With their midterm “blue wave” more a splash than a tsunami, Democrats are left wondering when their long-expected majority will finally emerge.
Their theory was simple: Republicans represent a shrinking portion of the electorate (old white people, especially men), while Democrats earn support from younger, minority voters. If demography is destiny, then Democrats are poised for sustained electoral triumph, which will shift the nation significantly to the left. The idea, popularized in the early aughts by the book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” seemed prescient as Democrats made their way to victory in 2006 and 2008.
However, the trajectory of American politics proved to be more pendulum than projectile. President Obama won re-election, but the rest of his party declined dramatically during his two terms. Then Donald Trump’s unexpected victory demolished Democratic expectations of perpetual presidential triumph and illuminated the political wasteland Obama had left his party in.
Democrats have retaken the House and made gains in some states, but they are far from the long-term dominance they envisioned, and their Senate minority got smaller still. Tactical blunders only offer a partial explanation. Yes, Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate and Democrats’ smearing of Brett Kavanaugh was all political, but these do not obscure the structural and ideological problems Democrats face, which have kept their ostensibly emerging majority submerged.
Solely Racking Up City Votes Isn’t Working
Their structural problem is simple: states matter. The national government of the United States is designed to protect the rights and interests of small states and rural populations, so Democrats have been hobbled by their geographic concentration. Running up the score in California, where two Democrats faced off for a Senate seat, did nothing to help them here in Missouri. Demography matters, but so does geography.
Denouncing the branches of American government as insufficiently democratic––and therefore insufficiently Democratic––may be cathartic for the left, but it does not change anything. They knew the rules, but they assumed the state and local nature of American elections would become irrelevant amid a rising Democratic tide. They were wrong. Democrats can complain about the structure of the Senate, or the Electoral College, or the federal judiciary, but it will not give them the California über alles government that they crave.
Furthermore, the voters who were supposed to establish the emerging Democratic majority have proven unreliable. The “coalition of the ascendant,” as it was sometimes called, is mostly a coalition of those least likely to vote. Many black voters who turned out for Obama did not bother to show up for Hillary. The Democratic strategists waiting for the youth vote to save them, and the regular media announcements that it will come (certainly tomorrow, if not today), make for great political theater with plenty of pathos.
Democrats could dismiss this analysis as whistling past the GOP’s looming electoral graveyard. Geographic advantages and high turnout cannot save the Republicans forever; it may take longer than expected, but demographics will win out in the end.
However, this is cold comfort to Democrats now. Furthermore, their supposed demographic inevitability may be negated by ideological idiocy, so the emerging Democratic majority may be a self-defeating prophecy. Its promise of inevitability has not only led Democrats to overlook logistical and structural problems but has also encouraged them to indulge their leftist passions on everything from economics to identity politics.
The Alleged Right Side Of History
Confident that they were on the “right side of history,” Democratic activists embraced radicalism. A few years ago, Democrats took umbrage at being called socialists; now many of them boast of the label. The politically correct insanities of academia have left the campus and found homes in corporate America, from Google to ESPN.
Democrats’ outreach to pro-lifers has consisted of excommunicating them and insisting on unlimited taxpayer-funded abortion. Their sales pitch to Christians consists of disparaging religious freedom and trying to force orthodox believers to promote and celebrate same-sex wedding ceremonies and gender-crossing. Much of Obama’s rhetoric on illegal immigration would be denounced by his party today.
This leftward lurch has been enabled by the concentration of committed progressives in elite academic, business, and media circles, which gives them enormous power to direct the national conversation. But this has obscured from them just how distant the progressive vanguard has become from the rest of the Democratic coalition. M
any Democrats do not share the obsessions of the progressive white elites leading the party. As writer David French observes, “Democratic elites are getting more secular, more culture-war-focused, and perhaps even more identity-politics-focused than the minority and working-class voters who still make up a majority of the Democratic coalition.” Furthermore, identity politics can cut both ways, depending on which identity is at stake, and political coalitions are fluid.
For instance, middle-class, churchgoing minority voters in the suburbs do not necessarily share a political agenda with the urban white progressives driving the Democratic Party. Immigrants who fled socialism may not enjoy Democrats’ socialist fad. Of course, Republicans may not be able to exploit these divisions, especially under the current president. Nonetheless, there is nothing inexorable about the persistence of the current Democratic coalition.
Republicans have real problems and vulnerabilities, some particular to Trump, some more general. Their losses in suburban House districts are a warning to correct them to remain competitive. However, Republicans also showed that they can still win statewide in large, diverse states like Florida and Texas, and even in blue states like Maryland and Massachusetts.
There is nothing inevitable about political trajectories. The last four presidents spent part of their time in office with their party in control of Congress, only to see it lost. Issues change, coalitions shift, and politicians come and go––the mythos of inevitability breeds arrogance, complacency, ideological extremism, and eventual incompetence. What 2020 and beyond will bring is unknown, but Democrats would be wise to abandon their theory of an emerging, invincible majority.