Back to the Future

As conservative Republicans tell the tale, the 2006 election was merely a referendum on the Bush administration's incompetence in Iraq and New Orleans and on the Republican congressional scandals. The contest, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, "was an event-driven election that produced the shift of power one would expect when a finely balanced electorate swings mildly one way or the other." Others insist that demographic trends continue to favor the Republicans. Seeing 2006 as an anomaly, political analyst Michael Barone argued that population growth patterns favor Republican-leaning areas in the interior of the country rather than Democratic-leaning areas on the coasts.

We take a different view: that this election signals the end of a fleeting Republican revival, prompted by the Bush administration's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the return to political and demographic trends that were leading to a Democratic and center-left majority in the United States. In 2006 the turn to the Democrats went well beyond those offices directly concerned with the war in Iraq or affected by congressional scandals. While Democrats picked up 30 House seats and six Senate seats, they also won six governorships, netted 321 state legislative seats, and recaptured legislative chambers in eight states. That's the kind of sweep that Republicans enjoyed in 1994, which led to Republican control of Congress and of the nation's statehouses for the remainder of the decade.

Just as important as these victories is who voted for Democrats in 2006. With few exceptions, the groups were exactly those that had begun trending Democratic in the 1990s and had contributed to Al Gore's popular-vote victory over George W. Bush in 2000. These groups, which we described in our 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, included women, professionals, and minorities. But in 2006 they also included two groups our book slighted or ignored altogether: younger voters (those born after 1977) and independents. These voters can generally be expected to continue backing Democrats.

Finally, the 2006 election represented a shift in American politics, away from the right and toward the center-left, on a range of issues that go well beyond the Iraq war, corruption, and competence. Voters in 2006 returned to viewpoints on the economy and society that inclined them, even leaving aside the war, to favor Democrats over conservative Republicans. To understand how this could happen, and happen so suddenly, one has to appreciate the peculiar impact that September 11 had on what had been an emerging Democratic majority, and how, once the impact of that event dissipated, the earlier trends reasserted themselves with a vengeance.

I. THE DEMOCRATIC EQUATION

In the 1990s the Democrats displayed the outlines of a new majority that would be different from the older, New Deal majority. The older majority had been based on the "Solid South," blue-collar workers, ethnics, and rural voters; the new would combine women voters, professionals, and minorities, primarily in the North, Midwest, and far West, with close to an even split of the traditional white working-class vote in those regions. Some of the groups making up the new majority were recent converts; others had gone from the edges to the center of the coalition.

  • WOMEN: Throughout the 1960s, women voters had been disproportionately Republican; but in 1980 (partly in reaction to the Republican identification with the religious right) single, working, and college-educated women began voting disproportionately Democratic. In the 2000 congressional elections, for instance, single women backed Democrats by 63 percent to 35 percent.
  • PROFESSIONALS: Professionals, who are, roughly speaking, college-educated producers of services and ideas, used to be the most staunchly Republican of all occupational groups. In the 1960 presidential election, they backed Richard Nixon by 61 percent to 38 percent. But in the 1980s these voters -- now chiefly working for large corporations and bureaucracies rather than on their own, and heavily influenced by the environmental, civil-rights, and feminist movements -- began to vote Democratic. In the four elections from 1988 to 2000, they backed Democrats by an average of 52 percent to 40 percent.
  • MINORITIES: Latinos had been voting Democratic since the New Deal, and blacks since the 1960s; but in the 1990s they were joined by Asian-American voters. In the congressional race in 2000, minorities, who now made up about 19 percent of electorate, backed Democrats by 75 percent to 23 percent.

These groups have different, and sometimes conflicting, political outlooks. Professionals, for instance, are generally skeptical of large government spending programs, which minorities are inclined to support. They also are leery of tax increases, even those aimed at the wealthy. College-educated and single women often fervently back abortion rights and gay rights, both of which many black and Hispanic voters oppose. But in national elections, and in state elections in the Northeast and far West, the socially liberal and fiscally moderate views of the professionals have generally taken precedence. These "new Democratic" or "moderate" politics were at the heart of Democratic victories in the 1990s.

