Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Lost Majority by Sean Trende

I hesitate to suggest a book I haven't yet read, but I read Sean Trende loyally. The book, available today, is The Lost Majority. A link to the introduction can be found at: The Lost Majority.

The introduction states:
This book makes three interrelated claims. First, that the 2010 midterm elections were a result of Barack Obama and the Democrats misreading both their mandate and how they had been brought to power, imagining a realignment in 2008 when, in fact, none had occurred. Second, that the emerging partisan majorities described by theorists from both parties are mirages. Third, that the entire concept of realignments/permanent alignments, which underlay much of the misbegotten analysis of the 2008 elections, is bankrupt and should be abandoned.
I wholeheartedly agree with these statements. The "swings" mentioned in the media, by historians, and by some political scientists are illusions. The swings are of a few percentages, generally in the middle. President Obama didn't receive a mandate; he was elected by a narrow margin using voters from narrow, but enthusiastic nichés.

Our nation is center-right, with some "progressive" tendencies. As voters, we struggle to balance a traditional of personal responsibility against the desire to help our fellow citizens. We want to be fiscally responsible, but we hate to cut programs. We are in the middle, as a nation, conflicted as individuals and as a group. That's okay, because that's how we also live our lives on a personal level. We struggle for balance.

As Trende suggests, election trends cannot be measured in perfect cycles. I make the same argument about economic cycles: you cannot time them. We slowly drift, from impulse to impulse, trying to maintain stability. The "Big Events" are usually at the end of a cycle, not the middle or the beginning, but those moments are what define the cycle. Even scholars miss this because the "Big Events" seem to mark the start of something.
When discussing Obama’s win in 2008, analysts frequently threw about the terms “Reagan majority” or “New Deal coalition” in ways that evinced a very shallow understanding of how those coalitions came about, and how they ended. In order to give a proper context for the politics of the last decade, this book therefore begins by urging us to unlearn much of our understanding of the politics of the last hundred years. Part I begins by exploring the early seeds of the New Deal coalition, which were sown in 1920. In that year, Republicans brought together an incredibly broad winning coalition. But as we’ll see again and again in this book these “coalitions of everyone” that form from time to time are unstable, and tend to break down quickly.
Even the Reagan Revolution was at the end of a trend, not the beginning, according to Trende's analysis:
The Reagan coalition did arise from the ashes of the New Deal coalition, but it formed much earlier than most realize. It was the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 that helped stabilize the unsettled politics that arose in the wake of the New Deal’s demise, creating a coalition that was probably the most successful in American history. From 1952 through 1988, the Eisenhower coalition lost only three presidential elections, two by the narrowest of margins. While Democrats held Congress for most of this time, Republicans effectively controlled that body through a coalition with Southern Democrats. As the Democrats continued their leftward shift, and as the country chafed under a prolonged existential threat from the Soviet Union, the Eisenhower coalition enjoyed an extended lifespan unequalled in American history.

In other words, the “Reagan coalition” is better understood as the “Eisenhower coalition,” and Reagan’s presidency marked the end of a period of Republican dominance, not the beginning.
So what was the Obama victory? Well, I'd argue it was more "Anti-Bush" than "Pro-Obama" at the point of victory. But, it was also the voters anticipating that Obama would be like the last Democrat in the White House. Trende explains:
In part II we explore the swift breakdown of this coalition, and the onset of our increasingly unstable politics. Clinton’s efforts to rebrand the party set the stage for the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, as well as the election of Barack Obama. This point is critical: Barack Obama’s coalition was not novel. It wasn’t even that broad. It was a narrower version of Clinton’s. Obama’s election saw the final collapse of Democratic voting strength among Democrats in Appalachia and in those states settled by Appalachian Scots-Irish, areas that had been voting Democratic since Andrew Jackson. He was the first Democrat since Lewis Cass in 1848 not to carry Floyd County, Kentucky, and the first ever to lose Knott County. For perspective, in 1996 Clinton carried Floyd County by 45 points and Knott County by 55 points. Even George McGovern carried these counties by double digits.

Of course, there was a positive side to the 2008 ledger as well. Obama ran stronger among liberals, the young, minorities, and suburbanites than did Clinton, and he brought more of these individuals out to vote. As a result, while Obama lost ground by building a coalition that was narrower than Clinton’s, he made up for this narrowing by creating a coalition that went much deeper among certain demographics.
Obama is not the moderate voters expected. The problem is, no candidate will be the moderate voters want. Our primaries are now ideological filters, removing the moderation. Maybe the GOP will embrace a moderate candidate this cycle, but will that be sufficient? I have no idea.

Some Democratic strategists argue that demographics alone will propel their party forward. Trende also challenges this assumption. While black voters remain fiercely loyal to the current incarnation of the Democratic Party, other ethnic groups are starting to show more diversity of affiliation. As the children and grandchildren of immigrants move to the suburbs (and they are moving), they shift to voting more like their new neighbors. Trend's works have explored this several times.
In fact, Latinos have gradually trended toward the Republicans over the past several decades, and there is substantial evidence that as these voters move out of heavily Hispanic areas and become more integrated into Anglo culture, they vote more like non-Hispanic whites.
There are no permanent or demographically guaranteed majorities for either party.

There is a middle. A moderate middle that appears to swing from party to party, when what is actually happening is that the parties themselves and their core activists move from one extreme to another. As the Democrats shift too far left, voters appear to "swing" to the right. As Republicans embrace conservative social issues, voters "swing back" to the Democrats in some regions.

Again, I've added The Lost Majority to my reading list. I suggest you do the same.

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