Can the Democrats Still Count on a Demographic Advantage?

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Marching toward victory? Photo: William Volcov/Brazil Photo Press/LatinContent/Getty Images

Fifteen years ago, political demographer Ruy Teixeira offered the Democratic Party a blueprint for how to win elections for a generation or more. In The Emerging Democratic Majority, the hugely influential book he co-wrote with John Judis in 2002, the duo argued, based on data-heavy analyses, that the Democratic Party could thrive by cultivating a voter base of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and postindustrial professionals. “A new progressive era” was not only possible but likely, if liberals focused on surfing the wave of demographic trends, which were slowly eroding the electoral power of working- and middle-class whites.

The strategy seemed vindicated when a coalition of exactly these groups brought Barack Obama to the White House in 2008. In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory last November — precisely the sort of thing an emerging Democratic majority was supposed to prevent — party strategists and commentators have begun to revisit that faith in the political power of demographic change, and in the argument that Teixeira and Judis presented.

Teixeira evaluates the argument of The Emerging Democratic Majority looking back from a Trump administration, what it might help the party see in 2018, and why he has written a new book called The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think.

What does the argument of The Emerging Democratic Majority look like after the 2016 election?
What we were trying to do was outline the various ways in which the United States was changing — structurally, demographically, and ideologically —that might form the basis for a different kind of Democratic majority. One that might actually have considerable strength, even though they wouldn’t necessarily win every election. We outlined which groups we thought were moving to the left and growing, and which states were likely to move to the left over time. And I think all that kind of panned out pretty well. But there are a couple of things that people have lost track of — one thing that was our fault, and one thing that maybe wasn’t our fault.

So what was your fault and what wasn’t your fault?
The thing that wasn’t our fault, oddly enough, is that we actually talked about the white working class in our book. We made very clear that this emerging coalition, to be successful, had to retain a fairly strong level of white working-class support. Of course, that’s distributed geographically in different ways, but it is still a really big group. Yes, it’s declining, and to the extent that this is a Republican-leaning group, that decline benefits the Democrats. But it’s still really large, and if you crater among this group — if you can’t retain a reasonably solid, if minority, level of support — your electoral arithmetic starts to fall apart.

The second thing, which is a little bit our fault — or, let’s put it this way, we just didn’t emphasize enough — is that our analysis works best on the level of the country as a whole. When you get down to the House of Representatives, to the state legislative races, to the small-state advantage the Republicans have, we didn’t emphasize enough the way the structural advantages that are built into the system at this point might benefit the Republicans and allow them to stave off change. Particularly since the Democrats’ coalition was stronger in urban areas, stronger among relatively low-turnout constituencies — all of these things were going to mean that even though the Democrats represented more people, they were inefficiently distributed for political purposes.

By structural advantages, you mean things like the Electoral College?
The Electoral College, the House of Representatives, and how seats are distributed. The Republicans have far more 55–45 seats and the Democrats have too many 80–20 seats, and the same thing tends to be true within a lot of states in terms of legislative seats.

Just two years before The Emerging Democratic Majority came out, you had co-written America’s Forgotten Majority, a book directly about the political strength of the white working class.
In terms of my personal thinking, I was just trying to understand how American politics was evolving. To me, there were two aspects of an overall picture — the white working class was declining and moving to the right, which was a problem for Democrats, while on the other hand there were clearly other ways in which the country was changing that did seem to advantage the Democrats, and provide an electoral solution. But I happened to write the white working-class book first, and The Emerging Democratic Majority second. It’s fair to say the latter book had more of an effect, and it was picked up by more people. And I think there’s definitely a sense in which you could say that people hear what they want to hear.

Why do you think The Emerging Democratic Majority got so much more traction than your book about the white working class?
The white working-class piece is a little hard for Democrats to hear, because it’s just a difficult nut to crack. And because the leading elements of the Democratic coalition tend to be either minorities or relatively highly educated professionals, there’s a tendency to typecast white working-class people as, Oh, the reason they don’t like us is because they’re racist. Or they’re behind the times, or they’re just total reactionaries in a way that makes them essentially impossible to reach. That’s an easy way of getting rid of that problem — you just push it to the side — and to really deal with it is more difficult.

Whereas the part of The Emerging Democratic Majority about the emerging constituencies has a certain automaticity to it. You can read into it and say, Well, we’ve got the wind at our backs, so all we have to do is make an appeal to these groups and everything will be fine; we’re going to be the majority. I think that was an easy thing for people to absorb, rather than the more complicated version that was in our book, or the previous book I’d written about the white working class. As I say, they heard what they wanted to hear. I think that just became stronger over the course of the Obama years, and Hillary Clinton appeared to have adopted it wholesale. But I never thought that was the right approach.

How effectively has the 2016 election overturned that kind of Democratic thinking?
I do think it’s a new chapter, but parties change slowly. There is some resistance to this, and we won’t do a complete 180 overnight, but I think these are signals sent to the party, and they’ve been received and are being processed. And a lot of the things that Trump and the Republicans are doing are not particularly beneficial to the very voters we’re talking about.

You can’t afford to ignore these constituencies. You can’t afford to appear to be alien to them, to not take their concerns seriously. Just as a matter of political efficacy, you have to do better. Because you can’t just rely on your so-called emerging coalition or the rising American electorate, as some people call it.