In states like California and New Jersey, these three overlapping and burgeoning groups, rather than the white working class, dominate the electorate. In California, for example, the white working class constitutes only 38 percent of voters. But in many Midwestern and Southern states, white working-class (non-college-educated) voters still dominate. In those states, the Democratic coalition is a sometimes-combustible mixture of old and new, including adherents of social liberalism and of New Deal and fair-trade economics. As long-term economic trends toward a post-industrial economy grow stronger, the white working class, in these states, and nationally, will shrink at the expense of professionals and minorities. But the Democrats have needed and will continue to need significant levels of white working-class support to supplement the newer parts of their coalition. Right now, Democrats need to win between 45 percent and 48 percent of the white working-class vote to carry states like Missouri, Ohio, or Pennsylvania, a little higher for Iowa, and higher still for West Virginia or Kentucky. (In presidential elections, a 43 percent to 44 percent share of the white working-class vote is adequate to win a national majority.) Democrats seemed to be moving in this direction during the late 1990s.

II. DISTRACTION AND DE-ARRANGEMENT

Bush's initial success in waging the war on terror disrupted these trends toward the Democratic majority. American politics became dominated by concerns over national security, an issue on which Republicans had enjoyed voters' confidence since 1980. Some voters who might have supported Democrats were distracted from economic or social concerns that had favored Democrats. They ignored Republicans' religious intolerance and indifference to environmental pollution, rewarding Republicans instead for their presumed success in the war on terror. In 2004 George W. Bush won victories in swing states like Ohio, Iowa, and Florida largely because of these voters' defection. Chief among the defectors were white working-class women voters. In 2000 Bush had won these voters by 7 percent. In 2004 he won them by 18 percent. That year a plurality of these voters identified terrorism and security over the economy and jobs or the war in Iraq as their most important issue.

But there was also evidence of another psychological process, which might be called "de-arrangement." The focus on the war on terror not only distracted erstwhile Democrats and independents but appeared to transform, or de-arrange, their political worldview. They temporarily became more sympathetic to a whole range of conservative assumptions and approaches. In the past, voters had trusted Democrats to manage the economy, and in 2002 that preference should have been strongly reinforced by a recession that occurred on Bush's watch. Instead, voters in that election believed by 41 percent to 37 percent that Republicans were "more likely to make sure the country is prosperous." Recessions could also be expected to reinforce populist perceptions of the economy, but in 2002 the percentage of voters who believed that "the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer" hit its lowest level in 15 years. Most interestingly, opposition to abortion also followed the same curve. The percentage of voters who believed that abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" (based on Gallup Poll annual averages) rose from 17 percent, in 2000, to 20 percent, in 2002, and was still at 19 percent in 2004.

In 2002 Republican strategists had an easy time making the case for their superiority as the party of national security and putting this issue at the forefront of voters' concerns. In 2004 it was more difficult. Voters had to be convinced that the war in Iraq was part of the war on terror and that whatever setbacks the United States had encountered there should be viewed in the context of overall Republican success in keeping al-Qaeda at bay. Those voters who bought this argument tended to vote Republican; those who had become convinced that the war in Iraq was itself a distraction from the war on terror -- and a costly blunder -- primarily voted Democratic. These tended to be more-educated voters. In 2004, for instance, college-educated women, who had favored Republicans by 50 percent to 48 percent in the 2002 congressional elections, favored Democrats by 54 percent to 44 percent. Postgraduate voters supported Republicans by a margin of 51 percent to 45 percent in 2002; they backed Democrats by a margin of 52 percent to 46 percent in 2004.

By the 2006 election, many more voters had become disillusioned with the Republicans as the party of national security. They now drew a distinction between the war in Iraq and the war on terror, and they saw the disaster in Iraq overshadowing any success in the war on terror. Others came to doubt the administration's overall ability to protect Americans' national security -- either from terrorists or natural disasters. As this change in perception took place, the foundations for the Republican majorities in 2002 and 2004 crumbled. What one sees in the 2006 election is not simply a revolt against the administration's conduct of the war but a return to the political perceptions of the two parties that was inclining the electorate before September 2001 toward a Democratic majority. Voters didn't simply reject the administration for its conduct of the war; angered by its conduct of the war, they reembraced a center-left worldview on a whole range of issues. The electorate of 2006 was like the electorate of 2000 -- only more so.

Voters returned to a more traditionally liberal view of the economy. Even though the economy is in better shape now than it was in 2002, proportionately more voters now believe that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The gap between those who believe this and those who don't has widened by 16 percentage points. More of today's voters believe it is the responsibility of government to take care of those who can't take of themselves. That gap has widened by 15 points.

