|Illustration by Ben Gibson
The future of the Democratic Party, conveniently enough, looks a lot like its present presidential nominee: northern, metropolitan and cosmopolitan, multiracial, well-educated but not especially high-income (until recent developments turned him into a best-selling author), and, most of all, newly confident. The extent to which Obama personifies the contemporary Democratic coalition makes for a useful shorthand, and it’s no coincidence—the reconsolidated, post-Reagan, post-Clinton Democratic Party can win a national majority, but only by pulling together an incredibly diverse coalition.
In congressional elections, this diversity isn’t necessarily a problem, because most districts have a specific dominant demographic and can elect a member of Congress appropriate to the constituency.
In national politics, however, it gives a distinct advantage to unusual characters like Bill Clinton (the “first black president,” who was also “Bubba” from Arkansas and a Rhodes Scholar to boot), and now Obama. But even a half-black Harvard Law School–educated community organizer from Kansas or Hawaii or Chicago can’t quite embody the Democrats’ entire unwieldy agglomeration of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, secular whites, union members, and food-stamp recipients. So the coalition is perpetually at risk of fragmenting, as is clear from Obama’s likely difficulty in persuading older, white, Social Security–dependent retirees (who ought to back the party of entitlements) to pull the lever for him.
But the good news for Democrats is that their swatches of the American patchwork, though they fit together less well than do the GOP’s, are mostly the swatches that are growing. Every year, the proportion of seculars in the population expands, while the proportion of non-Hispanic whites shrinks, as does that of the party’s most problematic demographic—whites with no college degrees. These trends prompted John Judis and Ruy Teixeira to posit an “emerging Democratic majority.” Although their book was published soon after the country’s post-9/11 swing to the right made their thesis seem foolish, today the underlying pro-Democratic trends seem real enough. The growth of favorable demographic groups, combined with new ways of using the Internet to mobilize educated liberal professionals, has helped drive Obama’s primary victory and a new sense of progressive self-confidence. Democrats from Obama down are calculating that the failures of the Bush years make it possible to sell the country on an agenda that revives the big liberal ambitions of decades past, albeit with substantial specific changes.
What’s more, even if their nominee loses, the Democrats will likely expand their majorities in the House and the Senate, which will put them in the driver’s seat on domestic-policy issues come 2009. Their maximalist agenda—universal health care, a reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions to 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, universal preschool, huge infrastructure outlays, and an alteration of labor law to facilitate unionization, plus an array of smaller initiatives, from an affordable-housing trust fund to summer learning opportunities for children—is very ambitious. In a sign of how far public opinion has shifted to the left, Democrats have been able to put forward a platform that’s more far-reaching than anything Al Gore or John Kerry ran on, without prompting a party split or, indeed, surrendering the polling advantage they have on essentially all domestic-policy issues. Were this agenda to be enacted, it would count as the most significant policy transformation since the Great Society or perhaps even the New Deal.
For that very reason, the full Democratic agenda is unlikely to be enacted, no matter the election outcome. The question is how Democrats will be brought up short. They might overreach, prompting a backlash and putting the Republicans back in the game. But if the party passes some elements of this agenda into law, they will—unlike the essentially technocratic policy proposals of the late Clinton years—reinforce the party’s grip on power. Any form of carbon cap will boost alternative-energy industries whose employees and executives will, in turn, work to elect more Democrats who’ll enact more-stringent carbon regulations. Big proposals on health care and education will, even if watered down, create new batches of clients for government services, and any hike in infrastructure spending will create jobs dependent on big government. We could, in short, be poised for a return to something like the old Harry Hopkins formula of “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect” as the basis of the political order.
A million things could go wrong, of course, but we seem to be heading for a new period of liberal ascendancy; if anything, the conventional wisdom understates the odds of that happening. Democratic Party congressional majorities were common in the 20th century, but they usually depended on white southern conservatives. The House and Senate majorities that seem destined to emerge in 2009, by contrast, will still include some white southerners but won’t depend on them, and those southerners will in any case be much more liberal than the conservative Democrats of yore. Periods when northern Democrats controlled Congress have been rare and brief, but they have also remade the country, bringing us civil rights and the welfare state as we know it. The currently constituted party might not leave that kind of stamp on the country, but it’s better-positioned to do so than the Democratic Party has been in more than 40 years.