It’s entirely possible that, if the deficit forces continued zero-sum calculations, the definition of the center-right coalition of “haves” will be expanded beyond its original boundaries, stretching past the wealthy, the managerial and business class, the gun owners, the anti-taxers, the home schoolers, the property rights-ers, the Western ranchers, Christian evangelicals, and the self-employed to begin to include members of what conservative operative Grover Norquist called the “takings” coalition—men or women who get federal benefits. A Republican Party hungry for victory would welcome as new members Social Security and Medicare recipients—“takers” who simultaneously consider themselves part of the universe of “haves” and of Norquist’s “leave us alone coalition.”
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While there is no doubt that the increase in the number of racial and ethnic minority voters works to the advantage of the liberal coalition, white voters remain a wild card. In 2008, whites made up 74 percent of the electorate, and McCain carried them 55-43. There are precedents for much higher Republican margins: in 1972, Nixon carried 67 percent of the white vote, and in 1984 Reagan won 64 percent. Conversely, Bill Clinton only lost the white vote by one percentage point to George H. W. Bush in 1992. The one clear conclusion to draw from these figures is that if the GOP is unwilling to make major policy shifts, especially on immigration reform, a crucial issue to many Hispanics, the party will have to drive its margins among white voters back up to the Nixon-Reagan levels.
The 2008 election demonstrated that the country is moving into a period of post-racial politics—but that does not mean an end to racial, ethnic, or sex-based partisan schisms. In the past, a combustible mix of prejudice, race, and gender identity drove a politics of sociocultural polarization. The divisions of the future are increasingly likely to be driven by similar fissures, as well as by stratification dependent upon socioeconomic status, ideology, and self-concept as a “have” or “have-not.” These divisions will continue to splinter the United States along familiar lines of race, ethnicity, and gender, but such divisions will result from the different ideological inclinations of whites, non-whites, men, women, the married and the unmarried. The sources of conflict may shift, but many of the traditional lines of demarcation will remain.
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While both the “have” and “have-not” coalitions have been growing, with the middle waning, the devastating effects of the Great Recession, the inexorable enlargement of the minority electorate, and the legions of single voters now give greater momentum to the left and to the Democratic Party.
The problem facing the Democratic Party and the Obama administration lies in maintaining the fragile alliance between their constituents: those looking to the government for resources and protection; millions of ideologically moderate working-class whites upon whom the party continues to depend; and college-educated professionals, many with advanced degrees, who represent the Democrats’ newfound strength among “knowledge workers.“ These Democrats are relatively well-off and socially liberal. They are not bread-and-butter voters, but ideological voters, seeking a government that defends post-materialist rights and values, especially women’s rights, civil rights, and sexual freedom. Many are anti-war. These are the Democratic “haves.”