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the national interest

New York Times Symposium Beats Straw Man Mercilessly

The majority coalition of the future?

The New York Times is holding a “Room for Debate” symposium putatively devoted to the proposition that the Republican Party will never win another election again, ever. It’s not clear who is supposed to maintain this belief, but the only article cited by any of the participants is my recent story for the print magazine, so apparently the readership is meant to believe that the article makes this case. I wasn’t invited to the symposium, so I figured I’d crash it, or at least hold my own symposium right here. And none of the Times’ panelists are invited to my symposium, so there!

Most of the discussion is weirdly glancing, with columns that link to my piece without quoting it, and responding to a completely different claim. Former George W. Bush aide Ron Christie rebuts my argument by pointing out that Republicans won the 2010 elections, which – good point there, buddy, I hadn’t realized. Lara M. Brown points out that Republicans have won a bunch of elections in the past – true! – and asserts that Americans view both parties roughly equally. She links to a Gallup poll from September, during the aftermath of the debt fiasco, when this was briefly true, but it doesn’t seem to be any longer. I should note, in any case, that my article isn’t even claiming that the Democrats have an especially good chance to win the 2012 elections. The argument is that the demography will grow steadily more favorable over time, and that this longer trend is fighting against the shorter-term shock of the Great Recession.

The closest thing to a direct engagement with my argument comes from Brave Radical Truth Teller Glenn Greenwald:

With President Obama's re-election looking increasingly likely, and the G.O.P. field in disarray, we now hear this familiar hubris from Democratic Party loyalists, as epitomized by Jonathan Chait, who last week announced in New York magazine that the G.O.P. was "staring down its own demographic extinction." Like similar manifestations that preceded it, this partisan triumphalism is likely to prove short-lived and wrong. The two major political parties have proved themselves quite adept at changing form in order to ensure their competitive viability. …

If the GOP is weighed down by obsolete or unpopular associations — anti-immigrant or anti-gay animosity — it will simply jettison those planks or change their image, just as Democrats did under Bill "New Democrat" Clinton to escape the stigma of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Greenwald’s penchant for telling bold truths that the corrupted partisans are too blind to see, in a manner that in no way is sanctimonious, is an inspiring example for us all. But he does tend to struggle with other aspects of his job, such as reading comprehension. In no way did I argue that Democrats were building a “permanent majority,” or even that they are certain to win the 2012 elections. What I argued was that demographic trends are making the electorate more friendly to their prospects, in the same way that Republicans enjoyed a natural advantage from Nixon through George H.W. Bush, and Democrats did from the onset of the New Deal until Nixon.

You might wonder why I didn’t propose Greenwald’s suggestion that Republicans would abandon immigrant-bashing and other unpopular aspects of their party identity. Guess what – I did! To wit:

No coalition is permanent. One party can build a majority, but eventually the minority learns to adapt to an altered landscape, and parity returns. In 1969, Kevin Phillips, then an obscure Nixon-­administration staffer, wrote The Emerging Republican Majority,arguing that Republicans could undo FDR’s New Deal coalition by exploiting urban strife, the unpopularity of welfare, and the civil-rights struggle to pull blue-collar whites into a new conservative bloc. The result was the modern GOP. Bill Clinton appropriated some elements of this conservative coalition by rehabilitating his party’s image on welfare and crime (though he had a little help from Ross Perot, too). But it wasn’t until Obama was elected that a Democratic president could claim to be the leader of a true majority party.

The second point is that short-term shocks, like war, recession, or scandal, can exert a far more powerful influence than a long-term trend: The Watergate scandal, for instance, interrupted the Republican majority at its zenith, helping elect a huge raft of Democratic congressmen in 1974, followed two years later by Jimmy Carter.

The article proceeds to explain how the economic crisis has functioned much like the Watergate scandal did, giving Republicans a huge off-year landslide, and possibly (like Watergate did) carrying over to a presidential election victory two years later. The Republican Party will obviously adjust over time to the changing landscape, but the central tension I discuss is that it wants to postpone this adjustment and the painful compromises it would entail, and sees the currents of the economic crisis as a short-time lifeline to enable it to win power and enact its agenda.

Basically, absolutely nothing in the Times symposium in any way engages with my argument at all. The contributors offer nothing but observations that are vague, tautological, or specifically in agreement with my thesis. It’s not a good symposium.

A more interesting critique of my article comes from Sean Trende, interviewed by National Review blogger Reihan Salam. Trende offers two alternative arguments for why Republicans needn’t fear the exploding Latino population. The first is that Latinos should become more Republican over time, and the second is that if they don’t, whites will become more heavily Republican:

Are we really sure Latinos continue to go into the Democratic Party? Immigration is an important issue for these voters, but it isn’t the only issue, nor is it the predominate issue, nor is there even consensus on the issue. One third of Latinos who thought immigration was “very” or “extremely” important in 2008 voted Republican. As Latino immigration drops off, and Latino population growth increasingly comes from second- and third- generation Latinos, the salience of the issue will likely decrease as well.

Trende, unlike the Times’ esteemed contributors, conceded that my argument was filled with extensive qualifiers, so I’ll return the favor and recognize we’re both attempting to make educated guesses about the future here, and things can change. But I’d argue that there’s no reason for either of the dynamics he predicts to come true. Will Latinos vote more Republican over time? To some degree, sure. But given the demographic’s rapid growth, Republicans need to steadily increase their share of the Latino vote just to break even. Right now they’re going in the wrong direction, with Latinos getting more Democratic from 2004 to 2008 to now (Hispanics currently favor President Obama over any of his GOP rivals by a six-to-one margin). Cementing the party’s image as the opponents of Latinos can take a long time to reverse. Sure it will change over the generations, but in my analysis, a long period is about a generation. I’d also argue that Democrats have assembled a base of college-educated white voters who show no propensity to be repelled by pro-immigration reform policies.

The larger question here is the degree to which the conservative movement can survive as the driving force of the Republican Party. My argument is that it can’t, that conservative Republican ideology involves a combination of cultural, racial, religious, and nationalistic identity. Republicans will learn to regain political parity in a demographically changing country, but they will have to alter the basis of their appeal to be able to win under normal conditions. Republicans will build a competitive coalition, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to maintain their current ideological orientation.

Again, I explain in the piece that short-term political shocks can and will overwhelm the long-term problems, so that the Democrats of 1974 or the Republicans of 2010 can make huge gains in spite of whatever deeper problems they have with the electorate. Not only is there no “permanent majority,” there’s not even a constant majority. That said, if Democrats can get past the political drag of the Great Recession, they face a future in which the kinds of voters who pulled the lever for them grow steadily as a proportion of the electorate for years on end.

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Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum for New York Magazine