Democrats Need More Than Demographic Change to Win

Why the GOP’s inevitable demographic demise may not be so inevitable. 

For two decades, elected Republicans have all but refused to govern. They’ve rebuffed any and all efforts by Democrats to try to solve the country’s most pressing problems—often refusing to even acknowledge that those problems, like climate change, exist at all. And yet, Republicans still hold a death grip on the country’s political institutions, leaving those institutions unable to respond to a changing world. 

R.I.P. G.O.P.: How the
New America Is
Dooming the Republicans
by Stanley B. Greenberg
Thomas Dunne Books, 336 pp.

But, according to the legendary liberal pollster Stanley Greenberg, the end is near. In his new book, R.I.P G.O.P., Greenberg insists that the ugliness of today’s politics, particularly the seemingly hopeless obstructionism of the Mitch McConnell–led Republican Party, is hastening a revolution. Beneath the stagnant waters of Trump’s America is a rapidly moving “blue wave” of progressive politics. Greenberg predicts a “happy ending,” with “a country united and finally liberated from gridlock to address the nation’s most serious problems. It ends with the death of the Republican Party as we’ve known it.” 

Where have we heard that before? People have been predicting a Democratic revolution for decades now, and yet the country seems light years farther from a progressive nirvana than it did in 2002, when John Judis and Ruy Teixeira made a similar argument in their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. Nonetheless, Greenberg is optimistic that this time is for real, and his book may be a welcome tonic for Democratic despair, even if you still suspect it’s just a liberal fantasy at heart. Consider it a beach read for the resistance. 

Greenberg sees change driven by demographics, as the country becomes more secular, more multicultural, more unmarried, and more urban. He sees Millennials overtaking Baby Boomers as the country’s largest voting bloc and women in particular moving the country forward on issues like climate change and immigration. To make his case, he naturally draws on extensive polling data. While anti-immigrant sentiment helped propel Trump into the White House by energizing his base of white working-class voters, Greenberg reports that the president’s agenda has helped boost the percentage of Americans who believe immigrants “strengthen the country” from 53 percent to 65 percent. Even as the Trump administration has erased any mention of climate change from government agency websites, Americans have become ever more convinced that the planet is warming. Just since the beginning of the 2016 presidential election, Greenberg writes, the percentage of Americans who believe that there’s “solid evidence” that the climate is warming reached 92 percent, a jump of thirteen points.

In Greenberg’s read of the data, a decade of Republican-induced gridlock has left Americans longing for the government to do more, not less, to solve the nation’s problems. But he doesn’t hold Democrats blameless for the current state of affairs. A whole chapter in the book is called “How Did Democrats Let Donald Trump Win?” In it, Greenberg criticizes the Democrats’ incrementalism and their failure to seize on some of the things that animated Trump voters, such as trade policy and the evils of consolidated corporate power. Greenberg is especially critical of Hillary Clinton’s campaign “malpractice,” though he mostly seems miffed that she didn’t take more of his messaging advice during her 2016 presidential campaign.

In something of a tangent, Greenberg also tackles the subject of the white working class, those potential swing voters whom Democrats seem to despair of reaching in 2020. This discussion takes the form of a chapter-long diss of J. D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy (soon to be a major motion picture). The book, which came out in the fall of 2016, described Vance’s troubled family members, their Appalachian roots, and his up-by-the-bootstraps escape from Rust Belt Ohio to the military, college, and ultimately Yale Law School. Vance, according to Greenberg, suggests that all the problems that beset his family and community—drug addiction, poverty, welfare fraud—were essentially the result of poor life choices that bore little relationship to larger economic or political forces. The book has influenced Republican economic rhetoric and made Vance an unofficial spokesman for the white working-class voter. 

