End of the Conservative Ascendency

Who's Coming to the Party

This article originally appeared in the National Journal

An August national survey of nearly 3300 Americans 18-85 years old conducted by research company, Frank N. Magid Associates, details the current composition of two party coalitions that are more distinctive from one another than at any time in the past 50 years, perhaps even since the Great Depression. 

In many democracies political parties represent particular interests: labor or business, specific religions, ethnicities, or regions. In America, with its continental dimensions, varied population, and a constitutional system designed to disperse governing power, political parties are historically and still remain, coalitions of various social groups. No party monopolizes the members of any one demographic and each party contains at least some representation from all segments of the population.

 Once formed, the party coalitions have staying power. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt assembled the New Deal coalition comprised of Southern whites; the Greatest Generation children of eastern and southern European immigrants; white workers; and urban blacks.  This coalition dominated US electoral politics for four decades and restructured public policy domestically, transforming public economic policy from laissez faire to governmental activism, and internationally, moving the nation’s foreign policy from isolationism to interventionism.

As new generations with new concerns emerged in the midst of the racial and lifestyle changes of the 1960s, the New Deal coalition fell apart. It was supplanted by a Republican coalition that increasingly added two former components of the Democratic coalition—the white south and working class whites—to the upper income white residents of suburbs and small towns outside of the South that had been the core of the GOP in the previous era. The new Republican coalition dominated national elections almost as long and shaped public policy almost as profoundly as had the New Deal coalition that it superseded. 

Party coalitions are formed in a nation with a constantly changing economy, political process, and demographic make-up and, consequently, are not permanent. The sharp differences between today’s two party coalitions are portrayed very clearly in the Magid data. 

 The majority of voters who identify with or lean to the Republican Party are males (54%) and members of America’s two oldest generations—Baby Boomers, those in their 50s to mid-60s, and Silents or seniors--who together comprise 53% of Republicans. The GOP coalition is almost entirely white (81%). It is disproportionately Southern (38% of all Republicans and 41% of strong Republican identifiers) and resides in above average numbers in small towns and rural areas (40%). Two-thirds of Republicans are married and three-quarters are Christian, while only 7% are unaffiliated with any faith. A third of all Republican identifiers and 42% of strong Republicans attend religious services at least weekly. And, not surprisingly, 56% of all Republicans and 68% of strong Republican identifiers are self-professed conservatives. 

The Democratic coalition is far different. A majority of Democratic identifiers are women (53%) and from the country’s two youngest generations—Millennials, voters in their 20s, and Gen-X’ers, people in their 30s and 40s, who in total make up 57% of Democrats. Forty-one percent of all Democrats and 45% of strong Democrats are non-white with about equal numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics. Nearly half of Democrats (48%) live in the Northeast and West and a disproportionately large number live in big cities or suburbs (70%). Just half are married. Only 57% are Christian, while about one in five each are either of non-Christian denominations or unaffiliated with any faith. Just 21% of Democrats attend a religious service weekly. Slightly more (24%) never do. The Democratic coalition is, however, more diverse ideologically than the Republican: while a plurality (42%) are either self-identified liberals or progressives, nearly as many (35%) say they are politically moderate. 

 America is undergoing major demographic, economic, and societal changes that have led to this new alignment and will continue to shape the two party coalitions. Some of the change—the Great Recession, the deepest and longest economic downturn since the 1930s--was severe and occurred almost overnight. Other changes, among them the transformation of the nation from a white to non-white majority country, the emergence of America’s largest and most diverse generation, the Millennials, and a makeover of the U.S. economy, are taking place more slowly, but equally profoundly.

In order to hold together and expand their coalitions, both parties will need to formulate a new “civic ethos” that addresses the fundamental question of what the size and scope of government should be in this new era. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney recognize this and used their party’s conventions to articulate distinctly different visions and values that they believe should shape and guide America’s politics and government in the coming years. The party that enunciates this new civic ethos in a way which enables it to build a majority electoral and governing  coalition is likely  to dominate U.S. politics for the next four or five decades. 


Six Lessons of the Brown Upset

Yesterday, Massachusetts voters, Democratic by a 3 to 1 margin, elected Republican Scott Brown to fill the seat formerly occuped by Democratic lion, Ted Kennedy.  It is truly a shot from the Bay State heard round the world.  However, it need not spell disaster for the Obama Administration providing the Administration interprets it correctly.  Here are six lessons from the vote that the Administration absolutely needs to internalize.

