If They Don’t Adapt Democrats Face Demographic Doom
“Relax,” Jon Wiener wrote to his liberal readers, “Donald Trump can’t win.”
“Whatever the polls say now (and right now they show Hillary ahead), the long-term patterns of American politics tell us that Trump is not going to get millions more voters than Romney did,” Wiener wrote, “and he’s not going to carry enough swing states to overcome the historic pattern of Democratic advantage. Hillary will win in November, and she will be sworn in as our next president on January 20.”
Weiner was far from the only person making this argument. Almost every progressive tended to believe that the election of President Obama in 2008 was the beginning of an “emerging Democratic majority,” one that would harness the party’s seeming demographic advantages to become an unstoppable political force. The idea was that older white voters would likely remain Republicans, but they would decline as a share of the electorate just as a diverse, liberal generation was entering voting age.
And then, as Third Way’s Lanae Hatalsky and Jim Kessler write, reality struck.
From the 2009 high water mark for the Party, Democrats have lost 20% of their Senate seats, 25% of their House seats, 45% of their governors, 53% of their state legislative houses, and now the White House.
Traditionally blue states like Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts now have Republican governors. The Minnesota state senate was under Democratic control for nearly twenty years—now Republicans are in charge. Republicans hold the governors’ mansions and both houses of the state legislature in 25 states, while Democrats control all levers of power in just five (one Democrat in Washington State’s Senate caucuses with the Republicans, so the latter party controls that chamber). And three of those states rank 47th, 49th, and 50th in geographic size. In fact, Republicans are now just one state legislature short of being able to call a constitutional convention to consider amendments to our founding document.
Democrats, by contrast, now resemble a regional, not a national, party—competitive in mostly coastal and urban enclaves.
As it turns out, demography isn’t destiny in the same way that there is no “right side of history.” Politics, policies, parties, and constituencies are constantly evolving such that there is no true standard to measure progress against. This particular knife cuts two ways.
For Democrats it meant that despite the growth of Millennials and minorities as a share of the electorate, data from exit polls showed that their vote share in every single observed demographic category went down from 2008 to 2016. That fact, as social psychologist Musa al-Gharbi argues, is still lost on Democrats, who are attempting to view the political landscape through an old lens.
“[T]here is a common misconception that Trump was ushered into power by old, white, economically disenfranchised men,” write al-Gharbi. “However, according to the exit polls, Trump actually did worse than Romney among whites and seniors, but outperformed him among blacks, Asians, Hispanics and young people.”
Heck, Democrats even captured their lowest share of female voters since 2004, despite making history by being the first major party to nominate a woman for president.
For Republicans, it means that they party must not make a similar mistake in assuming that demographics are stabilizing in their favor. Yes, the economic results of globalism have created a raft of disaffected workers that have tended toward the Republican Party, and yes, Republican support among white voters has increased dramatically since 2008. But neither of these trends is forever. And history, as English historian Herbert Butterfield tells us, which is all things to all men, cannot be our guide.
“[History] is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reasons she best serves those who suspect her most. Therefore, we must beware of saying, ‘History says […] or ‘History proves […],” as though she herself were the oracle; as though indeed history, once she spoken, had put the matter beyond the range of mere human inquiry. Rather we must say to ourselves: “She will lie to us till the very end of the last cross examination,” Butterfield writes.
Republicans must not allow history, or demography, or simple hubris, to lie to them. Success is not pre-ordained, it is won. And it is won by constantly and consistently listening to the hopes and fears of Americans and acting to achieve them or defend against them, as the case may be.