Monday, August 02, 2004
I've been re-reading some of my political analysis books lately- Jeff Faux's "The Party's Not Over," Teixeira's "The Emerging Democratic Majority," and the classic by E.J. Dionne, "Why Americans Hate Politics," as well as his "They Only Look Dead." Reading Thomas Franks' "What's the Matter with Kansas" got me thinking about the broader challenges faced by the Democratic and Republican coalitions over the next couple of decades.
The Democrats are a coalition of cultural and ethnic minorities (gays, feminists, blacks, latinos, etc.), populists (working class laborers), and progressives (animated by social liberalism, the environment, etc.) Traditionally the Democratic Party was defined by its populism, but the progressives won control during the twentieth century. During the 1960's a combination of factors drove a large portion of the populists from the party, which cost liberalism its political majority. They have been struggling to pick up the pieces ever since.
The Republicans, on the other hand, are a combination of libertarians, corporations, cultural traditionalists, and foreign policy nationalists. This is a coalition that was assembled by Nixon and Reagan, but lost its clear majority status in the 1990's because of the end of the cold war, economic anxiety, the rising percentage of minority voters, and increased social tolerance.
So where does that leave us? Well, Teixeira would have us believe that the trends are towards the Democrats, with an increasingly tolerant electorate(due to the growth of ideapolis), the proletarianization of middle class professionals, and the growing minority population. The Republicans (and Franks) would suggest that the drive towards small government, the growth of the sunbelt, and the increasing identification of working class voters with cultural conservativism will guarantee them a new majority.
I think either scenario is equally plausible. There are several key questions, the answers to which will give us a good idea of what is going to happen. Will the Republicans be able to win more of the new immigrant populations? Will they be able to generalize their cultural conservatism beyond protestantism? Will middle class professionals continue to become more interventionist on economics? Will the salience of cultural issues increase or decrease? And which constituency (professionals or the working class) will grow in size?
I think the elephant (or donkey) in the room is the deteriorating position of the middle class in the U.S. Their reaction to the backwash of globalization will determine who has the advantage. If they blame corporate america and global trade, they are likely to become Democrats. But if they blame big government, minorities, and cultural decline, they will become Republicans. Democrats, for the sake of the republic and for their own futures, need to lay out a comprehensive agenda for dealing with the challenges of the New Economy. In short, we need to define for people ahead of time what the problems are and how to deal with them. If we don't, we are just gambling that people will see things our way when the time comes. And that's just too risky.