It was not about Martha Coakley.  Contrary to some spin that is emerging Martha Coakley was a strong candidate and the real deal for Massachusetts Democrats.  Her mother was one of twelve in a working class Irish family.  One of five, herself, she worked her way up to Attorney General and handily beat Rep. Michael Capuano in a hotly election that hyperpolitical Massachusetts pols had been anticipating for years.  She was coasting to a landslide right up to the Senate Vote on healthcare.

It was and is about the Healthcare bill.  Brown managed to make the race a referendum on the health care bill and Democratic governance and Coakely gave the impression she would go along with the leadership. The American people--as this vote should make clear--don't like the health care bill.  They don't like the process and they don't like its content.   Had Democrats crafted a bill able to get at least a few Republican votes, one that cured the obvious problems of portability and exclusion of pre-existing conditions, had no individual mandate and did not tax health care while claiming to lower its cost, neither Coakley nor the President would have seen their poll numbers collapse. 

It was about the voters.  Scott Brown won not because of anything elected officials--or Fox Commentators did or said but because of how voters feel.   The voters, genuinely angry, are the obstacle to health care and the Administration's course, not the machinations of any politicians, other intermediaries or people in the media.  It is the people who are unhappy about this health care bill and what it signifies.  Democrats need to face this fundamental truth.

It was about Democratics and Independents, not Republicans.  In a state with 3 to 1 Democratic registration, Scott's win, moreover, had nothing to do with Republicans who were practically bystanders.  The revolt was by Democrats and, to a degree, Independents in this bluest of blue states.  Democratic voters did publicly what Democratic legislators have only been willing to do privately, voice their disatisfaction with a bill they don't like.   The problem for the Administration and Congress is not with Republicans, but with their own voters.

If you go partisan, you better get it right.  The partisan strategy has a fatal flaw--you are on the hook for every letter and word of a law and can't blame it on compromise with the other party.  If the Democrats had managed to get at least one Republican vote, voters might not have blamed them exclusively for provisions of the bill they don't like.  Instead, acting alone, they have come up with two bills that fail to satisfy.  The partisan strategy exposes a party that employs it to total responsibility for what they produce. 

Finally, it's about the economy.  As Simon argues below, the single greatest problem facing America today has to do with jobs and wages and people want their leaders to solve it.  To justify so much effort on health care as opposed to the economy in a time of double digit unemployment, the Administration has tried to argue that high health care costs are hurting the economy and hurting family budgets.  In fact, health care costs have little to do with the cyclical state of the economy that (as one learns in Economics 101) determines employment and economic well being.  The public quite simply isn't buying.  The second argument that health care costs eat into budgets is true.  However, few Americans believe either the House or Senate bill will address this.  Further, Americans want to choose their level of health care, more, less or none (unless it is free)--the reason they oppose elements of this plan like the health care tax and individual mandate.  Most Americans view the health care debate as a distraction from what they want right now: jobs and a return to prosperity.

Will the Democrats absorb these lessons?  That is the crucial question.  The time to change course is now, not in November.  The Democrats should pass a stripped down health care bill as quickly as possible, if they can, that does what the people want--provides portability and ends exlusions, shorn of complex and controversial provisions that people don't like.  The Administration should then focus on that elements of the economy people want fixed--more jobs with rising wages  The latter isn't easy.  But it is critical.  On the two legislative items next on the agenda, financial reform and energy, Democrats ned to reach across the aisle to find Republican votes. 

True, Republicans will probably resist these changes so as to keep the anti-Democrat momentum alive.  That only proves how important changing course now really is.  The alternative, staying the course that led to last night's election shock will only lead to more elections like that in Massachusetts this fall.





The Democrats’ Surprising Emergence as a Real Governing Party

The Republican Party is reconstituting itself in ways that are reshaping the Democrats into a genuine governing party.    The tip-off is the GOP's growing inability - and that's what it is -- to engage with the President and congressional majority in any meaningful give-and-take about the deepest recession since the early 1930s or some form health care reform.  So, despite the Democrats' incorrigible factionalism, they find themselves acting as a true governing party, in which new national directions are determined by negotiations within the party.   That gives their divisions a different character: The conservative-to-moderate minority inside the Party has assumed the role which used to belong to mainstream Republicans - a loyal opposition calling for spending restraint, opposing tax increases, and remaining skeptical of bigger government.    For all this, the Democrats have to thank the Republicans, whose shrinking base seems intent on remaking the party into a much more conservative, populist movement with little interest in governing.

