We hope the elegant simplicity of Lord Acton’s most celebrated statement whispers in the inner inner ears of the Obama White House and the Democratic leadership right now, as a new salvo of scholarly studies suggests, with exhaustive statistical evidence, that the Democrats might actually realize what the Republicans could only dream of: a permanent political majority.
Thomas B. Edsall made the case today in The Huffington Post:
“A growing number of political scientists, analysts and strategists are making the case for a realignment of political power in the U.S. to a new Democratic majority based on two trends: 1) the increasing numbers of black and Hispanic voters, and 2) a decisive shift away from the Republican Party by the suburban and well-educated constituencies that once formed the backbone of the GOP.”
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Edsall’s persuasive story and analysis distill the recent findings of three political scholars: Ruy Texiera of the Center for American Progress, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, and John Judis of The New Republic.
Texeira makes his case in his March research paper for the Center:
”[A] new progressive America has emerged with a new demography, a new geography, and a new agenda.
The new demography refers to the array of growing demographic groups that have aligned themselves with progressives and swelled their ranks. The new geography refers to the close relationship between pro-progressive political shifts and dynamic growth areas across the country, particularly within contested states. The new agenda is the current tilt of the public toward progressive ideas and policy priorities—a tilt that is being accentuated by the strong support for this agenda among growing demographic groups.”
Abramowitz, in an April research paper, makes a similarly conclusive case:
“Without question, the most important change in the composition of the American electorate over the past several decades has been a steady increase in the proportion of nonwhite voters. This trend has been evident for at least 50 years but it has accelerated in the last quarter century.
It is a result of increased immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America, higher birth rates among minority groups, and increased registration and turnout among African-Americans, Hispanics, and other nonwhite citizens. Moreover, this shift is almost certain to continue for the foreseeable future based on generational differences in the racial and ethnic composition of the current electorate and Census Bureau projections of the racial and ethnic makeup of the American population between now and 2050.”
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The problem for Republicans may not be repaired for awhile. Texiera told Edsall:
“The problem at the moment is they have nothing much to sell at this point that the rising demographic groups and areas are interested in buying. And they still seem pretty far away from recognizing that fact.”
Frankly, “nothing much to sell” is an overstatement of what’s now at the GOP’s disposal. Outflanked at every turn by a nimble, responsive, proactive and innovative White House, the Republican Party has entrenched itself in the rigid party ideology that’s defined it for generations, retreating to the safe harbor of a reflex to be more opposition than loyal. “Circling the wagons” would be an apt metaphor, if there were any wagons to do it with.
Philosophically scattered to the four winds, the GOP has conceded the philosophical high ground to such incendiary figures as talk-radio windbag Rush Limbaugh and McCarthyite mouthbreathers like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and to GOP talking-points Xerox machines like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck of Fox News. The daily operations of the party are overseen by Michael Steele, the new and largely ineffectual national committee chairman. And national figures like Arizona Sen. John McCain have been reduced to sideshow attractions, with McCain (a frequent guest on Leno and Letterman) apparently seeking to take over where Larry ‘Bud’ Melman left off.
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It’s high cotton for the Democrats. But the prospect of seemingly endless political prospects can give rise to some dangerous thinking. It was Karl Rove, the Bush chief strategist, who once advanced the idea of a “permanent Republican majority.”
Judis told Edsall: “The only circumstances that could bring back the Republicans is Obama's failure to stem the recession. Obama does have to succeed, and so far, he's pretty much on the right track, and the Republicans are definitely not. That suggests to me that he and the Democrats will be able to solidify their majority in 2010 and 2012,” Judis said. “But again, I don't fully understand what is going on in the world, and events could defy demography.”
The Obama White House gets this. Some have complained that Obama is trying to do too much too soon, missing the need for the urgency. The mess he’s been left to clean up is enough for two administrations; its impact is felt widely enough after eight years, across every stratum of American society, that it just makes sense that the Democrats command a strong wind at their backs — the overwhelming support of the American people.
But, same as it ever was: Winds change direction. The unpredictable is the only predictable. If the Democrats are smart, or at least practical, the only permanent majority they’re focused on is the one they can reliably count on between now and the next election.
That shouldn’t determine their approach to governing, but it must govern their approach to electoral politics. There’s an election next year, and we’re halfway through April already. The Republicans may find the strike zone after all; after generations of relative stasis, the scales might still fall from their eyes about how to reach the people they would govern again, how to evolve as a party.
The Texiera-Judis-Abramowitz studies should be welcome news for the Democratic Party, and a sobering challenge at the same time: While permanence is too much to expect, nothing ensures a lasting political foundation like proven results.
“Republican hegemony is now expected to last for years, maybe decades,” the conservative commentator Fred Barnes crowed in 2004. We know how that turned out. There’s a lesson there. Absolutely.
Image credits: Flag illustration: Noam Fridman for The New York Times. © 2009 The New York Times Company. Chart: Alan Abramowitz, Emory University. Weathervane: www.castaccents.com.