sure.

Or what about the “Arizona effect?” Jan Brewer certainly pushed Latinos out of the GOP coalition there, running well behind John McCain’s ‘08 margins with Latinos. But she actually ran ahead of McCain’s statewide ‘08 showing, because she ran better among whites. As Democrats increasingly tend to Latino interests, why does Chait believe that the electorate becomes less racialized, rather than more? That seems counterintuitive to me.

Ultimately, coalitions are like water balloons. You push on one side, and the other side pops up. In Arizona, Brewer took steps that alienated Latinos (though she still won 28% percent of Latinos), and it cost her. But the Democrats’ stance alienated white voters. I think Chait would say that demographics still doom the GOP in the long run, but if the GOP is winning around 60 percent of the white vote, as opposed to the 50 percent it tended to win for Congress in the 80s or the 55 percent from the 90s, while still holding one-third of the Latino vote, it is going to take a long time for them to take on permanent minority status.

Chait, drawing on the work of Teixeira-Judis, argues that the Obama coalition of 2008 represents a coalition that could win for many presidential elections to come. Yet you argue that the Obama coalition was actually narrower than is commonly understood, due in large part to the defection of Greater Appalachia. Can you explain how a 53% majority was actually quite narrow and how Greater Appalachia might shape this election?

Obama’s win wasn’t really narrow — 53 percent is 53 percent. But his coalition was actually narrower than what Judis and Teixeira envisioned. If you read their book, you’ll find that it is predicated upon significant support for the Democrats from the white working class. In particular, they see West Virginia staying in the Democratic column, and Kentucky and Tennessee remaining competitive (remember, they wrote their book in 2002). These states actually trended away from the Democrats over the course of the 2000s, in response to some of the same moves that brought upper class whites on board.

Obama compensated for the loss of these states by going very, very deep into the remaining portions of the Democratic electorate. African American turnout was up from 11 percent to 13 percent, and he received 95 percent of that vote rather than 90 percent. If he hadn’t received this surge — a surge that really is an Obama surge, and not a Democratic surge — his 53-46 win is suddenly a 50.5-48.5 win. In such an event, his win really would have been wholly dependent upon the economic collapse.

In 2008, Obama was able to go deep into college education/postcollege whites and minority groups. The problem is, Appalachia may have left the Democrats for good, as suggested by the 2010 midterms, but there are real questions about whether other Democrats can duplicate Obama’s successes in the narrower band of groups he went deeply into. Of course, in the long run, this becomes less of a problem for Democrats, but the real truth is that, in the long run, none of us has any clue what American politics will look like.

And finally, some conservatives seem concerned that the implementation of the PPACA subsidies might change the shape of the political landscape in a durable way. What are your thoughts?

Many conservatives believe that the idea behind having the subsidies extend up into the $90,000 per year range was to help complete the longstanding Democratic goal of turning the middle class into a Democratic client group. I think there’s a few problems with this. First, as I understand it (correct me if I’m wrong), you don’t get a check to subsidize your health care. The subsidy is much less visible than that, as it actually goes to the insurance company.

Second, this just runs into fiscal realities sooner or later. If the health care bill doesn’t succeed in bending the cost curve, either the subsidies get trimmed back, the scope of care offered gets trimmed back, or we really do turn into Greece. If it succeeds, well, the GOP will probably fall in line behind it, and it will have been a good idea.

Finally, I think conservatives lack some imagination regarding the healthcare bill. The Democratic critiques regarding the similarities between the bill and the old Republican bill are overblown, but nevertheless have quite a lot of merit. Consider that the Ryan Plan is in many ways putting Medicare onto the exchanges. It’s not feasible today, but after a generation grows up on the exchanges, it could be. Indeed, Medicaid recipients could probably be put on exchanges within the next decade, with little blowback. Combined with deregulation of the exchanges, conservatives could really transform this into the purely market-based system of their dreams, and remove the true sword of Damocles hanging over the health care system, which is the government’s single-payer systems.


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