What strategies should Democrats put in place going forward, to 2018 and beyond?
Well, first of all, look at Hillary Clinton’s platform, for example, and the things she was supposedly running on. She actually had a lot of pretty good ideas for things that would benefit white non-college-graduates, even ideas that were specific to those areas of the country where they’re concentrated. But she didn’t talk about them; she didn’t even go to these places, by and large.

In fact, she didn’t really talk about policy. There’s a now well-known study of campaign advertising that showed Hillary Clinton was at a historically low level. She spent money like crazy — she way outspent Donald Trump, but the advertising was all about how Trump was not a progressive, he wasn’t a good guy, he didn’t like black people and Latinos and immigrants, and he’s intolerant, his issues with women, and so on. But very little of it was about what she actually would do for people, what her policies were.

I think that’ll be corrected. Is there a single policy or two policies that they’ll talk about? I don’t know. But I think there’s going to be a lot of ripe targets from the first two years of the Trump administration, in terms of them doing and saying things that are directly an attack upon those people. And these voters voted for Trump because they thought he was going to solve their problems. This is something that the left should hang on to with tenacity. Don’t typecast these voters as voting for Trump just because he had reactionary views on immigration or race or what have you. These voters want their lives to be better, and they thought that Trump could make it better. When this doesn’t happen, when things don’t get a lot better, and in fact when things might even get worse in some ways, that’s an opening.

Do you think the recent wave of outreach to white working-class voters by Democratic strategists and thinks tanks is smart?
I do, I do. There is some debate about this, obviously. There are people who have made the case that essentially these voters are hopeless and that the real problem is not investing enough in mobilizing base Democratic voters, but I think that’s crazy, basically. Clearly, you can and should do both!

Any party worth its salt mobilizes its base, and it would be silly not to. But I think it’s political malpractice not to go out there and try to narrow your deficits among these very large groups of people in very important parts of the country. And if it requires somewhat more resources than you’ve been investing to do it, of course you should do it. I mean, I don’t even think it should be much of a debate.

How much of an impediment are Trump’s immigration policies, or fears about what they might be, to the demographic change laid out in The Emerging Democratic Majority?
The first thing to say about that is that sometimes people don’t understand how much of the future change in the racial and ethnic distribution is going to be driven by fertility, rather than continued immigration. In other words, a lot of the change is going to be driven by people who are already here, who are kids, growing up, and their kids, eventually, growing up, and so on. So we are going to see a substantial shift in the composition of the U.S. over time, almost regardless of what happens to immigration.

Now, clearly, if you somehow reduce immigration to zero, that would definitely slow it down. But it wouldn’t change things that much. An overwhelming majority of the change we’re looking at going forward is from fertility, not from assumptions of continued immigration.

The second point is, if you take everything Trump says, and assume he could do everything he says he wants to do, and do it at once, well of course that would make a substantial difference in the short run. If you kick 11 million illegal immigrants out of the U.S., that’s going to do something. But I think there are grounds for considerable skepticism on that. Can he have a tougher immigration policy? Absolutely. But I am very skeptical he’s going to be able to succeed in literally removing 11 million people from the United States.

But there is now some evidence that political viewpoints don’t stay the same between the first-generation immigrants and their American-born children. And your co-author on The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis, wrote recently that, looking at the influence of changes to levels of education and income, “there are signs that Hispanics are following a trajectory more similar to that of the Irish than African-Americans.”
That’s a different question than what Trump might or might not be able to do with immigration. But if Latinos, in the second and third generation, wind up with similar politics to white people of similar ages, then clearly that would make a difference.

Now, we don’t see that in the data so far. You do see some differences between first- and second- and third-generation Latinos, but they’re not large. The third-generation Latinos are still quite heavily Democratic, in terms of party affiliation and how they lean politically.

The thing that would really change things over time is not some inevitability about later-generation Latinos resembling white people just because they’ve been here for a long time. It would be more because Latinos, over time, adopt the political views of the group in which they become assimilated, which is white. This is the argument about the Irish and the Italians and so on. But I’m a little skeptical of that, and certainly we don’t see it happening yet. Of course it’s also possible white people could start adopting the views of Latinos. Why does it have to go one way, right? I think we’ll just have to put a big question mark by that one.

Just after the election, you wrote that the country was in a “great race … between demographic change … and a reaction to those changes.” Are you still betting on the emerging Democratic majority?
Partly what I’m doing now is trying to open up a conversation that is designed to get the left to think a bit more broadly about where we are today as a country and where we are in history, and where we’re going. And trying to convince the left that it needs to be a much more optimistic, confident movement.

I wrote a book called The Optimistic Leftist, and I explain that a key element is understanding that the left does best and makes the most progress when times are good. Bad economic times promote reaction and fear and pessimism, which does not lend itself to the kind of advance the left wants to make. So the left has to put front and center the idea that you need to move to a new economic model where growth is better, it’s better distributed, and it benefits people in most areas of the country.

The question is, how long will it take? A few years? Ten years? I don’t know.

But I do think the left should be very clear and focused on what it’ll take to get there, and not rely either on demographic change or — and I think this is particularly incorrect — on people suffering to get them there.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Can the Democrats Still Count on a Demographic Advantage?