The same results have showed up even in opinions about social issues. The average annual percentage of those believing abortion should be illegal dropped from 19 percent in 2004 to 15 percent in 2006, and the percentage believing it should be legal in "all circumstances" rose from 24 percent to 30 percent. Indeed, the outburst of religiosity that began a decade ago and sustained the Republican Party in the South and the prairie states seems to be abating. A 2007 study from the Pew Research Center reports "a reversal of the increased religiosity observed in the mid-1990s," along with greater tolerance among white evangelical Protestants toward homosexuals and working women. The Pew study finds, for instance, that among white evangelical Protestants, the percentage of those who completely disagree that "women should return to their traditional roles" has risen from 28 percent in 1997 to 42 percent today. That spells trouble for a conservative Republicanism rooted in religious conservatism.

As might be expected, the shift in worldview is reflected in identification with the parties themselves. In Pew surveys conducted in 2002, Republicans and Democrats each commanded the allegiance of 43 percent of the public. But five years later, 50 percent identified with or leaned toward the Democrats, and only 35 percent identified with or leaned toward the Republicans. A 15-percentage-point gap has opened up between the parties. The change is equally dramatic when one looks at specific groups in the electorate.

III. THE DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY

In the 2006 election, all the groups that had been part of the emerging Democratic majority in the late 1990s came roaring back into the fold. College-educated women backed Democrats by 57 percent to 42 percent. Single women backed Democrats by 66 percent to 33 percent. And the key swing group among women voters shifted. White working-class women, who had voted Republican by 57 percent to 42 percent in 2004, backed them by only 52 percent to 47 percent in 2006 -- a 10-point shift. This movement away from the GOP included a stunning 26-point shift by white working-class women with annual household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000, who went from pro-Republican (60 percent to 39 percent) in 2004 to pro-Democratic (52 percent to 47 percent) in 2006. Postgraduate voters, who are typically professionals, also moved decisively into the Democratic column. In 2002 these voters had backed Republican congressional candidates by 51 percent to 45 percent. In 2006 they backed Democrats by 58 percent to 41 percent.

Minority voters also increased their support for Democratic candidates, largely due to a shift among Hispanics. Hispanics had backed congressional Democrats in 2004 by 59 percent to 40 percent, but in 2006 they supported them by 69 percent to 30 percent. This partly represented a reaction to Republican anti-immigration politics, but it also reflected a shift back to the kind of support that Democrats had enjoyed among Hispanics in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Moreover, each of these groups will likely increase its share of the electorate over the years. Minorities made up 15 percent of the electorate in 1990; they are 21 percent today and are expected to be 25 percent in 2015. Their weight will be much higher in key states like California, Florida, and Texas. In 1970 single women made up 38 percent of adult women; today they are a majority. College-educated women have more than tripled as a percentage of women 25 and older since then, going from 8 percent to 27 percent. Professionals were 7 percent of the workforce in the 1950s; they are 17 percent today and are expected to be 19 percent in 2015. Insofar as they vote at the highest rate of any occupational group, they likely make up a quarter or so of the electorate in many Northeast and far West states.

In 2006 Democrats were able to supplement these votes with sufficient support from the white working class. Democrats had gotten only 39 percent of this vote in the 2004 congressional elections; in 2006 Democrats got 44 percent of the vote, which was enough to give them a solid majority in Congress. Democrats' success among these voters helped the party to pick up three house seats in Indiana (where the white working class makes up 66 percent of the voting electorate); two seats in Iowa (where it makes up 72 percent); a Senate seat in Montana (which is 68 percent white working-class); and a Senate seat, a House seat, and the governorship in Ohio (which is 62 percent white working-class). By 2015 the white working class is expected to fall from 52 percent to 47 percent of the U.S. electorate, but it will remain a critically important group nationally and in many elections in the Midwest and South.

In most of these states, white working-class voters returned to the Democratic fold because of disillusionment with Bush's foreign policy -- and because of a stagnant economy. While Democrats enjoyed significant gains among noncollege whites earning between $50,000 and $75,000 annually, they made their most dramatic gains among white working-class voters making between $30,000 to $50,000. In the 2004 congressional elections, these voters had favored Republicans by 60 percent to 38 percent; in 2006 they divided their vote equally between Democrats and Republicans. That's a 22-point shift.

IV. MILLENNIALS AND INDIES

The Democratic majority in 2006 was also bolstered by support from voters ages 18 to 29. Almost all of these voters fall into the category that pollsters call "millennials" or "Generation Y" (those born after 1977). In contrast to the previous generation, dubbed "Generation X" (those born between 1965 and 1977), they prefer Democrats over Republicans and the center-left over the center-right. According to a 2006 Pew survey, 48 percent of 18- to 25-year-old millennials identify themselves as Democrats, and only 35 percent identify themselves as Republicans. In 2006, 18- to-29-year-olds voted for Democratic congressional candidates by 60 percent to 38 percent. By contrast, 55 percent of 18- to 25-year-old Generation Xers had identified themselves as Republicans in the early 1990s. Political generations don't often change their allegiance. The New Deal generation sustained a Democratic majority for decades; Generation X has remained a bulwark of the Republican vote; and the millennials can be expected to bolster a new Democratic majority.

