Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

11.07.12

Is Demography Destiny?

Has the changing composition of the American electorate handed Democrats a permanent majority?

So Obama won.  Quel surprise.  A lot of buzz last night that this represents the culmination of what Judis and Teixera long ago dubbed "The Emerging Democratic Majority": a coalition of minority voters that will consistently produce Democratic landslides.  Ross Douthat offers some clear-eyed introspection: 

You could see this belief at work in the confidence with which many conservatives insisted that the Obama presidency was not only embattled but self-evidently disastrous, in the way so many voices on the right sought to raise the ideological stakes at every opportunity, in the widespread conviction that the starker conservatives made the choice between left and right, the more votes they would win.

You could also see this conviction shaping the punditry and predictions that issued from conservatives in the days leading up this election. It was remarkable how many analysts not normally known for their boosterism (I’m thinking of Michael Barone and George Will in particular) were willing to predict that Romney would not only win but win sweepingly, capturing states that haven’t gone Republican since Reagan. But even less starry-eyed conservatives — like, well, myself — were willing to embrace models of the electorate that overstated the Republican base of support and downplayed the Democrats’ mounting demographic advantage.

Those models were wrong about 2012, and they aren’t likely to be right about 2016 or 2020. Republicans can console themselves that they came close in the popular vote. They can look ahead to a favorable Senate map in 2014 and they do still have their House majority to fall back on.

One of our editors suggested that I write something up on it, and my response was that I'm not sure how enduring this "Emerging Democratic Majority" will prove to be.  Some reasons for my skepticism  

1. That majority sure isn't emerging very fast:  I first heard this thesis in the late 1990s.  Teixera and Judis wrote a book on it that came out in 2002, which means it was written in 2001, or earlier.  How did 2010 even happen?  Yes, low turnout, energized base.  But the GOP didn't just squeak out a few victories; they crushed.  Those of us who remember the 2004-vintage talk of a "permanent Republican majority" will be cautious about overinterpreting election results.  

2. Ethnic coalitions are inherently unstable.  It used to be a sort of natural law that urban Catholics voted Democratic.  Then Reagan won them in huge numbers.  And--contra those who are saying that the GOP now has to move left--they didn't win by getting more liberal.  Rather, the Democrats got more liberal, on crime and bussing, and the white ethnics who felt victimized by these policies fled.  The more ethnic groups you have, the more likely it is that you will eventually find the goals of those ethnic groups in direct conflict.  And the Democrats sure do have a lot of groups.  

3.  We are heading for a showdown between public sector unions and taxpayers.  That's going to put Democrats in a very tough spot.  Those unions are the backbone of the Democratic political operation.   But their pensions are, in many places, simply not payable.  Thanks in part to the late 1990s stock market boom, and in part to really scandalously bad accounting standards, politicians made a lot of promises they didn't pay for.  Those promises now can't be shed in bankruptcy, and all of the possible deals--which including hiking taxes to "tax revolt" levels, or shafting all the younger public sector workers--are bad for Democrats.  

4.  We're heading for a showdown between the recipients of old-age benefits, and recipients of all the other kinds of benefits.  Even after we hike taxes, something has to be cut.  I'm betting on the oldsters to win this fight.  They're motivated, and they have a lot of time on their hands.  And their middle-aged, middle class children will also freak out if you cut their benefits.  They will not be nearly as upset if you slash Head Start.  But those kinds of decisions are going to set off a sort of Hobbesian war of all-against-all within the Democratic coalition.  And the aging of our population is an even more dramatic shift than its increasingly tan hue.

5.  On social issues, Democrats are badly positioned for the future.  Hold your fire--I mean politically, not morally.  Gay marriage is going away as an issue, because the advocates have won.  (And in the legislature, not in the courts, as they should).  Not all the dominos have fallen yet, but they're lined up the right way; it's just a matter of time. Young evangelicals either don't get energized about the issue, or are actively pro.  The GOP knows they're eventually going to moderate, which is why you see these fumbling, ham-fisted attempts to reach out to GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans.    On the other hand, they aren't reaching out to Republicans for Choice, and for good reason.  Evangelicals care just as much about abortion as ever, and the national trends are running towards more support for abortion restrictions, and greater identification as "Pro-Life".  Sonograms are undermining the Democratic position.  So are demographics: the only group that majority-identifies as "Pro Choice" is women of childbearing age.  Meanwhile, our fastest-growing demographic is retirees.  

6. Mitt Romney was a uniquely bad candidate for 2012.  The best of a very weak field.  Forced to run too far to the right in the primary, particularly on immigration, in order to prove he wasn't a RINO.  A stiff and awkward campaigner.  Hamstrung by downticket candidates who make remarkably stupid comments about abortion and rape, which got endless media play, associating them in peoples' minds with Mitt Romney.  Yes, Obama had a big handicap in the lackluster economy.  Luckily for him, Mitt Romney had made a stupendous pile of money in the very industry that people blame for that lackluster economy.  On that stupendous pile, he paid a tax rate which struck people as absurdly low.  He pushed every button for folks who feel broke and terrified while the very rich sail along just fine. Obama could hardly have had a better opponent if he had ordered him from central casting.  My mother, aka The Swing Voter, delivered an extensive rant on the subject of Mitt Romney's taxes this morning.  I suspect that a more modestly wealthy Republican governor would have taken her vote.  

7.  GOP tax cuts have enabled Democratic spending promises.  Right now, costly entitlement spending seems free.  But to keep that spending going will require the largest middle-class tax hike in decades--maybe since World War II.  I have to think that this peels off at least some members of the Democratic coalition, like center-leftish suburban professionals who already feel frightened and financially strapped.  And there's a greater than 50% chance that Obama is going to be in office when we have to let all the Bush tax cuts expire--or cut benefits to key Democratic constituencies--or run the public debt up north of 100% of GDP.  These wouldn't be easy choices for any party, but hardest, I think, for the Democrats.

Don't take this for a "Hey, GOP, everything's fine!  Don't you go changing!" I've been saying for years that the GOP has run tax cuts out as a campaign plank--indeed, they're now over the cliff and about to plunge while Roadrunner chortles.  They've lost on gay marriage, and they seem to have a penchant for running their mouth about rape.  The decline in the proportion of married women in the electorate hurts, since single women are much more supportive of a large welfare state than are their married sisters. So does the growth of the latino vote. They're going to eventually face defense cuts which will make the hawks madder than hell.  And they've now nominated two candidates who have put forward almost nothing that couldn't be found in Reagan's 1980 platform.  The party desperately needs some new ideas to sell to the American public.  

But I am highly skeptical that last night means they've gone into some sort of permanent decline.  It was a close election in which Obama lost states that he carried in 2012.  The Democratic bench is very weak--the current leading candidates to succeed Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, will be 69 and 74 in 2016.  And Obama is going to have to preside over some very, very tough choices.  We can't borrow a trillion dollars a year for another four years.  Nor can we get all the money from Republican constituencies; they just don't have enough of the stuff.  Whoever's ox Obama chooses to gore will probably be a considerably less enthusiastic coalition member come 2016.