Keeping Up With A Changing America: It’s Not Your Father’s Democratic Party.

With the announced retirement of four Democratic Representatives during the past week, the continued inability of the Senate to pass healthcare reform legislation, an economy that, if it is no longer declining, seems at best to be moving sideways, and a President who remains personally appealing, but whose job performance numbers continue a slow downward drift, this is indeed a season of discontent for D.C. Democrats. Yet the situation is not completely bleak for the Democratic Party now and, most certainly, in the future.

In spite of their current difficulties, the Democrats remain America's majority party. While the numbers have fluctuated within normal statistical margins, throughout 2009 Pew research has indicated that the Democrats have held around a 1.5:1 party identification lead over the Republicans. During the course of the year between 48% and 53% of Americans identified with or leaned to the Democrats while between 35% and 40% identified with or leaned to the GOP. This Democratic advantage is significantly higher than it was in the Clinton years of the 1990s, when the Democrats' lead averaged about five percentage points. It is particularly large compared with 1994, the year the Democrats lost their congressional majority to the Gingrich revolution, when the two parties were tied in party ID at 44% each.

In fact, the competitive position of the Democratic Party now approaches what it was in the mid-1960s, when it was the unquestioned dominant force in U.S. politics. In a 1964 Gallup survey, conducted just prior to Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, the Democrats' party identification lead over the GOP was 49% to 24%. (Gallup did not ask the 24% of its respondents who said they were independents to which party they leaned).

Underpinning this rebound in the Democratic Party's competitive position is a major generational and ethnic transformation of America. It is a very different looking America now than it was in 1964. Borrowing a phrase from Fareed Zakaria, we have referred to this change in the U.S. population as the "Rise of the Rest" in America. Just as America has changed during the past four decades, so have the Democrats. It is a very different looking Democratic Party now than it was in 1964 and, as a result, the Democrats have already taken far better advantage of the Rise of the Rest than the Republicans.  Most important, the Democratic Party is far better positioned to benefit in the future from the opportunities presented by a changing nation.

  • Ethnic and Racial Changes. In 1964, about ninety percent of Americans were white as were more than eight in ten (82%) of those who identified as Democrats. Of the one in ten Americans and the one in five Democrats who were not white, all were labeled "Negroes" in the Gallup survey. Five decades ago, Latinos and Asians, to say nothing of persons of mixed race, were a negligible part of the electorate and not separately designated in the survey research of the era. Today the "minority" contribution to America's population has nearly tripled and non-Caucasians comprise about four in ten Democratic identifiers. And, this is only a harbinger of things to come: according to the Census Bureau, by mid-century the United States will become a "majority-minority" country. Within an increasingly diverse nation, however, now, as in the mid-1960s, more than 95% of Republicans are white.
  • Changes in Gender Roles. In 1964, only a minority of women worked outside the home and almost all women married by the time they were 25. Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique just a year earlier and "women's liberation" would have been an unknown and meaningless term to almost everyone in America, male or female, other than perhaps Ms. Friedan herself. The National Organization for Women was not founded for another two years. In that societal environment, there was no gender gap in U.S. politics. The party identifications of both women and women were essentially identical, wives and husbands almost invariably identified with the same political party, and both party's identifiers were evenly divided between the sexes. Now women, many of whom are unmarried or minority, comprise more than six in ten Democratic identifiers. By contrast, a slight majority of Republicans are males. Virtually all of the women who do call themselves Republican are white and most are married.
  • Changes in Educational Attainment. In 1964, nearly half of the electorate had only high school education. An additional third had gone no further than grade school. Just one in five were college graduates. There were significant differences in the educational attainment of Democratic and Republican identifiers. Almost nine in ten Democrats (86%) had no more than high school education. By contrast, twice the percentage of Republicans as Democrats were college graduates (30% vs. 14%). Now, a majority of Americans has at least some college exposure and nearly three in ten are college graduates. The educational gap between the two parties has virtually disappeared. While, as in 1964, about 30% of Republican identifiers are college graduates, the percentage of college graduates among Democrats has doubled from 14% to 28%.
  • The Rise of New Generations. Most of the generational archetypes that comprise the American electorate today had not yet entered it in 1964. The oldest Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) would not reach voting age-at that time, 21-until 1968 and no one from Generation X (born 1965-1981) and the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) had even been born. The youngest voters of 1964 were members of the Silent Generation (born 1925-1945). But, the 1964 electorate was really dominated by the GI Generation (born 1901-1924), the generation of the New Deal and World War II, and the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900), that primarily came of age around World War I and in the 1920s. The GI Generation formed the core of the New Deal coalition that elected Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and was about to return Lyndon Johnson to the White House with a record margin. About half of the 1964 Democrats were members of the GI Generation, who identified with that party by a 2:1 margin. The Lost Generation was the last of the generations that allowed the GOP to dominate American politics from the Civil War to the Great Depression and half of 1964 Republican identifiers were from what was by then a generation of senior citizens.

Today, with a different generational configuration than in 1964, the GOP still skews relatively old and the Democrats young.  Virtually all of the Lost Generation and most of the GI Generation has died. The youngest voters of 1964, the Silent Generation, are the seniors of today and the oldest Baby Boomers, none of whom were of voting age in 1964, are now reaching retirement age. Generation X and increasingly the Millennial Generation have joined the electorate.

But it isn't simply chronological age difference that will work to the Democrats' advantage. Young people are not always Democrats. When the Baby Boomers were young, and even more so today, they were divided between the two parties along ideological and gender lines. The oldest Gen Xers came of age just in time to vote in very large numbers for Ronald Reagan and remain the most staunchly Republican age cohort in the electorate.

Millennials are of the same "civic" generational archetype as was the GI Generation. Similar to other civic generations, Millennials are group-oriented institution builders who tend to favor societal or governmental responses to the nation's problems. Like the GI Generation before them, Millennials overwhelmingly identify as Democrats over Republicans (58% vs. 19% in a November 2009 Pew survey). 

In 2008, only 40% of Millennials were eligible to vote and they comprised about 17% of the American electorate. When Barack Obama runs for reelection in 2012, about 60% of Millennials will be of voting age and one in four voters will be a Millennial. By 2020, when virtually all of them will be able to vote, more than a third of the electorate (36%) will come from the Millennial Generation. As the largest (95 million) and most ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history-40% of Millennials are non-white-this should benefit the Democratic Party at least as much over the next three or four decades as did the attachment of the GI Generation to the Democrats in the middle-third of the 20th Century.

The United States is a changed and continually changing nation. Taken together, these changes have made America a more diverse and more open nation. To a large extent these changes occurred because of Democratic efforts over Republican opposition. This should let the Democratic Party face the future with confidence and courage rather than the fear and paralysis that seems to be gripping it a year after the election of Barack Obama and a large congressional majority. But, the Democratic Party's opportunities cannot be taken for granted. The first step in taking advantage of those opportunities should be looking toward the America that is and will be and not looking back to the country that was.