The eclipse of traditional Republicans, evident in the sharp rightward turn of the House Republican caucus and most of the Bush presidency after year one, left the Party unable to use its hold on Congress and the White House to score real achievements even before their inability to respond effectively to the economic implosions of 2007 and 2008.  Those failures not only made Barack Obama's ascendance possible; they also weakened the political allegiance of millions of mainstream Republicans, leaving the GOP base largely in the hands of hard-right conservatives.  John McCain's nomination by happenstance briefly obscured the new character of the GOP base, but only until he chose Sarah Palin.  Far from a vetting mistake, Ms. Palin's nomination reflected an acute understanding of just how critical right-wing foot soldiers have become to the GOP's electoral prospects.  Their enthusiasm wasn't enough to hold the White House; but with the Democrats choosing an African American newcomer to national politics, it was sufficient to run a credible race. 

What's new is the emergence of an even more extreme, grassroots movement led not by elected Republicans, but by such media figures as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  Their interest lies not in governing but in ratings, which in turn have responded powerfully to their version of attack politics.  The extreme nature of this populist movement is evident in their often, truly irrational reactions to the Obama presidency.  This actually began during the campaign with fantastic notions about Mr. Obama's alleged foreign birth, which cast his potential presidency as illegal and now might be said to cast normal negotiations with his administration as almost subversive. This extremism was even more obvious in the boisterous attacks at health care forums across the country, even featuring armed critics appearing at presidential events.

Traditional Republicans still dominate the corps of elected GOP offices; but most GOP Senators and governors apparently now believe that the movement has become too strong inside the Party to resist.  (Translation: They're afraid the movement could challenge them in primaries - and either win or weaken them enough to cost them re-election.)  That's most evident  in their extraordinary gyrations to appease the movement -- Chuck Grassley endorsing the notion that Obama believes in death panels,  for example, and John McCain rejecting part of the Democrats' health care plan that were drawn from his own proposals.  And those are only a few examples of this groveling.  There was also Bobby Jindal's attacks on federal assistance for Louisiana Katrina victims, loud public threats by other GOP governors to refuse federal stimulus assistance (they all quietly took the money), and Tim Pawlenty's recent quasi-secessionist threat to wall off Minnesota from new, Obama-inspired health care spending and reforms. 

How utterly different this movement is from the Reaganism its followers sometimes pay lip service to.  The Reagan White House, intent on actually governing, pursued countless compromises with Democrats and ultimately jettisoned cardinal conservative principles by raising taxes and negotiating with the Soviets to reduce nuclear arms. The new movement-driven GOP draws its character instead from the moralistic and nativist populism of Pat Buchanan's challenge to George H.W. Bush's traditional Republicanism and from the post-9/11 exclusionary politics of the second Bush's presidency.  The result is a GOP defined increasingly by a media-powered, outsider movement uninterested in governing and powerful enough to cow just about every Republican in Congress.

That leaves the Democrats in the position of governing party, with its own moderates assuming the role of a responsible opposition negotiating and compromising with the President and Democratic congressional leaders.  And like Reagan and Clinton, the President is prepared to compromise too - for example, dedicating one-third of his stimulus to tax cuts which he probably knew would have little stimulus effect, and this week telegraphing his readiness to walk away from any element of health care reform that could cost him the Democratic votes he needs to enact it.

This is all very good news for professional Democrats, but maybe not for the rest of us.   Almost all far-reaching reforms - Social Security, the nuclear test ban treaty, Medicare, the tax reforms of the 1980s, the WTO's transformation of the rules of international trade, and even the brief balanced budget - have been bipartisan achievements.   And today, Democrats cannot speak for the tens of millions of moderate conservatives who built mainstream Republicanism -- although the President actually may have ambitions to do so.   So with the far-right movement's new power inside the GOP, moderate Democrats are all that's left to keep a real debate going.

Newt Gingrich Rips Off Ross Douthat, Messes with California

Is it just me, or does this column from today's FT by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sound an awful lot like the one written a month ago by New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat?

