Judis Recalibrates

As I’ve observed here now and then, the “emerging Democratic majority” hypothesis, at least as oversimplified to imply an inevitable development based on immutable demographic trends, has become something of a straw man–much like the briefly prominent view, never held by more than a handful of analysts, that Obama’s election in 2008 would usher in a New Progressive Era or a second New Deal.

But you can forgive John Judis for wanting to make it clear he thinks any Democratic advantage is gone, since he was the co-author, with Ruy Teixeira, of the 2002 book, the Emerging Democratic Majority, that first explained many of the demographic trends that became fully manifest in the 2008 presidential election–including, most surprisingly, the Democratic comeback in states like Virginia and North Carolina with the right balance of minority, professional, transplant and “knowledge worker” voters.

So as his first article at his new venue, National Journal (he was one of the New Republican veterans who resigned recently), Judis has written a piece with the careful if evocative headline, “The Emerging Republican Advantage.”

Its most interesting feature is the suggestion that Democratic weakness among white-working class voters is beginning to be matched or even exceeded in importance with a new weakness among voters–especially but not exclusively white voters–with a college but no postgraduate education, and with middle incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. This is a big problem for Democrats, says Judis, not just because these “middle-class Americans” are a growing percentage of the population (unlike the non-college educated white working class), but because they are at best lukewarm to the populist messages Democrats are beginning to deploy to stem the Republican tide among the white working class.

Judis’ biggest fear is that in retrospect the Democratic renaissance he and Teixeira wrote about in 2002 may been seen as an aberration in a long Republican tenure driven by the American middle class’ mistrust of government and anger at “incompetence” and “redistribution.”

But to some extent he and his editors are overplaying his pessimism:

None of this is to suggest that America is headed toward an era of Republican domination. Going forward, the country’s politics is likely to remain on a seesaw. What’s clear, however, is that the Democratic advantage of several years ago is gone. And the seeds of a slight Republican advantage appear to have taken root, particularly in governor’s mansions, state legislatures, and the U.S. House, where Republicans sport majorities they haven’t enjoyed since the Hoover-Coolidge 1920s.

“The seeds of a slight Republican advantage” that may or may not be manifested in the ability to win a presidential race isn’t quite grounds for Democratic panic. And Judis also emphasizes that Republican extremism, especially on the cultural issues that so motivate the GOP “base,” could repel the college-educated voters they showed new strength among in 2012 and 2014. He seems especially disturbed, like a lot of Democrats who live in or near Maryland, that national Republicans could show the dexterity Larry Hogan demonstrated in exploiting middle- and white-working-class disgruntlement with government while deemphasizing cultural issues. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.