Democratic decline, interrupted

Veerrry interresting. Michael Barone, editor of The Almanac of American Politics for many years, writes an in-depth article on the psephology of the 2010 midterms titled Dems retreat to coasts as GOP rules vast interior. I read this and had a feeling of deja vu.

Rummaging through my archives…aha! Six years ago, running a post-mortem on George Bush’s election win, I asked Are the Democrats becoming a regional party?. My analysis then was essentially the same as Michael Barone’s now. I even made a strong prediction about the 2004 county-by-county returns that turned out to be correct, based on my (and now his) theory about the regionalization of the Democratic base.

I called the 2008 elections wrong; I thought Obama was going to crumble at the last minute. But now it is beginning to look like Obama was a fluke in a long-term story of increasing Democratic failure outside the coastal metroplexes and a few university towns (the likes of Austin and Ann Arbor).

Barone’s analysis is even causing me to put more credence in the theory (muttered by some Republicans) that Obama, the Chicago machine politician, used ACORN and SEIU to steal the election by stuffing urban ballot boxes in a handful of key swing states. Still not proven, for sure, and I wouldn’t even say I put the odds of it having been true at over 50% yet – but I do remember that the stench out of Ohio was pretty thick in 2008. and ACORN/SEIU have certainly been caught in wholesale vote fraud since then. It would be nice if we had a Justice Department interested in enforcing clean voting to dig into this and put the question to rest one way or another, but that ain’t happening.

I have not forgotten the leaked Democratic strategists’s complaint in the late 1990s that the only base the party had left is “the blacks and the public employee unions”. I don’t think Michael Barone has either. The third leg of the Democratic tripod, the people Joel Kotkin calls “gentry liberals”, would be too small a bloc to swing elections without the public-employee unions and the blacks, a fact somewhat obscured by gentry-liberal control of most of the national media and their crucial importance in funding the party machine.

Probably the largest opportunity the Democrats missed in the last fifteen years was corralling Hispanics into their base. This might have been managed, especially given Republicans’ ham-fisted failure to attract a group with upward mobility and broadly social-conservative instincts. But what tension with the Democratic black establishment didn’t do, rapid assimilation did. U.S.-born Hispanics are fast ceasing to be ethnically marked, rather as Italians lost that coloration after World War II. We can expect their voting behavior to increasingly resemble that of recently-assimilated white ethnics like Italians and Poles, not preferentially tilting towards either party. We can also expect Democratic efforts to hold back the tide by pouring money into fringy Hispanic identity-politics groups, a tactic unlikely to be any more successful in the future than it has been up to now.

Having failed to expand their base, the Democrats need to attract voters outside that base to exert nationwide clout. Obama managed it it by trading on white guilt about past racism, but that’s a card that can probably only be played once and his plunging poll ratings (worse than George W. Bush’s at the corresponding point in his presidency) suggest he couldn’t do it today.

Barone’s point is that, absent Obama, the underlying psephological trends look very bad for the Democrats’ ability to pull independents and Republicans. I continue to think that the core of the problem is the Democrats’ loss of its conservative-populist Southern wing beginning in the 1950s, a development which led to the capture of the party apparatus by the unions and the New Left in the 1960s and eventually destroyed the party’s ability to maintain the broad national coalition created by FDR.

If Barone and I are right, the Democrats are probably going to see their worst-case scenarios become real in the upcoming midterms. The surface drama will be all about Obama vs. the Tea Party movement, but the actual problem will be the continuation of the long Democratic decline in the heartland that became visible when Reagan peeled blue-collar whites out of the New Deal coalition in 1980.

My prescription for the Democrats remains what it was in 2004. To remain viable at a national level the party needs to reverse Reagan’s move and peel groups out of the Republican coalition. The tactic I recommended then, reversing the party’s anti-Second-Amendment stance, has probably lost a lot of its potential effectiveness following the Supreme Court’s Heller ruling in 2008. Democrats leading a pro-gun-rights charge charge before Heller would have looked laudably willing to think outside the post-1968 party’s box, but if they try following it today they’ll probably just look weak.

The Democrats today need some corresponding course reversal that would only alienate a small part of the party coalition while having broad appeal outside it. But whose ox are they going to gore? If they alienate gentry liberals, their funding base and effective control of national-media-except-Fox will be damaged, perhaps crippled. The public-employee unions are their most reliable footsoldiers and voters. And the blacks are right at the core of the party’s mythologization of itself as the banner-bearers of the 1960s civil-rights movement and the Great Society.

I think in 2010 the faction the Democrats least need to keep solid is probably the blacks. Blacks are in demographic decline as a percentage of the U.S. population, and racial-grievance politics was looking pretty stale even before the country elected a black President. Hispanics, the closest approximation to a rising minority group even if they are in late-stage assimilation, don’t like the black political establishment and aren’t very wedded to the apparatus of racial preferences and set-asides the Democrats built to keep the blacks on side. Scrapping racial preferences and set-asides would be hugely popular, would deprive Republicans of a key rhetorical weapon, and Obama’s election has probably given the Democrats enough cover to advocate it.

Absent a reversal at least this dramatic in Democratic party politics, its base and geographic breadth will almost certainly continue to decline. As I pointed out in 2004 and Barone is doing now, national demographics are not favoring its prospects. Nor is the party’s own internal conversation – it almost seems to want to fort up in the big cities and university towns and abandon the rest of the U.S. to the Republicans. But that psephological math won’t work for the Democrats; it cedes the Electoral College to the other party.

Obama’s urban cool, his Ivy-League manners, and his air of detachment neatly symbolize this trend in Democratic instincts. But it’s not a healthy one for the party; in fact, it’s accelerating the Democrats down a road to impotence in national elections. It remains to be seen what, if anything, they will actually do about that.

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