Gingrich, like Douthat, uses California as a model for how states shouldn't manage their finances, and, like Douthat, uses Texas as a model for economic and budgeting brilliance. The only difference is that Gingrich avoids the explicit liberal and conservative name-calling that is a hallmark of Douthat's column, but even a cursory read uncovers the implicit partisanship.


California, like so many other states facing budget shortfalls, is a victim of decades of reckless spending and unsustainable budgets. It was not always like this. The Golden State’s government services and public institutions – including its prisons – were models for the country in the 1960s and 1970s. But Californian policymakers stopped planning for the future. The state’s population ballooned from 23m in 1980 to 36m in 2008, and demographics shifted dramatically due to immigration. Roads, schools and prisons built with 1975 in mind are now crumbling and overcrowded.

The narrative that Gingrich again tries to push, that always blue California is about to fall into the Pacific because it loves lefty agendas that offer profligate spending, is historically illiterate. The "Californian policymakers" about which Gingrich writes, who took the top notch services and schools California had in the 1970s and ruined them, were the conservatives who started the Reagan Revolution and the national tax revolt. They passed Proposition 13, essentially destroying the California property tax base.

I'm not going to go into the conservative destruction of California too much more; I wrote plenty about this ridiculous meme when Douthat published a column from the same set of talking points. On a serious policy note, let's just say that I agree with Gingrich that California "needs to rethink its long-term budgeting strategies," but that starts with a sensible tax code that generates the kind of revenue Californians demand, not by messing with the extremely flawed Texas model.

Thursday @ Noon: Watch or Attend "The Dawn of A New Politics"

Plans for lunch on Thursday? Stop by NDN, either in person or online, this Thursday, August 27th and catch Simon's monthly presentation of "The Dawn of a New Politics." We'll start serving lunch around noon here in our offices located just a few blocks from the White House and go live with the presentation at 12:15 pm. But if you aren't in DC or can't pull yourself away from your desk, you can always watch the presentation live online. You can even submit questions and Simon will answer them in real time.

As always, these events are free and open to the public. But be sure to RSVP if you plan to come to NDN for the presentation. (No need to RSVP if you're going to watch online.)

See you on Thursday!

Check out these recent essays from Simon to preview some of his arguments in the Dawn of a New Politics:

Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century. July 24, 2009, Demos. An essay which ran as part of a leading British think tank's series of essays on the future of center-left politics.

Obama: No Realist He. June 16, 2009, Huffington Post. Simon offers some thoughts about Obama's global brand in the early days of the Iranian uprising.  The essay drew many comments in its more than 24 hours on the front page of Huffington Post.

Making the Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Why We Need it This Year. April 30, 2009, Huffington Post. Simon lays out 7 reasons why Congress should tackle immigration reform this year, or early next.

The Long Road Back. November 18, 2008, NDN Blog. Following the Democratic Party's electoral victories in 2008, Simon wrote this piece to offer some thoughts about the disconnect between the modern GOP leadership and modern Americans.

On Obama, Race and the End of the Southern Strategy. January 4, 2008, NDN Blog. At the height of the 2008 primary season, Simon wrote this essay reflecting on the composition of the field of contendors for the Democratic Party's nomination and how meaningful nominating (then Senator) Obama would be for liberating America from the pernicious era of the Southern Strategy.

The 50 Year Strategy. November/December 2007, Mother Jones. Simon and Peter Leyden offer a landmark vision for how progressives can win and prosper for many years to come.

Have Patience: Republicans Are Working Their Way through the Five Stages of Grieving

In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published a groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, suggesting that people facing death went through five emotional stages before they could accept their fate.  While never proven by subsequent studies, the five stages of grief have entered the realm of conventional wisdom and are often cited to explain the behavior of groups, as well as individuals, facing a life-threatening crisis.  The actions of Republicans, and their conservative supporters, in attempting to disrupt Town Hall discussions of President Obama's health care reform proposal suggests that the concept is alive and kicking in politics as well.

