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Democratic Majority Is Not Demographic Inevitability (Part the Last: Do Something!) | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Democratic Majority Is Not Demographic Inevitability (Part the Last: Do Something!)


Barack Obama greets young people at the College of Charleston. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)

I've been arguing in this series that the voting behavior of demographic voting blocs isn't stable in any truly predictable way, and may well confound confident predictions of a generation of Democratic hegemony. Seemingly stable blocs can shatter in something like an instant. Even, for example, urban blacks, which Democrats can reliably count on to vote their way at numbers upwards of 90 percent in every election. Little more than a generation ago, though, urban blacks in industrial states were considered a swing vote. Teddy White energy to the point in Making of the President 1960: Yes, a majority would vote Democrat, but the Party of Lincoln still retained the loyalty of a significant number of "Negroes" that just how many voted Republican in states like Illinois would determine—did determine, in fact—whether John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon became president. Within four short years, of course, that once-solid conventional wisdom had melted into air. It changed in a flash: A Democratic president signed a historic Civil Rights Act and the Republican presidential nominee voted against it. Lyndon Johnson told Bill Moyers "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come." There was a corollary: just as indubitably they'd delivered themselves the loyalty of blacks.

There's a moral to this story: it is what a party and its leaders do that determines the loyalty of its voters.

As much so, what determines the loyalty of voters is how well a party and its leaders tell clear, effective stories about what they do. Obama did Obamacare. And how does Obamacare pass these tests? Well, for one thing, it hasn't done that much yet. Some of the things it might do are bad (Los Angeles Times headline this past week: "Healthcare Law Could Raise Premiums 30% for Some Californians"). The main thing it does, meanwhile, establishing easy-to-use online healthcare markets ("exchanges"), still doesn't kick in for nearly a year—if that's not badly delayed: The White House, plainly not grasping the intransigent nature of the opposition whose good faith they still presume, was underprepared at how many Republican-run states would refuse to cooperate. Said one healthcare consultant, “They definitely did not envision this many federally run exchanges. It was considered a fallback. The idea was it would be mostly state run and in the event of an anomalous state that didn’t do it, the feds would step in.”

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And how well have they managed to get through effective stories to the public about what they've done? Well, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll published on the third anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, 57 percent of Americans had to answer "no" to the question, "Do you feel you have enough information about the health reform law to understand how it will impact you personally, nor not?" 40 percent of the public views it unfavorably, 37 percent unfavorably, down from 46 and 40 percent upon its passage. And yet they say they would like certain specified healthcare reforms were they passed into law—88 percent like tax credits to small businesses who offer health insurance to their employees, 81 percent dig closing the Medicare donut hole, and eighty percent like the idea of health insurance exchanges—with the rub being all these things are major provisions of the law a plurality of Americans say they don't like. Is a Democratic majority inevitable? Not if they keep laying the game like this.

Let's compare all this to how Franklin Delano Roosevelt did things. While the Social Security system did not kick in right away either, people were confident about what it would do—because it was communicated so effectively. After he signed the law in 1935 he had signs hung in every post office reading, "A Monthly Check to You for the Rest of Your Life." That was the year before Roosevelt won the biggest reelection landslide in history. Then, the program really started delivering. It was one of the ways Roosevelt ensured new Democratic politicians were minted for another seventy-five years and counting.

Sometimes I like to think that the responsibility of every new generation of Democrats is to devise a a program that mints new Democrats for another seventy-five years or so. Can Obama's political legacy conceivably match that? Well, maybe. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating—and not in demographic wishful thinking.

Read Rick Perlstein on Chicago teachers organizing against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's shock doctrine.

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