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08 Dec

The Coming Dominance of the Democratic Party and What Will Eventually Undo It

  By Bernard Winograd

With the re-election of President Obama in 2012, the trends in American politics that give a near-term advantage to the Democratic Party have been thrown into sharp relief. The increasing ethnicity and urbanism of the American electorate, most obvious in the rising tide of Millennial-generation voters, has given an edge to the Democratic Party. Its identification with tolerance and communal spirit have increasing resonance for an electorate that grows more socially liberal and more relaxed about the role of government with every year’s deaths among older voters and increases in the number of newly eligible younger voters.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, has fallen victim to its own very successful political strategy of the last decades of the twentieth century. President Johnson famously remarked when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that he had lost the South to the Republicans for a generation. Insightful as the remark was, he underestimated the effect, as the Republican Party went on to become dominant in the South at virtually all levels of government for forty years, undoing the post-Civil War dominance the Democrats had enjoyed in the region for the previous hundred years.

In the course of that transformation, the Republican Party increasingly embraced the culture and values of the South as its base. It became more intolerant, less socially liberal, and more mistrustful of government than it had ever been when it was dominated by old-line country club Republicans, whose primary values were prosperity and freedom, especially for American business.

Through the last decades of the twentieth century, the Republican message was able to unite various kinds of conservatives in winning coalitions. A muscular foreign policy was agreeable to all but the most isolationist tendencies. A belief that low taxes were critical to economic success helped unite the ideas of freedom and economic self-interest in a way that made it comfortable for Republicans to believe that Democrats were actually disadvantaging those at the low end of the economic ladder they purported to champion. And patriotism, evidenced in a messianic mission to transform the world into democracies, provided more glue to bind the groups together and to pry away white working class voters from their Roosevelt-era adherence to the Democrats.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, was often its own worst enemy, embracing interest group politics and betraying a distrust of business and capitalism that was at odds with American sensibilities. President Clinton interrupted years of Republican dominance of Presidential elections only by defanging these two ideas. He actively embraced business and free markets — even though he took a more moderate approach to regulation than his Republican opponents. And he embraced policies that had previously been taboo for Democrats, such as welfare reform, implying that he was more interested in the public interest than the demands of specific Democratic Party interest groups.

This kind of Clintonian “triangulation,” as it has been called, seems unnecessary today to the optimists about the Democratic Party’s future. The fundamental advantage the Democratic Party has, its greater affinity for the attitudes of the growing segments of the electorate, seems adequate to secure its future.

The Republican Party’s domination by what had been its fringe elements only adds to that optimism. The parallels to the history of the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 80s suggest that the Republican Party is almost certainly going to be hostage to these fringe elements for some time to come. Without electoral success to resolve the debate, disputes will continue between various strands of conservatism, with their differing views on the relative importance of social issues, American international involvement, and personal freedoms. These debates will provide plenty of opportunities for Democrats to point to reasons for the electorate not to vote Republican, much as the interest group posturing within the Democratic Party in the last decades of the twentieth century provided Republicans with arguments to peel away previously Democratic voters.

But the American public remains ideologically conservative and operationally liberal.(i)Polling data makes it clear that Americans think government should be limited, that the free enterprise system and the upward mobility it provides are what make the United States great and different than other countries, all of which makes them ideologically conservative. Thus, the United States is the only developed country where roughly a third of the electorate always thinks that taxes are too high, regardless of how high they are.

But the same electorate is protective of the role of government when specifics are at issue, liking how Medicare performs, approving of Social Security, and supportive of unemployment insurance and other measures designed to help those in temporary distress through no fault of their own. Hence, when it comes to the operations of government, they are liberals. The close debate over Obamacare revealed this divide clearly, with many voters reluctant to allow the government to expand its role in a sixth of the US economy, and the rest convinced that it was necessary because the previous system was denying people health care for no good reason.

The debate over how to resolve the so-called fiscal cliff is another example of this fundamental dynamic. As the American population ages, the pressure to assure that retirees have access to a minimum standard of living and increasingly expensive health care puts the ideological conservatism and the operational liberalism of the American electorate in direct conflict. This is an inescapable debate. Making good on the promises of Social Security and Medicare, not to mention Obamacare, inevitably means that a larger share of the American economy will be funded by the government, that transfer payments will be a much larger share of the government budget and consequently that the government budget will be a larger share of American GDP.(ii)

We should hardly be surprised that this creates a difficult political issue to resolve, as each end of the political spectrum can find reasons to believe that the electorate wants one or the other of the two mutually incompatible outcomes. What the American system will inevitably force is an outcome that will be ideologically conservative but operationally liberal in some fashion. Just as Obamacare was a series of Republican ideas about how to change the health care system rather than the liberal ideal of a single-payer system, a resolution will have to acknowledge the fiscal reality that spending for the growing sectors of the economy will be funded by the government, but will do so in a way that mitigates the otherwise straightforward liberal response of relying solely on increasing taxes to put the government on a fiscally sustainable trajectory.

