Demographics is not enough. For years now, it’s been an article of faith among Democrats that the future belongs to them, thanks to the country’s changing demographic mix. The rising percentage of voters who are women, Americans of color and especially Latinos were always about to turn the country deep “blue.” I never believed this – largely because I have been hearing it since 1971. That was the year the 26th Amendment passed, lowering the voting age to 18. Democrats had already been the dominant political party since the 1930s, and now with young people getting the vote, a permanent Democratic majority was guaranteed, right?
The future failed to arrive on time again this fall. Democrats lost all over America, and they lost big, by much wider margins than predicted. They lost statewide races in the Midwest where Democrats have won repeatedly in presidential elections for more than 20 years. They lost in races against radical right-wing Republicans they might have been expected to defeat, like Sam Brownback in Kansas and Paul R. LePage in Maine.
Nor was this month’s election an anomaly. It was the third disastrous midterm for Democrats in the past 20 years. The party suffered similar or even worse losses at all levels of government in 1994 and 2010, along with a lesser catastrophe in 2002. It now holds fewer elected offices at both the federal and state level than it has at any time since the 1920s.
Democratic tacticians maintain that things will be different in 2016, when their base will go to the polls in greater numbers, and when demographics – again – will render the country less white, more Latin and more female. They blame this latest meltdown on terrible candidates, administration flubs and foreign crises. They argue that voters favored Democratic positions in state referendums, from a higher minimum wage to abortion rights and legal marijuana.
In other words: “Problem, what problem? We Democrats are in great shape, if only we could turn out our base, find good candidates, deal with crises efficiently or get people to vote our way even when they agree with us.”
The accepted wisdom is that the Democrats hamstrung themselves many years ago, when they passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and thereby lost the Solid South forever. It’s a nice story, one that allows everyone to feel good: liberal Democrats, who would like to believe their party was martyred in as noble a cause as there could be, and Clinton-Obama Democrats, who have long cited it as proof that the party needs to move to the right and start appealing to conservative Southern whites again.
The only trouble is, it’s not true.
Yes, the South was never “solid” for Democrats again after 1964, and the party lost five of six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988. But at every other level of government, Democrats remained highly competitive, even dominant, in the South for years to come.
Going into the 1994 elections, Democrats still held 16 of the 30 U.S. Senate seats from the 15 Southern states (which I define as the 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia), and nearly two-thirds of the Southern seats in the House. On a state level, the figures were even more one-sided. Democrats held 12 of the 15 Southern governorships and 29 of the 30 state legislative chambers.
It’s only in the last two decades that these numbers flipped. In the next Congress, fewer than a third of the South’s representatives will be Democrats; if Mary Landrieu loses her seat in Louisiana, there will be seven Democratic senators in the region. Democrats there will hold four governorships and both chambers in just one legislature.
Democrats did lose the South, but they didn’t lose it because of the Civil Rights Act. Instead of waiting for all those mean old Southern white men to die, Democrats might be better off asking themselves why so many of them were still voting Democratic just 22 years ago.
Nor have Democratic losses in the South been much worse than they were all over the country. To give just one egregious example, Democrats lost the Massachusetts Statehouse this year – for the fifth time in their last seven tries.
This is a historic shift. From 1931 to 1995, Democrats held majorities in the House of Representatives for all but four years and in the Senate for all but 12. On the state level, they held their own with (or outnumbered) Republicans in governorships and state legislatures for the vast majority of those 64 years.
It’s been a completely different story since 1994, however, and by next January, Democrats will not only be in the minority in both houses of Congress, they will likely hold 18 statehouses and both chambers in only 11 state legislatures.
Suffering a series of historic defeats is not a sign that you’re winning. The Democrats no longer please anyone much, neither their depressed base nor the less committed. Meanwhile, Republicans still manage to portray them as wild-eyed socialists. The party does take the White House more often now, but at the state level, and in the midterms, when a third of the senators and all representatives are up for election, the party has been hollowed out.
The trouble was that the Clinton-Obama strategy got things upside down from the start. Why try to cast yourselves as economic moderates and cultural progressives when the disparate elements of your coalition have little in common culturally, but are all struggling with the same wretched economy?
The Democratic Party that shot to some 50 years of overwhelming electoral success beginning in the 1930s was helped in part by changing demographics. But many of those who built what George Packer calls “the Roosevelt Republic” started out as Republicans. Or “Bull Moose” Progressives, or Populists, or Socialists, or Communists, or simply the politically alienated and disengaged.
The people who built that party rallied around big things – and usually big things they had come up with themselves. The reforms that Democrats embraced were almost all culled from grass-roots movements, and they were big enough to erase the lines between cultural and economic issues.
Electrifying large swaths of the South and West changed how people lived and worked every day, how their cities grew and their farms survived. The GI Bill, to take another of a thousand examples, was intended to reward veterans and stave off a postwar depression, but it also opened up new possibilities of learning and travel (and therefore work) for millions of young men. This blurring of the cultural and the economic includes the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, which threw the weight of the federal government behind the struggle of African-Americans to go about their daily lives with hope and dignity and which did not alienate every white person in the South.
Today’s Democratic Party, with its finely calibrated, top-down fixes, does not offer anything so transformative. It seems scared of its own shadow, which is probably why it keeps reassuring itself that its triumph is inevitable. It needs instead to fully acknowledge just how devastating the recession was for working people everywhere in America, and what a generation of largely flat wages did to their aspirations even before that. It needs to take on hard fights, even against powerful forces, like pharmaceutical and insurance companies that presume to tell us the limits of what our health care can be or energy companies that would tell us what the world’s climate can endure. It means carving out a place of respect for working men and women in our globalized, finance-driven world.
Invite us to dream a little. You don’t build an enduring coalition out of who Americans are. You do it out of what we can be.
The New York Times
Kevin Baker is an essayist and the author, most recently, of the historical novel “The Big Crowd.”