Political Digest: The Big One

You and I have been waiting our entire lives for this moment. In November 2004, it may finally come.

I’m talking about political realignment–a once-in-a-lifetime election like 1860 or 1932 that creates a permanent change in voting behavior, empowers one polit-ical party to dominate for generations, and heralds a fundamental reconfiguration of the political cosmos.

Strategists from both parties see an extraordinary opportunity for realignment in 2004. Among these hopeful strategists is President Bush himself, who has told his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, he doesn’t want a “lonely victory” in November. Eager to build on Republican successes in the 2002 midterm elections, the president has instructed Rove to mount an all-out effort to get Republican candidates elected and cement a new majority.

Democrats are equally optimistic–not only about seizing the White House, but about orchestrating their own political realignment. “The plates have all moved,” said pollster Stan Greenberg after the Democratic primaries. Economic anxiety and concern over the U.S. mission in Iraq have “made it possible for something fundamental to happen in this election.” Democratic strategists Ruy Teixeira and John Judis have been even more explicit. Authors of The Emerging Democratic Majority, they insist that realignment will arrive this fall.

Unfortunately for leaders of both parties, a political realignment this year is highly unlikely. What we are far likelier to see is a continuation of the political parity that currently stalks American politics. This parity will remain for quite some time–maybe a generation or more–because of two countervailing trends. The first is that Republicans are winning the war of ideas. The second is that Democrats are winning the war of demography. They cancel each other out.

Let me explain.

The modern Republican party is based on two ideas: Government is too big, and moral values are in decline. Every Republican proposal, from Social Security reform to the Federal Marriage Amendment, is a retail product from that ideological wholesaler. The good news for Republicans is that they’ve won the war of ideas. Forty years of debate and propaganda–from Barry Goldwater to Bill O’Reilly–has pushed the American people to their side.

In a 2002 ABC News poll, 60 percent of likely voters said they preferred a “smaller government with fewer services.” Only 35 percent said they wanted a “larger government with many services.” In a 1999 CBS News poll, nearly two-thirds agreed that “in general, the fed-eral government creates more problems than it solves.” And government incompetence has bred fear. In a 2000 Gallup poll, 65 percent of respondents selected “big government” as the “biggest threat to the country in the future.”

Republicans have also won the Murphy Brown debate. The American people sincerely believe that society’s val-ues are worsening. In a 2004 Gallup poll, 64 percent of respondents said they were “dissatisfied” with the “moral and ethical climate” in America. In a 2004 Fox News poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans agreed that “this country is in serious moral decline.” And the American people have the perfect solution for reversing moral degeneration. In a 1998 Washington Post survey, nearly nine out of ten agreed that “this country would have many fewer problems if there were more emphasis on traditional family values.”

If the Republicans are winning the war of ideas, why is America stuck in political neutral? The reason is that the ideological war is only half the battle. The Democrats are winning an equally important contest: the war of demography.

“Victory through demography” is the premise behind Teixeira and Judis’s The Emerging Democratic Majority. The premise rests on two key facts. First, the Democratic party has done historically well among certain segments of the American population: Hispanics, college-educated women, and secularists. Second, these are the population segments that are growing the fastest–and will, in time, overwhelm Republican constituencies.

Is it true? The authors present a compelling case: The country’s fastest growing ethnic group is Hispanics, who account for two-fifths of the country’s annual population increase. In 2000, Hispanics voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush 62 percent to 35. The country’s fastest-growing education group is women with college degrees. According to the Census Bureau, the percent-age of women with at least a bachelor’s has leaped from an asterisk at mid-century to over a quarter today. In 2000, college-educated women voted for Gore over Bush 57 percent to 39. And what about the third group, secularists? They’re the country’s fastest-grow-ing religious identification when defined as those who rarely or never attend church. According to the National Opinion Research Center, they’ve jumped from 18 to 30 percent of the population in 25 years. Secularists supported Gore by double-digit margins.

These statistics are very depressing for rank-and-file Republicans. But there is one final piece of nasty demo-graphic news that must be shared. The country’s fastest-growing economic class–professionals–is also swinging to the Democratic party. The professionals are white-collar, highly trained, credentialed people such as teachers, engineers, architects, computer analysts, and physicians. They’re more than one-fifth of the electorate. They’re highly educated, financially successful, and they used to be Republicans. But there’s no sign they’re coming back.

