Is There A New Progressive America?

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Here's an interesting go-round between Jay Cost and Ruy Teixeira, pivoting off the latter's recent report on "A New Progressive America." I'm on Teixeira's side insofar as it's possible to make predictions about the political future; I'm on Cost's insofar as it isn't. Put another way, I think it would be very difficult to put together a similarly-persuasive report making the case that there's a "New Conservative America" aborning: To the extent that current trends predict future results, current trends are favorable to liberals. The Democratic coalition is growing, and the GOP coalition is shrinking; young voters are to the left of their elders on every issue except abortion and Social Security; and there are deep social trends at work that seem likely to expand demand for government. If the same sorts of people who are voting for liberals now continue voting that way, and the same sorts of people voting for conservatives do the same, we're headed for a long, long progressive ascendancy.

But of course current trends don't always predict future results. Contingency matters enormously. To take the most recent example, the events of 9/11 temporarily dislodged the emerging Democratic majority; if Bush had been a more a successful President, it might have dislodged it permanently, making the 2002 election a template for future struggles between the parties. To take an older example, after LBJ trounced Goldwater in 1964, nobody could have know that the uptick in crime would become a three-decade crime wave, or that the growing quagmire in Vietnam would last for a decade, let alone that these would become decisive factors in our national politics. Which is why this is the strongest part of Cost's rebuttal:

Teixiera's argument about future political demography assumes a static quality to American politics that is ahistorical ... For instance, consider that while John McCain lost the nationwide popular vote by seven points, he won the white Catholic vote by five points. From a historical perspective, this is remarkable. John Kennedy won 81% of non-Hispanic white Catholics, Lyndon Johnson 79%, and Hubert Humphrey (who lost in a three-way race) still won 55%. Forty years ago, any liberal analyst would have concluded that the white Catholic vote belongs to the Democrats. Yet today, we see the GOP holding white Catholics amidst a popular vote wipe out.

Similarly, who would have ever thought that the "white working class" - the backbone of the New Deal coalition for decades - would support the Republicans by 18-points as the nation supported the Democrats by 7? That is the most dramatic proof that voting coalitions are not static - and that we cannot extrapolate future alignments from current ones.

Electoral politics is not akin to Newtonian physics, where you derive your equations and then predict everything from here to eternity. Instead it's unpredictable. Why? One reason is the parties. They select issue positions and emphases to steal the other side's wavering voters and undermine its voting coalition. Again, recent electoral history has demonstrated that both parties are quite adept at this game. In light of that, how can we know whom Hispanics, Asians, "professionals," young voters, or anybody will support in 2048? I'd suggest we cannot. Using demographic estimates to predict long-range political preferences is an impossibly difficult task.

Well, yes ... except that I think probabilities matter a little bit more than Cost allows. Even allowing for his caveats, if you were asked to pick which coalitions you'd rather have at the moment, based on demographic strength alone, you'd choose the Democratic coalition in a heartbeat. Not because we know what's going to happen, but because we don't - and a bet based on probabilities is better than a shot in the dark.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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