Party Hardy

Twenty-eight years later, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira have published a new book with the same title arguing, essentially, the same thing. In their version of The Emerging Democratic Majority, the authors argue that since 1992, American politics has been in transition from an old order of Republican dominance–which began with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and culminated in Ronald Reagan’s in 1980–to an emerging Democratic majority built around professionals, non-whites, women, and the white working class. Their home is familiar to anyone who watched the presidential returns in 2000: the “blue” states of the Northeast, West Coast, and upper Midwest. But in contrast to the New Left liberalism of the McGoverniks, their politics is what Judis and Teixeira call “progressive centrism.” The Emerging Democratic Majority supports a strong social safety net, yet retains a healthy respect for the free market, fiscal discipline, and incremental change. They favor an enabling, not mandating, federal government. They are tolerant of “alternative lifestyles” and embrace minorities, yet are opposed to quotas and reparations. They don’t belong to McGovern’s Democratic Party, or even Hubert Humphrey’s, but to Bill Clinton’s. And no matter what grand plans Karl Rove has for the GOP, it is Clinton’s Democratic Party that will dominate the next political era. In other words, Judis and Teixeira argue, Lanny Davis was right–just 30 years too early.

Having followed both Judis’s and Teixeira’s work over the past decade, I picked up this book expecting another ideological salvo in the on-going factional wars within the Democratic Party. Teixeira and Judis have usually been aligned with labor-liberal intellectuals such as Jeff Faux, Stanley Greenberg, and Robert Kuttner, all of whom bemoaned Clinton’s courting of suburbanites at the expense of the white working class and criticized his administration’s fidelity to an agenda of fiscal discipline and leaner government at the expense of large social projects such as national health care.

But Judis and Teixeira seem to have undergone a conversion on the road to a Democratic majority. They have delivered a balanced, accessible volume that offers a well-reasoned and well-supported analysis. While the root of their argument is not entirely novel–it’s been a staple of New Democratic thinking since the mid-1990s–Judis and Teixeira move the discussion forward as much through the new data, fresh arguments, and useful critiques of both sides as by the fact that it is they who are providing them. Put simply, after eight years of Clinton, the programmatic differences between most New and Old Democrats are not that vast. And with this growing consensus comes the potential for Democratic dominance as demographic and cultural trends move the electorate toward a Democratic Party that has not only moved toward them, but also may be prepared for their arrival.

But before Democrats cue up “Happy Days Are Here Again,” they’ll have to grapple with that part of the McGovern legacy which Judis and Teixeira virtually ignore: the party’s fractiousness. Putting these disparate social groups into a coalition is no easy task. Indeed, when it comes to putting ideas into action–recruiting candidates, crafting a message, targeting voters, allocating party resources–the gulf between Old and New Democrats is still wide. The challenge for Democrats, then, is no longer getting the party to tack to the winds of change, but to get everyone rowing in the same direction.

The Emerging Democratic Majority is meant to be the 21st century’s answer to Kevin Phillips’s 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, which argued that socially conservative whites were disenchanted with the Democratic Party, creating an electoral opportunity for Nixon and the GOP. Judis and Teixeira hold that America is undergoing an equally profound realignment that, this time around, favors Democrats. The old industrial economy is giving way to a post-industrial one centered on producing ideas and services rather than goods. In this New Economy, there is a growing group of “professionals”–not quite executives and managers, but not the blue-collar workers producing the goods or the entry-level employees serving them, either. This “creative class” includes engineers, scientists, designers, architects, lawyers, teachers, and social workers. And it’s a group that is highly educated, diverse, and–most importantly–was once solidly Republican.

Yet as their ranks have swelled by almost one-third in the 1990s (they now comprise 21 percent of the voting electorate), professionals have come in contact with and been frustrated by authorities in both the private and public sector, forcing them to cede their own standards of quality to market imperatives. (Think of how much doctors hate HMOs, and one can grasp why professionals may no longer feel fidelity to the party of laissez-faire capitalism.) An increasing number of professionals, like teachers, have joined unions, further pushing the group as a whole toward the Democratic Party while transforming the labor movement into one dominated less and less by old-style industrial trades. And by contrast with their GOP forbearers, many professionals were influenced by the environmental and consumer-rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. If Democrats can harness the new professionals as Nixon did disaffect working-class whites, argue Judis and Teixeira, they stand to become “the party of the transition from urban industrialism to a new post-industrial metropolitan order in which men and women play equal roles and in which white America is supplanted by multi-racial, multiethnic America.”

