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Eyes on the Prize

THE TITLE OF Sean Trende’s book is something of a misnomer. A better title might be The Never-Found Majority or The Never-Existing Majority. Trende, a senior elections analyst at the conservative website RealClearPolitics, believes that the very notion of long-lasting political realignments is a myth.

He begins his argument with an analysis of twentieth-century electoral history that seeks to dispel conventional views of past political coalitions. Most strikingly, he argues that the New Deal era did not give rise to a lasting political realignment. The Democratic New Deal majority, he says, began to emerge in 1920 and enjoyed only a brief period of dominance from the early to late ’30s. Then it was rapidly downhill, until by the mid-’40s, it was “a spent force, both legislatively and electorally.”

Trende is more generous to the Reagan coalition, re-labeling it “the Eisenhower coalition” and locating its emergence in 1938, when the New Deal coalition, in his view, began to fall apart. He gives the Eisenhower era an entire half century—until 1988. But the rise of this coalition—while more successful in his view than the New Deal coalition—does not qualify as a realignment either. Closer to the present day, he compares the Obama coalition unfavorably with the Clinton coalition, characterizing it as narrower in scope though deeper in some voter groups (notably minorities). The Obama coalition, too, was not a real realignment, as its narrowness led eventually to the huge repudiation of Democrats in the 2010 election.

Why aren’t these genuine realignments? Part of the reason is they don’t fit the complicated academic apparatus used to define “realignment.” (The academic definition includes everything from timing to turnout, with many other features in between.) But Trende’s concerns run deeper than this academic debate; his more fundamental objection is that once majorities are formed, they immediately start falling apart. He attributes this to a couple of things that seem uncontroversial, if not banal: “roads not taken”—the many choices parties have to make as they reach various forks in the political road—and “contingency”—the tendency of events like wars, recessions, and domestic unrest to impact parties’ success or failure. Together, these factors make majorities of any kind, even so-called realigning ones, highly unstable.

Trende concludes his analysis by looking forward, considering factors that might consolidate a Democratic majority in the future—for example, the rise of the Hispanic population. He has multiple objections to the argument that Hispanics will underpin a lasting new Democratic majority coalition, starting with the slow rate at which this population is affecting the voter pool and the possibility that its growth rate might decelerate over time. But his chief point is the contingent nature of this group’s support. As with other immigrant groups, he argues, it is likely that support for the currently favored party will decay over time. What looks good from “straight-line projections,” he cautions, is likely to fall apart as the years go by and unanticipated developments intervene.

There is much that is useful in Trende’s data-rich analysis, even (perhaps especially) for those put off by his conservative credentials. Start with his point that none of the various theories of emerging majorities capture all the complexities driving American electoral evolution. They are not theories of everything and should not be treated as such. Moreover, he is correct that the full academic theory of realignment is an unwieldy contraption that fits the data poorly. Most usefully, he reminds us that nothing is inevitable in American politics. Demographic advantage does not equal certain political victory.

This much I can agree with, and it is not discordant with the arguments that John Judis and I made in 2002 in The Emerging Democratic Majority—arguments that allow for a fair amount of contingency and do not propose an automatic translation of demographic advantages into decades of political domination. In the years since our book was published, however, the thesis of an automatic Democratic majority has entered the bloodstream of American political commentary, and now it deserves a corrective, which Trende’s book ably supplies.

Yet the book is not without flaws. Trende is so intent on tearing down the conventional wisdom about American politics that some of his specific claims lead him astray. Does it really make sense to shorten the New Deal era so drastically because the South started slipping away from the Democrats in the late ’30s? After all, the Democrats still got a majority of the two-party Presidential vote in the South until 1968 and a majority of the Congressional vote beyond that (not to mention the Presidency for seven of nine elections starting in 1932, as well as both houses of Congress for fifty-eight out of the next sixty-two years). It is true that shifts in the South and in other parts of the country that started in the late ’30s were precursors of reliable Republican Presidential majorities much later. But the beginnings of trends are not the same as their culmination. Trende also has relatively little to say about the policy shifts that accompanied the New Deal; this blindness makes it easier for Trende to tell his story about a “short” New Deal era, but also makes the story less believable.

Then there is The Creature from the Eisenhower Lagoon—an era so lengthy it chews up an entire half century. Here Trende is as generous as he is stingy with the New Deal era, marking its dawn in the late ’30s and stretching it—despite various Democratic counter-trends—across fifty years. Trende’s sharp differentiation between Clinton’s politics and that of his successors—especially Obama—who, he alleges, have forsaken progressive centrism for a left-wing agenda is also overstated. That left-wing agenda includes pretty much everything of note that Obama has done, starting with the stimulus. The truth is that nothing about the stimulus—or the health care plan, for that matter—was inconsistent with a moderate, progressive, centrist approach to government. But Trende mistakes the reaction against these measures (which stemmed in large part from frustration with the depth of the recession and slowness of the recovery) for a sign of their radicalism.

And when discussing demographic trends, Trende over-reaches. He is quite right to say that Hispanics cannot be counted on to be as pro-Democratic as they are today clear through 2050, when they will be 30 percent of the population. The political loyalties of previous waves of immigrants did shift over the course of generations. But just because loyalties could change over lengthy periods of time does not mean they will change rapidly in the current period. Indeed, contemporary political developments point to an intensification of the Hispanic-Democrat alliance, rather than to its diminution. 

Trende’s argument to the contrary has a bit of a whistling-past-the-graveyard feel to it. Overall, it seems likely that Democrats will benefit from demographic change for a considerable period. This will put pressure on today’s Republican Party to change their approach to social and economic issues so that they can reach these emerging demographics. I believe Trende’s alternative path for the GOP—an ever deeper base among white voters—will not be viable for much longer. But will the GOP actually change their approach, and, if so, how fast? That is a very important contingency and has more to do with the future of American politics than Trende might care to admit.

Ruy Texiera is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and editor of America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West.