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"The Democrats' Dilemma," David Broder (March, 1974)
"As long ago as February, 1972, Stewart Alsop noted that, with the disappearance of the Vietnam War issue, the Democrats were 'nekkid as a jay-bird,' their 'ideological cupboard as bare as Mother Hubbard's.'"
The Democrats may have a demographic advantage, but no one knows what they stand for
by Jack Beatty
August 6, 1997
Is there a new Democratic majority aborning in America? It would seem implausible in light of the ten-seat Republican advantage in the Senate and the historic 1994 Republican takeover of the House. True, the Democrats have won the last two presidential elections, but in neither 1992 (when Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote to Bush's 37 percent and Perot's 19 percent) nor 1996 (when Clinton was reelected with 49 percent to Dole's 41 percent and Perot's 8 percent) did Clinton win with a majority of the vote. A paper presented at a little-noticed New Majority conference held in Virginia in January, however, makes a cogent argument for the proposition that the country may be moving toward the Democrats.
The author of this provocative essay in strategy is Paul Starr, a Princeton sociologist and co-editor, with Robert Kuttner, of The American Prospect, which calls itself "A Journal for the Liberal Imagination." Starr's paper, which will run in The American Prospect's forthcoming November/December issue, is also one of thirteen other papers presented at the conference to appear in a book, The New Majority: Toward a Popular Progressive Politics, to be published in November by Yale University Press.
Starr begins by conceding the obvious: "[T]he parties have reached a position of rough parity in electoral strength, each with the capacity to form a new majority -- that is, a majority different from the one it previously assembled." Starr discusses the nascent Democratic majority under three headings: "The Demographic Opportunity: Flipping the Sunbelt," "The Demographic Opportunity: Aging and Gender," and "The Demographic Opportunity: A New Generation."
In 1996 when Bill Clinton carried Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, the Sunbelt went Democratic for the first time in memory. In all these states except Louisiana, Starr writes, "Clinton and other Democrats received critical support from two groups whose numbers will increase dramatically in coming years -- Hispanics and the elderly." Hispanics, whose turnout was up twenty-two points from what it was in 1992, went for Clinton by 72 percent, up from 55 percent in 1992. What is striking about the 1996 Hispanic surge for Clinton is how little the President had to give up to capture that vote. To appeal to the white middle class Clinton signed a welfare bill that severely penalized legal immigrants. Yet for Hispanics, the Republicans -- who strongly supported Proposition 187 and included in their ranks a claque of Pat ("No way, Jose!") Buchananites -- were even worse.
As for the elderly, people over sixty-five favored Clinton by 51 to Dole's 42 percent, while those between fifty and sixty-four gave Clinton only two points more than Dole. The elderly voters -- especially women -- appear to be more reliably Democratic. People over sixty-five, who now make up only 13 percent of the population, will be 20 to 25 percent of the electorate by 2025. And, Starr points out, this bloc will be strategically placed: one third of all voters in Florida by 2025 will be seniors over sixty-five -- and Florida has twenty-five electoral votes and counting. Starr admits, though, that those who will be senior citizens in 2025 now comprise one of the most conservative voting blocs. Whether they will move to the left as they age is, of course, an open question.
As for the young, those between eighteen and twenty-nine favored Clinton over Dole by 53 to 34 percent; first-time voters went for Clinton by 58 to 40 percent; and "surveys of high school students showed still stronger support." Starr notes that, "This is a reversal from the pattern in the 1980s when the young were more Republican; as Reagan tutored new voters then, so Clinton and Gore may be doing in the nineties." He surmises that a good deal of the youth vote was driven by economic issues -- stagnant wages, downward mobility -- "that work in favor of Democrats." This presupposes that Democrats of the future will talk like Democrats of the past, who believed in using the power of government to create opportunity for all. Yet the Clinton Democracy is a poll-driven echo of the GOP, so the youth-Democrat leg of Starr's argument hangs in the air. If young people continue to favor the Democrats, it will be less because of what the Democrats promise to do about stagnant wages (nothing) than because of fear of what the GOP would do in office.
An even bigger problem for Starr's theory is that this inchoate coalition of Hispanics, the elderly, and the young looks to be less than harmonious. I don't have the figures, but it is a reasonable guess that a majority of older voters in California supported Proposition 187, which was brazenly anti-Hispanic. And there is no apparent community of interest binding older to younger voters. Indeed, the regressive payroll tax used to fund Social Security and Medicare is resented by the young, who fear that these programs will be seriously weakened by the time they retire.
So much for the Democrats. What would a twenty-first century Republican coalition look like? It would be attractive to the demographic heart of the country -- suburbia. It would be firmly based in the South (the entire House and nearly all of the Senate leadership is from the states of the old Confederacy) and on deeply religious voters like the members of the Christian Coalition, which would be a big disadvantage. Religion to the GOP could be what race was for decades to the Democrats -- a potential coalition breaker. Moreover, as political analyst Steven Stark points out, parties who make their strongest appeal to the South have tended historically to have a waning appeal to voters in other regions. Whether these two groups -- upscale white suburbanites and Christian rightists -- can live in the same tent remains to be seen.
The Republican advantage is ideological coherence. The GOP wants to cut taxes, especially taxes paid by its affluent supporters (which it just accomplished in the recent budget agreement); to reverse Roe v. Wade; and to build more prisons and in general increase the costs of committing violent crime. Give or take a nuance or two, this is what most Americans think the GOP stands for. Aside from abortion rights, what the Democrats stand for remains unknown. Conservatives have ideas -- a vision of where they would move the country -- and those ideas are in sync with American values. Since 1980 liberals have been bereft of ideas, as if fearful that their vision is not what the country wants. This gives the Republicans a major advantage in fashioning a winning coalition.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.