Judis and Teixeira make two important points. First, America’s values have changed since the 1960s. While most Americans were not personally radicalized on college campuses, they were nonetheless affected by the social upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. Thirty years later, the passions of the cultural wars have cooled, and what is left is not conservatism but a broad tolerance for individuals’ private choices. Second, the workforce has changed remarkably. Unionized professionals are not voting Democratic because they are professionals, but because they are unionized (and, increasingly, unionized government employees at that). Yet Judis and Teixeira’s premise is correct: A party organized around industrial workers is as out of place in the 21st century as one organized around free silver. This insight into the transformation of the workforce is not particularly new. New Democrats have been arguing this since the mid-1990s. Yet Judis and Teixeira make a valuable contribution to it by doing the legwork in the census data to offer a more persuasive and powerful way of looking at these post-industrial workers. Unlike the “wired workers” touted by New Democrats, Judis and Teixeira’s term “professionals” distinguishes the educated workers more open to a Democratic message from the more traditional–and solidly Republican–managers and executives.

Meanwhile, as professionals became more Democratic, women entered the workforce and moved into the Democratic camp, bolstering the diminishing loyalty of the white working class. Non-whites–Asians, African-Americans, and Latinos–are almost entirely in the Democratic camp, and with their prospects for growth, Judis and Teixeira see a huge upside for their party.

But politics is about more than just numbers. It’s about addresses, too. And as Democrats learned in 2000, how many votes a candidate gets isn’t all that’s important–it matters where they come from. Where are these elusive voters to be found? Most analysts look at the data and answer with one word: suburbia. But with more than half of Americans living in the suburbs, this answer offers little specificity. Either we need a new question or we need a new answer.

Judis and Teixeira opt for the latter, writing that the new Democratic majority lives in the “ideopolises” of post-industrial America –the metropolitan areas that include suburbs and cities in which ideas and services predominate, and where manufacturing centers on the kind “that applies complex ideas to physical objects,” like pharmaceuticals or software. These areas are chock full of professionals, with minorities filling the low-level service jobs, and both groups are united by a shared urbanity. Ideopolises range from Wisconsin’s Dane County (home of Madison) to Washington’s King County (Seattle) to Silicon Valley to Chicago and its formerly Republican collar counties.

While Republicans, as Karl Rove and conservative journalist Michael Barone contend, have an advantage in “the fastest-growing parts of the United States,” Judis and Teixeira rightly point out that this statistic is not the one that matters. After all, some of the smallest, most rural counties are also the fastest growing (such as Boise County, Idaho, which jumped from 3,500 to 6,700 people in 10 years). What counts, say Judis and Teixeira, are the counties that have the most absolute population growth, and in these counties– such as Arizona’s Maricopa County and Nevada’s Clark County–Democrats are starting to dominate. In addition, as once-rural Republican counties like California’s San Bernardino become part of the ideopolis, they, too, will begin to turn Democratic. The national map may look like a red sea of Republicans, but according to Judis and Teixeira’s calculations, ideopolises have 43.7 percent of the national vote, and are growing at an astronomical rate–23.2 percent over the 1990s. This is driving the blue states ever bluer and pushing marginal Bush states, such as Florida, New Hampshire, and Ohio, into the Democratic majority.

Crucially, the Democrats have changed, too–that is, moved themselves toward the emerging majority as that majority has moved itself towards them. Beginning in the mid-1980s with the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the New Democrats, the Democratic Party began to shed its baggage as a party that could not be trusted to spend taxpayer dollars responsibly (which is important to fiscally conservative professionals) or to stand up for mainstream cultural values (which is important to the white working class). During the Clinton years, the Democratic Party–in Judis and Teixeira’s approving words–offered a “moderate accommodation” to the “radical movements” of both the left and right.

