The Democrats' Rise Is Far From Inevitable
Why are the left's public demonstrations more impressive than its voter turnout? Because there are a whole lot of Democrats in the large population centers where such demonstrations are generally held. People can join a protest simply by getting on the subway; it's an easy show of force.
But there are a lot of small towns in America, and as Sean Trende and David Byler recently demonstrated, those small towns are redder than ever. Effectively, the Democratic coalition has self-gerrymandered into a small number of places where they can turn out an impressive number of feet on the ground, but not enough votes to win the House. Certainly not enough to win the Senate or the Electoral College, which both favor sparsely populated states and discount the increasingly dense parts of the nation.
The Senate map in 2018 is brutal for Democrats. If Democrats want to get their mojo back, they’re going to need to do more than get a small minority of voters to turn out for a march. They’re going to need to get back some of those rural votes.
To do that, they’re probably going to have to let go of the most soul-satisfying, brain-melting political theory of the last two decades: that Democrats are inevitably the Party of the Future, guaranteed ownership of the future by an emerging Democratic majority in minority-white America. This theory underlay a lot of Obama’s presidency, and Clinton’s campaign. With President Trump's inauguration on Friday, we saw the results.
Why was this such a bad theory? Let me count the ways:
- The emerging Democratic majority isn’t emerging as fast as people thought. Barack Obama had unusually high turnout and support among black voters. He was also a phenomenally gifted campaigner in his own right, who garnered a lot of extra votes from people of all ethnicities and all walks of life. These two things gave Democrats the illusion that the future was arriving faster than it actually was. When Obama wasn’t on the ticket, and minority voting habits returned to a more normal pattern, millions of Democratic votes evaporated.
- The votes of the emerging Democratic majority are extremely inefficiently distributed. As Trende and Byler write:
In our system of government, popular vote metrics are only sensible when put through a geographic filter. This causes problems in the Electoral College, which we’ve recounted before. There are only nine “mega-cities” in America: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas. These, in turn, affect 11 states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia and Texas. In other words, in seven of these states, further growth in this area does no good for Democrats, as they are already blue. In three others (Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia), the rural areas, towns, and small cities cast enough votes to outvote the mega-city. The final one – Texas – may be the key to a Democratic majority down the road, but Hillary Clinton still lost it by nine points, with a lot of Romney’s votes going to third party candidates. Put differently, the place where the Democratic coalition is growing the most does them the least good, electorally speaking.
Democrats who recognize this problem often complain that the problem is the anti-democratic Electoral College. And yes, the Electoral College may be unjust. It is also a fact. The only way to get rid of it is to amend the constitution -- an amendment that will have to be ratified by a lot of the small rural states that the Electoral College disproportionately empowers. In other words, it isn’t going to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future. Democrats should feel free to complain about this in their spare time. But their political work has to assume it as a given, and work around that.
- Immigrants don’t necessarily stay loyal to the party of immigrants. The Democrats found this out the hard way in the 1980s, as “white ethnics” who had been one of their most reliable bases mass-defected to Ronald Reagan.
What happened? For one thing, the immigrants assimilated. “White ethnics” stopped identifying as immigrants, and started identifying as threatened natives. Democrats picked up a lot of votes from new migrants like Hispanics, but the party bled more than it gained.
Democrats can't count on ruling a majority-minority America. Some of those coalition members will probably defect.
- Whatever Trump does on immigration is probably going to hurt Democrats. The more people assimilate, the less likely they are to see their ethnic identity as the most important determinant of their political commitments. And the smaller the number of new immigrants coming over to refresh connections to the old country, the faster that ethnic identity dissipates.
Let us assume two things happen: Trump manages to eke out eight years in office, and he actually takes strong steps to stem the tide of immigration. What would the emerging Democratic majority look like then? Probably not so hot.
Just as Obamacare created new facts on the ground that are making it hard for Republicans to simply return to the old status quo, whatever Trump does on immigration will not only make it harder for Democrats to build the envisioned majority-minority coalition, but also make it harder for them to simply get back to a place where they can wait for it to dawn.
- Identity politics cuts both ways. A majority-minority America is one in which “white” is a salient voting identity in a way that it never has been outside of heavily black areas of the South. As Nate Cohn of the New York Times tweeted after Trump’s stunning upset: “How to think about this election: white working class voters just decided to vote like a minority group. They're >40% of the electorate.” This was the first election in which we’ve seen that happen. It probably won’t be the last. And an electoral strategy that starts by assuming you’ve lost a plurality of the country is a rough ticket to victory, especially given the geography. You can wait for them to die, of course. But that’s going to take decades.
Democrats could roar back in 2018 or 2020. But it won't be automatic. They’re going to have to abandon the idea that all they need to do to return to power is wait.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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