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Why a Permanent Democratic Majority Is Not a Demographic Inevitability (Part One: Antecedents) | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Why a Permanent Democratic Majority Is Not a Demographic Inevitability (Part One: Antecedents)


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.

As it happened, that 1966 result—repeated in the presidential races of 1968 and 1972—confounded a previous generation’s glib assumptions about demography and destiny. Those newly minted urban Republicans came from immigrant populations—Italians, Eastern Europeans, the Irish—that had formed the beating heart of the New Deal coalition. Back when Roosevelt won his four terms, followed by the Democratic electoral dominance of the 1950s and '60s (the Republicans had to run the non-ideological general who had defeated Adolf Hitler to create practically the only exception), the declining population share of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants had people presuming that Democrats would enjoy a “natural majority” for time immemorial. We’ll talk more about that, and the presumptions concerning another vector of immigrant inevitability, in future installments, but for now, just this thought: no one then bothered to consider that voting behavior might not be a trait passed on in the genes, from generation to generation.

Then in 1971 pundits spied another demographic inevitability right around the bend. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment passed, lowering the federal voting age to 18. Early reports were that 90 percent of high school seniors were registering as Democrats. The political scientist Samuel Lubell wrote: “As of now, the nation’s newest voters would defeat Nixon…. Crammed into my interview notebooks are angry outbursts from business-oriented youths who say, ‘The Republicans are better for my career,’ but vow, ‘I’ll vote for almost any Democrat to end the war.’ ”

Well, the nation’s newest voters did not defeat Nixon. Like just about every other category of voter, they gave majority support for his reelection. Indeed one of the reasons Nixon gladly signed off on the Amendment was that young voters might contribute in Democratic primaries to producing a nominee that would be easier for him to beat. He was smarter than the pundits; he knew that “demographic inevitability” is a cheap and unreliable way to make electoral arguments.

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Next, 1974: not an argument from demographic inevitability, necessarily, but one about inevitability nonetheless. In the first election following Richard Nixon’s resignation, so many young Democratic “Watergate Babies” were elected (thirty-one of them were holding elective office for the first time) that Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the House of Representatives by more than two to one. The Republican pollster Robert Teeter soon announced that only 18 percent of Americans were willing to call themselves “Republicans.” That Democratic hegemony appeared to be confirmed when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976. In 1977, liberals celebrated their incipient generation of governmental control by crowding the congressional docket with things like aggressive bills for labor law reform and a new consumer protection agency. Both were crushed, for various reasons—but one of them was a datum from Teeter’s poll less noticed in all the celebration: 61 percent of Americans still considered themselves conservative.

But not to fear: Republicans had no apparent leadership prospects over the horizon. The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Drew wrote after Ronald Reagan’s near-miss for the nomination at the 1976 Republican, “This is probably the end of Reagan’s political career.” Wrote public opinion expert Evertt Carll Ladd in his 1978 book Where Have All the Voters Gone?, the “GOP is in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War.”

Enough. I’m just having fun now. Pundits are easy to beat up on; predicting the future is hard; things are complicated. And the progressive tilt of the electorate is very real, something I discussed in these pages in a cover article in the middle of 2007 (but I’ll be writing about that one later, too). I’ll be getting into specific critiques of the various arguments-from-inevitability by the by—leaving you only with this thought. My skepticism here is a personal thing. When the 2008 victory of Barack Obama and the defeat of grumpy old John McCain began looking, um, inevitable, I started fielding inquiries about whether “Nixonland”—the name of the book I published that spring about the origins of the generation of Republican hegemony built on the politics of white middle-class cultural grievance—was over. Then people simply confidently proclaimed it, as a fact. Next came the Tea Party Thermidor of November 2010.

Now: last week when Sarah Palin was fired by Fox News, my friend Kevin Drum wrote, “With her gone, it might be a sign that the long, twilight success of Nixonland as a political strategy is finally starting to fade. I think Rick Perlstein should write a few thousand well-chosen words on the subject.”

Kevin, these won’t be the few thousand well-chosen words you’ve been looking for. That’s not how I see the world working.

Next up in my argument against inevitability, I’ll be writing about the protean nature of fear and the ease of its exploitation—the most unpredictable political variable of all.

Despite its lackluster election results, the Republican party's "make-believe consensus" has successfully moved the debate away from vital fundamental questions.

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