The very fact that the authors would make such an evaluation subtly underscores another important change: The rift between Old and New Democrats is not so vast as it once was. Specifically, there is very little programmatic difference between the two factions. Very few Old Democrats call for the repeal of welfare reform, propose massive new governmental entitlements, or go five minutes without extolling the virtues of family. Even among African-American voters, the old politics of grievance is sputtering, as reflected by the primary defeats of Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.)–each by a more moderate black candidate–and the emergence of Ron Kirk as a viable Senate candidate in Texas. On the other side, very few New Democrats are calling for the privatization of Social Security or the passage of trade agreements without ample concessions to help displaced workers. When it comes to crafting legislation and passing it into law, a “progressive centrism” has indeed emerged.

One reason is that New Democratic policies worked. The Clinton record on reducing crime, reforming welfare, eliminating the deficit, expanding educational opportunity, and growing the economy speaks for itself–but it also spoke to voters, helping re-elect the first Democrat to a second full term in the White House since 1936. Another reason is that, just as a surging surplus began to stir the Old Democratic passion for big government programs–and the GOP’s for massive tax cuts–Bill Clinton dedicated it to “save Social Security first.” By placing fiscal discipline in defense of a valued entitlement, he solidified liberal support for his fiscal conservatism.

Finally, many New Democrats–especially those re-elected in the competitive swing districts of Judis and Teixeira’s ideopolises–began to realize that they needed Old Democrats, too. Intellectually, they stepped back from exploring school vouchers and abandoned entitlement reform, reacquainting themselves with the unique ability of the federal government to provide a basic safety net. Electorally, they came to see that the Democratic base–activists, union members, and blacks–were essential foot soldiers for Democratic candidates.

But, while this convergence has produced legislative coalitions, it has not necessarily translated into a robust political coalition. Indeed, the single biggest obstacle to The Emerging Democratic Majority is not so much policy as politics–pulling that majority together to win at the voting booth. Does a Democratic candidate stress environmentalism, gun control, and abortion rights to win professionals or downplay them to win Reagan Democrats? Does a candidate support putting the brakes on free-trade agreements to win over manufacturing workers in the Mahoning Valley or opening markets to win over tech workers in Silicon Valley? And to win minority voters, can a candidate appeal to African Americans and Asian and Latino immigrants at the same time with the same message? How you answer these questions reflects not just the intellectual question of where you line up along the Democratic Party’s factional divide, but the practical questions of which message to use, what voters to target, and what programs to place at the top of your agenda.

This divide is what animates the current debate over whether Al Gore’s “people versus the powerful” approach was ever powerful enough. Old Democrats, such as Gore pollster Stan Greenberg, argue that had Gore adhered to it more closely, and not had to contend with the fatigue of Clinton scandal, his positioning would have worked. To New Democrats, such as Al From and Mark Penn (also a Gore pollster), this populist appeal never stood a chance, as it was fundamentally out-of-step with the times, alienating the optimistic professionals of the ideolopises.

The data on all of this is as fuzzy as the election results. Nevertheless, the endurance of this debate highlights the fragility of the Democratic coalition that Judis and Teixeira envision. So far, Bill Clinton–an Oxford-educated Bubba who once worked for McGovern and later chaired the DLC–has been the only politician to bridge the divide. By campaigning as a self-described “middle-class moderate offering radical change,” Clinton was able to defeat Paul Tsongas by running left to the Democratic base and defeat George H.W. Bush by returning to the center. More importantly, he was able to do this dance by “putting people first” in a way that stressed common obligations over social divisions–that offered hope, not rage. Simply put, Clinton was the hybrid New Democrat-populist.

Considering Clinton’s unparalleled political talents and the party unity born of three consecutive presidential defeats, Democratic successes in the ’90s may not be the beginning of a new political era at all. Might Clinton have been to a Republican era what Eisenhower once was to a Democratic one: an aberration? The answer to that question will expose the ultimate value of Judis and Teixeira’s analysis of the future of American politics–something that will take an election or two to emerge. Still, the Democratic Party is far better situated than it was in 1972. Despite the continued dominance of the institutional party by Old Democrats far to the left of the general electorate and a noticeable resurgence of old perceptions of the party (weak on defense, soft on crime, untrustworthy on taxes), the party is at parity with the GOP. Looking forward, it may not take a generation for Judis and Teixeira’s Democratic majority to emerge, but the party still awaits a roadmap–and a guide.

Kenneth S. Baer, author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton, was deputy director of speechwriting for Gore-Lieberman 2000.

Kenneth S. Baer, author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton, was deputy director of speechwriting for Gore-Lieberman 2000.