According to Kubler-Ross, the first stage in dealing with impending doom is to deny it's happening. We witnessed this behavior in the immediate aftermath of the Democrats' overwhelming victory last November. Republicans reacted almost identically to the way Democrats did after Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980. The election results were attributed to poor campaign tactics by the loser, or the failure to develop a winning message by the campaign's media strategists, or a plot by reporters to ensure the victory of the winning candidate, if for no other reason than to give them something new to write about.  In the classic words of death deniers throughout history, Republican leaders continued to insist well into January 2009 that they "felt fine" and the results had  "nothing to do with me" -- the Republican party and its message. The only thing that was about to die, we heard GOP leaders like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele assert, was the muddled attempt at moderation by Senator John McCain and the failure of their party to adhere to its most conservative principles.

The second stage of grief according to On Death and Dying is anger, and this summer the Republican Party and its minions have clearly moved beyond denial to anger.  Enraged mobs of extraordinarily well informed "average" citizens have descended on Democratic Town Hall meetings to demand that their Representative not follow Speaker Nancy Pelosi's party line and instead vote against specific provisions of health care legislation that would, for instance, incent the writing of living wills, or substitute the judgment of health insurers for that of objective government entities on what treatments would be allowed based on their cost effectiveness.  Above all the evil of government involvement in the health care system is to be labeled for what it is - the work of the devil, who is clearly a socialist, through his agents in the U.S. Congress. The fact that many of those most vociferous in their opposition to government supported health care are carrying their sacred Medicare card in their wallet is only ironic if you ignore the degree to which anger and denial are related emotions. In fact, Kubler-Ross points out that people often oscillate between those stages before moving on.  This makes the denial of Barack Obama's Hawaiian birth by many of these same angry protesters understandable, if not any more credible.

So what can the country expect once the Republican Party moves on to the next stage of dealing with the demise of its former electoral dominance?  According to Kubler-Ross, the third stage of grief is "bargaining." Here the individual or group hopes that it can at least postpone or delay death by promising to reform or turn over a new leaf. There are already early signs in the writings of Peggy Noonan, President Reagan's speechwriter, that this next stage is coming to the fore.  She suggests that if only President Obama would rethink the broad scope of his proposals and join in true bipartisan negotiations, Republicans in Congress would support a bill that leaves most of today's health care system in place but without the nasty practices of denying health coverage to those with pre-existing conditions or canceling people's insurance at the first sign that they might actually need medical treatment. The country can expect to hear more such offers from Republicans this fall when Congress returns and the real bargaining over the scope of health care reform takes place. But the party's past misdeeds in building a majority coalition based on the racist premise of its Southern Strategy or its failure to appeal to the civic beliefs and attitudes of the emerging Millennial Generation or its most recent decision to sacrifice its future among Hispanics by voting against the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, make any such offer a fool's bargain. The demise of GOP dominance is inevitable and Democrats should take no part in postponing the inevitable.

If congressional Democrats have the courage to use their majority to pass health care legislation and then go to the voters with an economy on the mend, the 2010 elections should serve to move Republicans to the fourth stage of grief-depression. Suffering from a series of unexpected and unexplainable defeats, Republicans are likely to go off on a prolonged period of silence, punctuated by bouts of crying over just how unfair politics has become. Kubler-Ross suggests that it is important not to try and cheer up the person in this stage of grief, but to let the individual work his or her way through the inevitable depression on their own. That way, her book says, the dying can finally come to the final stage of grief-acceptance. 

This stage represents the end of the struggle and a willingness to accept one's fate. The Republican Party as we have known it since 1968 will die for lack of political support. It may not accept that fate until after President Obama's re-election, by a landslide, in 2012 just as the Democratic Party's New Deal liberals did not accept their fate until after Ronald Reagan's complete demolition of Walter Mondale's candidacy in 1984. Still the end is inevitable, as many of today's leading thinkers in the GOP are beginning to realize.

But Republicans can take heart in what Democrats were able to do after reaching the clarity of mind that comes with accepting one's fate.  By recognizing the death of its old ideas and rethinking their approach to the electorate after their landslide defeat in 1984, the Democrats eventually found a new road to victory-tentatively in 1992 with Bill Clinton and then more confidently with Obama's victory in 2008. At that rate the GOP only has to wait until 2020 to have its next real shot at winning the presidency.  If Republicans want to get to that goal sooner, psychologists might suggest that they move quickly out if their  "summer of anger" phase, don't bargain or obstruct too much over health care or anything else when Congress returns, and get ready for a good cry in 2010.  Even better, such a course of therapy will improve the rest of the country's mental health as well.

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