There has been a flurry of discussion on the web about whether the Obama’s demographically-driven majority is likely to have any staying power. Or put another way, do current demographics give Democrats a natural advantage and Republicans a natural disadvantage— one that will require them to “reboot” their party? Political scientist John Sides says emphatically “no” — elections are determined by “fundamentals,” especially the state of the economy, and demographics are only of marginal importance. So no need for heavy lifting by the GOP, they can just wait for fundamentals to turn in their favor and — voila! — they’ll be back.
Eric Schickler disagrees, citing among other evidence, the widening party identification gap between Democrats and Republicans.
And so does Jonathan Chait, who argues that:
The Republican Party appears to be caught in a double bind, in which the electorate is growingly progressively less white, and even younger white voters hold less conservative views than older ones. What’s more, evidence suggests that voters maintain the partisan allegiances they form at a young age. The picture looks grim for the GOP.
Finally, Sean Trende — who has written an interesting book arguing that no party ever has a natural advantage in American politics — backs up Sides. He sees no evidence that the 2012 election represented anything more than fundamentals that disfavored the GOP and, in that sense, put Republicans “on the wrong side of the coin toss.”
Unsurprisingly, I tend to side with Chait and Schickler in this dispute. My book with John Judis, The Emerging Democratic Majority, launched the current school of thought about a demographically-driven Democratic majority and I am disinclined to back away from it now, given the 2012 election results.
However, rather than just choose up sides, I wanted to take a slightly different angle on the dispute that synthesizes the approaches of both sides. Start with the idea of electoral realignment.
It is important to understand just how deeply unpopular the whole concept of realignment is in political science today, because the term is associated with a rather complex academic theory that includes periodicity (a realignment every 32/36 years) that differentiates among critical, normal and deviating elections, durable voter changes, new issues, turnout spikes, convention turmoil, strong third party showings and more. As shown most famously in David Mayhew’s entertaining demolition job, Electoral Realignments, it is difficult to fit the New Deal and other supposed realignments to these multiple criteria.
Political reality is far more complicated than suggested by the neat orderly progression of classic realignment theory, political scientists argue. Nothing is inevitable in American politics; everything is contingent. There are no automatic majorities and certainly no permanent majorities.
I am open to all this. Democrats will certainly not win every election for decades, no matter how big their demographic advantages. Decisions made by parties and the consequences of those decisions (e.g., for economic growth and distribution) certainly will be central to the ability of any party to win elections in a sustained fashion.
It seems to me that one can accept all this and still believe that long-term demographic change has shifted the electoral terrain very substantially in Democrats’ favor, as common sense and abundant data suggest. But within that altered terrain, short-term factors, like the state of the economy, will continue to affect election outcomes, as common sense and abundant data also suggest. There is no necessity, it seems to me, to choose between these two levels of analysis. A thorough understanding of politics, I would argue, requires both.
For an example of this synthetic approach see Alan Abramowitz’ excellent paper, “The Emerging Democratic Presidential Majority: Lessons of Obama’s Victory”. And let there be peace in the valley.