Why Both Parties Face Op­por­tun­ity and Dis­rup­tion in Equal Measure

Economic and social change helps Democrats keep the White House and city halls—while the GOP wins everything else.

By Ronald Brownstein – – –

Polit­ic­al power in Amer­ica today is di­vided like a lay­er cake that is blue at the top and bot­tom and red every­where in between.

Demo­crats have built two elect­or­al strong­holds. At the pin­nacle, they have won the pop­u­lar vote in five of the past six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions and car­ried at least the same 18 states each time—the most states the party has ever won in six con­sec­ut­ive races. At the base, Demo­crats now hold the may­or’s of­fice in most big cit­ies and gen­er­ate huge pres­id­en­tial mar­gins from those densely pop­u­lated areas.

But in between, as polit­ic­al ana­lysts Sean Trende and Dav­id Byler have noted, Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol more than three-fifths of the gov­ernor­ships and the most state le­gis­lat­ive seats since the 1920s. It has been that long since Re­pub­lic­ans held so many seats in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives; the party’s 54 U.S. sen­at­ors nearly equals its best show­ing since then.

Among the many vir­tues of Amer­ica As­cend­ant, the pro­voc­at­ive book pub­lished this week by vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan­ley B. Green­berg, is its re­cog­ni­tion that these con­trast­ing strengths each flow from the same cur­rent: an over­lap­ping gen­er­a­tion­al, ra­cial, and geo­graph­ic­al re­align­ment that has pro­duced mir­ror-im­age par­tis­an co­ali­tions that are an­ti­thet­ic­al in their val­ues and pri­or­it­ies—but are al­most ex­actly equal in size.

Green­berg makes clear he be­lieves that, un­less Re­pub­lic­ans make peace with so­cial changes they are now res­ist­ing, the un­der­ly­ing demo­graph­ic and cul­tur­al trends re­shap­ing Amer­ic­an life will in­creas­ingly tilt the elect­or­al bal­ance to­ward Demo­crats. But he’s also clear-eyed about the obstacles Demo­crats face in trans­mut­ing these cul­tur­al shifts in­to a true gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity. Demo­crats will find more to cheer in this sweep­ing and deeply in­formed book than Re­pub­lic­ans will, but it of­fers in­sights neither side can ig­nore.

Like oth­er ana­lysts, Green­berg ar­gues that the trans­ition to an in­form­a­tion-age eco­nomy, grow­ing ra­cial di­versity, and changes in gender roles and fam­ily struc­ture are shak­ing Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety today as power­fully as in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion, urb­an­iz­a­tion, and mass im­mig­ra­tion did in the late 19th cen­tury. Today’s changes, he writes, are gen­er­at­ing op­por­tun­ity and dis­rup­tion in equal meas­ure: “While these re­volu­tions are tilt­ing Amer­ica’s tra­ject­ory up­ward, they are also pro­du­cing sud­den, sweep­ing and ac­cel­er­at­ing so­cial changes, evid­ent in the de­cline of the tra­di­tion­al fam­ily and the struggles of work­ing-class wo­men and men.”

Amid this tur­bu­lence, Demo­crats have built a heav­ily urb­an­ized co­ali­tion of minor­it­ies, the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, and col­lege-edu­cated, single, and sec­u­lar whites (es­pe­cially wo­men), who mostly wel­come what Green­berg calls Amer­ica’s “ra­cially blen­ded, mul­tina­tion­al, mul­ti­lin­gual, re­li­giously plur­al­ist­ic so­ci­ety.” Each of those groups is grow­ing with­in the elect­or­ate, which means that if Demo­crats can main­tain their loy­alty, they will provide the party a widen­ing edge, es­pe­cially in pres­id­en­tial races.

At the same time, Re­pub­lic­ans are amass­ing enorm­ous mar­gins from groups who are the most un­easy about these cul­tur­al changes: older, blue-col­lar, non­urb­an, and re­li­gious whites. By fiercely res­ist­ing these trends—on is­sues from im­mig­ra­tion to gay mar­riage—Re­pub­lic­ans have es­tab­lished un­chal­lenged con­trol over 20 states Green­berg de­scribes as the “con­ser­vat­ive heart­land.” But in his most pro­voc­at­ive ar­gu­ment, Green­berg main­tains that this very suc­cess threatens the GOP with a “death spir­al” in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions be­cause “the battle for tra­di­tion­al val­ues … only fur­ther ali­en­ate[s] the Re­pub­lic­ans from the bur­geon­ing new elect­or­ate.”

Green­berg sees a struc­tur­al prob­lem for Demo­crats, too. Their dom­in­ance of cul­tur­ally lib­er­al pop­u­la­tion cen­ters al­lows them to win pres­id­en­tial (and most mu­ni­cip­al) races. But they can’t suf­fi­ciently ex­pand their geo­graph­ic­al reach in con­gres­sion­al and state elec­tions without de­vel­op­ing more com­pel­ling solu­tions to the eco­nom­ic strains bat­ter­ing fam­il­ies, par­tic­u­larly those without ad­vanced edu­ca­tion.

That’s far easi­er said than done. Green­berg pre­scribes an agenda of eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism, polit­ic­al re­form, and help for work­ing par­ents. But white work­ing-class sus­pi­cion of Demo­crat­ic pri­or­it­ies runs deep. While party strategists like Green­berg long hoped that health re­form would con­vince work­ing-class whites that gov­ern­ment could be­ne­fit them, polls show they mostly view it as a wel­fare pro­gram for the poor. The Demo­crats’ con­sist­ent move­ment to­ward the left on so­cial is­sues com­pounds their prob­lems in more cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive (and pre­dom­in­antly white) ex­urb­an and rur­al com­munit­ies. The com­bined res­ult is a sys­tem­ic Demo­crat­ic de­cline bey­ond the bound­ar­ies of cos­mo­pol­it­an urb­an cen­ters that now tilts both the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives and state le­gis­latures, even in many swing states, to­ward the GOP.

As long as Re­pub­lic­ans res­ist Amer­ica’s demo­graph­ic trans­form­a­tion, Green­berg is right to be­lieve that Demo­crats will re­main favored in most pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. And he’s also right that, just as in the late 19th cen­tury, the policy in­nov­a­tions that cit­ies are pur­su­ing (on is­sues like uni­ver­sal preschool) will provide a policy mod­el for Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ents to come.

But even if Demo­crats can hold the White House in 2016, they face a long, un­cer­tain climb to reac­quire enough power in Con­gress and the states to broadly ex­pand the ideas they are in­cub­at­ing in the cit­ies. As the na­tion ca­reens through the tu­mul­tu­ous cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic trans­itions Green­berg so deftly de­scribes, it seems more likely to con­tin­ue to di­vide au­thor­ity than to em­power either party to im­pose its pre­ferred vis­ion of Amer­ica’s next chapter.



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