After Lyndon Johnson's resounding defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, pundits incorrectly predicted the decline of the Republican party. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty.)
Following Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney a certain argument became ubiquitous: the argument from demographic inevitability. That the Republican Party, absent deep-seated changes that are all but unimaginable, is in for a generation or more of electoral doom. Indeed the argument was being made long before the votes were even cast. Here was Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, etching the argument sharply almost a year ago:
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.
It is the curse of the historian to be long-memoried. First thing. Pace Chait, “frantic, fearful response” is the default reaction of conservatives to every moment of liberal ascendency. (See, for instance, the rise of the Minutemen upon the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, which I wrote about in my last post, and the general reactionary mass mobilizations against Kennedy, which I wrote about in my 2001 book, Before the Storm). Second thing. “Last chance”? We’ve seen last chances before. Later in this series, I’ll address some of the fallacies in the specific arguments such folks have been making about today’s supposed demographic inevitability. For now lets’ review the overflowing cornucopia of past moments of when Democrats were supposed to rule the universe forever.
There was 1964. Following Lyndon Johnson’s overwhelming landslide victory over Barry Goldwater—at 61 to 38.5 in the popular vote and 486 to 52 in the electoral college, far more staggering than Obama’s not-at-all-overwhelming 51 percent to 47 percent and 332 to 206—the pundits said things like, If the Republicans continue “advocating reactionary changes at home and adventures abroad that might lead to war” (this was the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief), “they will remain a minority party indefinitely.” Those arguments were fundamentally demographic: The nation had been 38 percent rural in the 1950 census and 33 percent rural in the 1960 census, and falling. So how could an ideology of backward rural folk—conservatism—possibly survive?
The conclusion was on every supposedly intelligent person’s lips, but it betrayed an actual idiocy. The census classified an American as “rural” (if memory services) if they lived in a municipality with 5,000 residents or less. That excluded suburbanites, of course—and Goldwaterite proclivities was of course the reason many of them lived in suburbs in the first place. In any event, the Republicans bounced back handily by 1966, borne aloft in many cases by big-city voters (for instance, Chicagoans in the Illinois senate race) who ran screaming from the Democrats’ continued embrace of civil rights during a season of riots.