Rumors of the Democratic Party’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated
Richard Miniter thinks the Democrats are doomed. I think he’s wrong, but before we get into that let me just say one thing: whenever anyone predicts the downfall of a major political party in the United States they’re probably wrong. When Republicans were chased into the hills in 2006 and again in 2008, everybody said “Oh they’re doomed. The Republican Party is gone for good this time, or at least for the next decade or so, or they will be a shell of their former selves.”
Nobody predicted the rise of the Tea Party or the inability of Democrats to push their own narrative. Republicans are shrewd politicians, and when backed into a corner they put up a vicious fight. The trouble comes when Republicans actually take the wheel.
Miniter lists a bunch of Democratic constituencies that he says are on the decline. But his broader point is this:
The Democrats are a coalition, forged in the New Deal, of diverse interests that do not get along well. Imagine the deer-hunting union member sitting down with the vegetarian college professor and the lesbian lawyer and you will begin to see the trouble party leaders have holding the horde together. So far, money and government preferences have been essential. It is largely a party of unions, government workers and retirees, “green” industries, “entitlement” payees, professors, teachers and social-change activists — all of whom require government payments in one form or another. The only major element of the Democratic base that doesn’t receive government payments is the professional class (lawyers, engineers, stock brokers and so on). These high-earners amount to less than 5% of the population and are not reliable Democrat donors.
On the other hand, the Republicans are a consensus party. Activists and leaders fight like hell — leading Democrats to periodically predict the Republicans’ demise — only to settle on some principle that is then adopted by the majority. Tax cuts and preemptive invasions were once battlegrounds, now they are cornerstones. Significantly, very few of its supporters receive government payments. Yes, defense firms, farmers and small-business owners get contracts, subsidies or loans. Yet the overwhelming majority of Republicans pay more than they receive. They want to pay less, not get more.
I find this argument perplexing.
For one thing, red states – reliable Republican bastions like North Dakota – on average take in more federal dollars than they pay out in taxes. So asserting that the “overwhelming majority of Republicans pay more than they receive” is just wrong.
Furthermore, is it at all true that Republicans are a consensus party while Democrats are a loose coalition? Certainly there is a consensus movement on the right – the aptly named conservative movement – but that movement makes up only a small portion of Republican voters, many of whom now identify first as Tea Partiers and as Republicans second.
The “three-legged stool” of the Republican Party has traditionally been made up of fiscal conservatives (and libertarians), defense conservatives, and social conservatives. As we’ve seen quite plainly in recent years, this coalition is fragile especially since the end of the Cold War.
But really, the weakest elements of Miniter’s piece are his sins of omission. There is no mention of race, immigration, or the broad shift in social views. Sure, unions are greatly diminished and they’re not coming back. And young people today may indeed be somewhat more fiscally conservative than their parents. Still, they are a far cry more socially tolerant than previous generations. The Republican party will have to essentially disentangle itself from its social conservatism before we can safely write off the Democrats. There’s been an attempt at this with the Tea Party, but the culture wars still burn bright in the public conscious, and the Tea Party is a reliable ally of those who would fight against gay marriage, abortion rights, and so forth.
(As a brief aside, I think in some respects this generation is actually more socially conservative – but with a twist. I think young people today are more likely to use contraception and this makes them somewhat less favorable toward abortion. They are also more likely to live together outside of wedlock, and have a less favorable opinion toward divorce.)
But immigrants and minorities are the real kicker here. While Miniter ruminates on the decline of unions – a constituency the Democrats have relied on very little in the past couple of decades – and environmentalists (a tiny constituency at best) or the porn industry, he misses the demographic time bomb altogether. Republicans are simply very, very bad at capturing black and Hispanic votes. And if you haven’t noticed, black and Hispanic voters are on the rise, while white voters are occupying an increasingly small corner of the ballot box.
Still, when it all comes crashing down who can say?
I’m not a fan of the duopoly, frankly, and I’d welcome the demise of both parties. I just don’t see it happening. The sad fact of the matter is, no matter how extreme or fringy some members of each party seem, it is the bipartisan center – the status quo centrist conglomerate – that drives policy in America. And they need one another to survive. Such symbiosis isn’t about to end any time soon, despite our direst predictions or dearest hopes.