But, sooner or later, what happened in California with the passage of Proposition 30 in the 2012 election will happen to the federal government. Restrictions on government spending will become so visibly counter-productive that taxes will go up substantially as a result of popular pressure to do so, and Grover Norquist and the no-tax pledge will become a historical curiosity. The budget crisis will be resolved because, as Ben Stein famously put it, things that are unsustainable tend to stop.

What is important in this dynamic is the crab-wise way in which the American system changes. The elaborate checks and balances of the system mean that the chances of radical shifts in direction are small. They also mean that compromise must be found when problems must be resolved. This crab-like experimentation is very familiar to students of biological evolution, which often proceeds by incremental experiments until a successful adaptation explodes in numbers.

It is also clear that changes in the center of gravity in public opinion come about at a generational pace. As each generation absorbs the critical events of its period of maturation, there is a crystallization of attitudes that then persist through that generation’s civic life. Most children and adults shaped by the Great Depression had no doubt of the efficacy of government, just as most adults and children of the Reagan years were sure that government was the problem rather than the solution. Today, Millennial generation attitudes toward activism and community spirit and social tolerance are increasingly displacing Reagan-era attitudes in the electorate, a process that will run for some years to come.

So we can reasonably expect that the resolution of the debate currently underway about the proper size and role of the government in funding transfer payments will have produced a more secure, more equitably distributed set of social rewards and responsibilities, one in which universal health care and the rights of individual citizens previously unprotected will have been secured, so much so that these matters will be taken for granted. At that point Democrats will be resting on their laurels, certain of the support of the Millennials, the largest generation in American history, and a robustly diverse society.

But it is equally certain that at some point this trend will run its course. While it is likely to be at least a decade or two in the future, there will come a point at which attitudes toward government will swing away from today’s trends and back toward celebrating individual liberty and success as the supreme values that voters want embodied in the approach to government. As Mark Twain is said to have remarked, history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

By that time, candidates with fringe ideas in the Republican Party will have repeatedly failed to win general election contests despite dominating the party’s nomination processes. With the possible exception of the culturally conservative South, the party will be open to a run for President by a candidate who, Clinton-like, denounces the fringe views and nevertheless wins the Republican nomination and the general election by focusing solely on economic opportunity. Exactly what the policy questions of that era will be cannot be easily discerned at this remove. But it seems likely that the inherent suspicion with which the Democratic coalition treats business and capitalism will not have abated, and that there will be reasonable policy ideas along that line that a socially moderate but fiscally conservative candidate could exploit to pull together a winning coalition.

Much as Republicans might wish to accelerate this resurgence, the odds are against it occurring any time soon. There is too much demographic momentum behind the Democratic coalition at this point. The trend will favor increased Democratic dominance for some time to come, even though more capable candidates and lower off-year voter turnout may cause interruptions. The importance of fringe elements in the Republican Party also will limit the chances of a near-term reversal of fortune by making it too hard to convincingly recast the Republican Party brand as socially tolerant.

But just as surely, the pendulum will swing back again over time. In fact, it is this dynamic that has played a key role in the successful social cohesion of the United States over time, despite the unusually diverse nature of its population and periodic massive changes in its ethnic composition due to substantial periodic increases in immigration.

The right balance between government activism and free markets is just that, a balance. American politics is often focused on how to strike that balance. For example, for much of the past few decades, American public opinion held that divided government, with neither party in control of both Congress and the White House, was the best outcome because it limited the damage the government could cause. Today, that consensus has been undermined as voters have come to appreciate that gridlock is not as useful when government action is needed.

What has actually been at stake in these debates is which is the right way to lean under the conditions of the time. With the benefit of hindsight, one can argue that the importance of economic growth to the United States was paramount after the economic and social shocks of the early 1970s, and that giving free rein to business was reasonable government policy for the ensuing era, facilitating greater innovation and expansion than would otherwise have occurred. Likewise, recovering from the excesses that expansion created while redressing growing inequality and working out the specifics by which increased transfer payments are to be funded by government spending may be equally important to assure social cohesion in the coming decades.

The conservatism of the American system of government, with its Constitutional guardianship of individual rights and protections against overreach by transitory majorities, has proven adept at adaptation in this way throughout its history. To be sure, the difficulty of getting government to act can be frustrating to those sure of the right path forward. But the crab-like experimentation that is characteristic of the system, with forward movement only when there is a strong consensus, has been well tested over time by numerous circumstances. There is no reason to doubt it will rise to the latest challenge as well.

i The earliest formulation of this argument, which Morley Winograd and his co-author Mike Hais elaborated on in their work, appears to be Hadley Cantril and A. Lloyd’s work The Political Beliefs of Americans, published in 1969 — the point being that it has been true for quite some time that we know of, and seems to be a very stable feature of American public opinion.

ii For a fascinating discussion of why health care costs are so hard to contain, and why we shouldn’t worry so much about it, see The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t by William J. Baumol and others, September 2012.

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