Greenberg is a credible critic of Vance’s tale, largely because he’s been studying the working class for nearly fifty years. After the urban riots of the late 1960s, Greenberg was hired to undertake a national evaluation of the War on Poverty. For his research, he studied a community of Appalachian migrants from Kentucky who, like Vance’s family, had relocated to southwestern Ohio. He also studied working-class neighborhoods in Detroit and Philly, including those populated by black and Hispanic residents. In the mid-1980s—when Vance was born—Greenberg embedded with “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County, Michigan. 

The rising tide of diverse younger Americans won’t mean much in national terms as long as it’s concentrated in already blue states like New York and California.

What bothers Greenberg most about Hillbilly Elegy is that many of Vance’s Republican enthusiasts (though not Vance himself) have concluded from the book that nothing can be done about the social collapse. Their takeaway, he says, is that “government activism is ineffective and counterproductive.” That crabbed view of government, Greenberg notes, has restricted Republicans’ ability to do much for the very voters who helped put Donald Trump in the White House. Once they were in charge, he notes, Republicans’ most significant policy initiative aimed at the working class was to add work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps. “Is that really all they have to offer working people?” Greenberg asks. “What an insult.” 

This meager gruel is what helped fuel the blue wave election in 2018, Greenberg says. Republicans lost dramatically all across the industrial Midwest and the Rust Belt because it turned out that the non-evangelical working class “wanted more from Republicans than this anti-government trope.” 

“Republicans would do well to unlearn the lessons of Hillbilly Elegy,” he concludes, if they want to remain relevant. Republicans, though, don’t seem as interested in being relevant as in maintaining their grip on power, by any means necessary. As Greenberg himself documents, the party has been creative and aggressive in finding ways to ensure their dominance through voter suppression and gerrymandering, even when they can no longer capture the majority of the popular vote. 

Minority rule is built into our democracy. The same demographic trends Greenberg sees as the engine of a blue wave are also ensuring that a small group of conservative Republicans will continue to wield outsize influence in politics. By 2040, thanks to urbanization, 70 percent of Americans will live in only sixteen states, meaning that the Senate, where all good things go to die, will continue to be dominated by people who hail from sparsely populated rural states, and they will be largely white, conservative, and probably male. The rising tide of diverse younger Americans won’t mean much in national terms as long as it’s concentrated in already blue states like New York and California. 

It’s also tough to see how Greenberg can be so sunny about the future when so many of the people in his own focus groups can’t even sit in the same room with each other. After the 2016 election, pro- and anti-Trump focus group members were so rude to each other that he ultimately had to put them in separate spaces to have conversations with them. And it wasn’t just the red-blue divide that produced such strife. Greenberg describes a focus group where the moderator had to intervene to prevent a brawl between the “Fox News Catholics” and the “Pope Francis Catholics.” The latter group tended to side with a more compassionate pope on issues such as immigration and climate change. “The Fox Catholic half,” meanwhile, “reacted with enthusiasm to Trump’s rallies and embraced the Fox News facts on issue after issue in his defense.” The Fox News devotees were the ones “who said the ugliest things about immigrants, people of different races and religions, and multiculturalism,” he reports. 

The Pope Francis Catholics are potential swing voters, Greenberg suspects, and more likely to be won over by a Democrat on economic issues than any other group of Trump voters. But it’s the Fox News types Trump has been playing to as he kicks off his 2020 reelection campaign, with his attacks on immigrants and “the squad”—four women of color in Congress. More recent polls indicate that Trump’s xenophobic and racist attacks are also shaping public opinion, and not in the way Greenberg suggests. The Pew Research Center found in July that a growing share of Republicans now believe that America risks its “identity as a nation” by being too open to foreigners. The number of Republicans who agree with that sentiment has jumped ten points since Trump took office, dragging down the overall numbers to show that the country as a whole is becoming less tolerant of immigrants and multiculturalism, not more. That’s why for all its sunshine-side-of-the-mountain talk, Greenberg’s book is also a cautionary tale. Vanquishing the GOP is not going to be easy, or peaceful, if it happens at all.

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Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones, an advisory board member at the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. She was a Washington Monthly editor from 2000 to 2002.