In sum, the message of The Emerging Democratic Majority to the Republican party is: Your cause is doomed! Our Harvard Law School grads and Latino landscapers will swamp your Fox News viewers and Federalist Society members!

On the data alone, I agree with Teixeira and Judis’s statistical analysis: The demographic trends are all-donkey these days. I don’t dispute that at all, but I do object to the authors’ insistence on discounting the power of ide-ology–”the war of ideas”–in the body politic. It’s a war that matters and the Democrats are losing it. Even if the demographic balance is shifting, most Americans are still God-fearing folks who have never stepped inside a college dorm room. Decades ago, they believed government was the solution and moral values were safe. No longer. Events from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the Columbine massacre have changed their minds. Year by year, they are becoming more conservative, and they are voting accordingly.

Can either party break the deadlock? Absolutely. Realignment probably won’t happen in 2004, but it could occur in the near future if either party gets a brain. The key for each is to address its weakness–and I mean their real weakness, not the one peddled by political “experts.”

Let’s take the Democrats. Most of their strategists–including Teixeira, Judis, and Greenberg–think their party needs a “traditional” Democratic platform of class warfare and social liberation. That is a recipe for defeat. The Democrats cannot realign the country until they neutralize the Republicans with new ideas.

The Democrats must resurrect the “New Democrat” ideology–this time with a leader who can keep his pants on. The Democrats need a candidate who will support low taxes and private Social Security accounts. They need a candidate who opposes partial-birth abor-tion and gay marriage. Unfortunately, their presumptive nominee, John Kerry, seems more comfortable as an Old Democrat than as a new one.

The Republicans have the opposite problem. To build a new Republican majority, they need to snatch one of those surging demographic groups from the Democrats.

President Bush strongly believes that Hispanic voters are the missing piece to his new Republican coalition. Unfortunately, Bush’s strategy has no chance of success. A generation ago, Hispanics threw in their lot with the Democratic party, and they show no signs of changing course. In 2000, Bush went to great lengths to court Hispanic voters, but he won only 35 percent of their vote.

To build a new Republican majority, Bush must focus on his father’s voting bloc: professionals.

Teixeira and Judis consider professionals to be part of their emerging Democratic majority, but professionals supported Republicans strongly as recently as 1988. Of the three Democratic demographic groups they cite, professionals are the only one up for grabs.

Republicans can get professionals back. The key is style. Under Ronald Reagan, the GOP was a conservative party, but it was also a party of optimism and tolerance. Beginning in the 1990s, the party’s tone changed. It became darker and less tolerant. This appealed to many evangelical voters who already voted Republican, but the new tone isolated professionals who support smaller government and traditional values but believe in tolerance above all else. As New York Times columnist David Brooks has written, “People in places like Silicon Valley who vote Democratic detest intrusive government with a fervor that would make a libertarian blush. . . [but] they see themselves as the cultural opposites of those boring Chamber of Commerce white males who vote Republican.” Professional enclaves–suburbs like Macomb County, Bergen County, and Silicon Valley–went from voting Reagan to voting Gore in just a dozen years.

President Bush has done a respectable job of emulating Reagan’s persona, but he needs to do more. His “com-passionate conservatism” is a message that helps make professionals feel comfortable with the GOP again, but since September 11 Bush has largely abandoned com-passionate conservatism in his pursuit of the war on terror. He didn’t need to make a trade-off between the two. Bush proudly calls himself a “war president.” But he can also be a peace president. He can do this at home by advocating “opportunity scholarships” for inner-city youth and appointing a commission to study capital punishment reform (now that scores of inmates have been exonerated using DNA tests). He can expand the adoption tax credit and change the tax laws to make it easier for churches and synagogues to provide health services for their members. This is just a beginning.

You and I have been waiting our entire lives for realignment. Will it come in November 2004? That seems doubtful, unless one party decides it actually wants to win.

Todd Weiner works at Luntz Research Companies, a communications firm in Alexandria, Virginia.

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