Clearly, different political experiences have shaped these two generations. Generation X grew up during the Carter and Reagan years, which were marked by Democratic failure and Republican success. The millennials grew up in years of the Clinton boom and Bush's disastrous failure in Iraq. Their political outlook most clearly resembles that of postindustrial professionals: socially liberal, in favor of government regulation of business, more secular, and less inclined than any other generation to accept the Republican identification with the religious right. In a 2006 Pew survey, 20 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds reported they had no religion or were atheist or agnostic, compared with just 11 percent among those over 25.

The other group that has come to make up the Democratic majority is political independents. These voters, who identify themselves to pollsters and public opinion surveys as "independents," represent an ideology rather than a social group, but they overlap with some Democratic constituencies and also set limits on the politics of a Democratic majority. According to the American National Election Studies, they make up about 38 percent of the potential electorate and 33 percent of actual voters. States with the highest proportions of independents are concentrated in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and far West (including Alaska and Hawaii), plus several mountain states (Colorado, Idaho, Montana) and North Dakota. Interestingly, there is considerable overlap between these states and states where Ross Perot polled more than 20 percent in 1992.

Many independents are professionals, and there are striking similarities between independents' and professionals' attitudes, especially their respect for science and their support for social liberalism. In New Jersey, for example, independent voters support gay marriage at about the same level as Democrats do, while Republicans are solidly opposed. But independents tend to be moderate on economic policy, more skeptical than Democrats that large government programs can be effective, and resistant to tax increases. They are particularly wary of "special interests" in Washington (including the parties themselves) and often favor reforms in lobbying and campaign finance. In the Mountain States, they have a pronounced libertarian streak, both on social and economic issues. Many of them favor the right to an abortion and a handgun.

In the 1990s, independents began to lean Democratic in presidential elections. They moved back into the Republican column temporarily in 2000 -- perhaps because of the Clinton scandals. In 2002 they also backed Republicans in the congressional elections, but they have now scurried back to the Democratic Party. In 2006 they favored Democratic congressional candidates by 57 percent to 39 percent, far and away the largest margin that independents have given Democrats since the inception of exit polls.

In the 2006 congressional election, libertarian-leaning independents played a decisive role in Democratic victories in prairie and non-Pacific western states. In the Montana Senate race, independents voted 59 percent to 35 percent for Democrat Jon Tester against incumbent Conrad Burns, who had been linked to the Jack Abramoff scandal. In Arizona they strongly backed Gov. Janet Napolitano and even Democratic Senate challenger Jim Pederson, who lost to incumbent Jon Kyl. In Minnesota, where onetime Perot backer Jesse Ventura was elected governor in 1998 on the Reform Party ticket, independents backed Democratic Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar over conservative Republican Mark Kennedy by 63 percent to 28 percent. Independents also played a role in Democratic House pickups in Colorado, Kansas, Connecticut, and New Hampshire (where 44 percent of voters identify themselves as independents).

But it would be a mistake to identify independents as part of the Democratic base. The new Democratic coalition is center-left; independents are more toward the center, especially on fiscal and economic issues, than Democratic identifiers are. In California, independents backed moderate Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November 2006 by virtually the same margin they had given John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004. Democrats will continue to attract independents -- and independents will make up a significant ideological segment of the Democratic majority -- so long as Democrats don't forget the "center" part of center-left and so long as Republicans remain on the right, especially on social issues.

V. GEOGRAPHY OF THE DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY

Politics in America is organized around states, and the new Democratic majority can also be seen as a bloc of states and regions that regularly vote Democratic or are, at least, open to Democratic candidates. In 2006 Democrats consolidated their hold on the Northeast, strengthened their position in the Midwest, and made inroads in Southern border states (including Florida) and in the prairies and the non–Pacific West. In the Northeast, Democrats picked up three governorships, two Senate seats, 11 House seats, and 156 state legislative seats. In the Midwest, Democrats picked up one governorship, two Senate seats, nine House seats, and 106 state legislative seats (which translated into a gain of six state legislative chambers). In the non–Pacific West, where Democrats had done poorly in the past, they won a Senate seat in Montana, a governorship and a House seat in Colorado, and two House seats in Arizona.

The Deep South remains strongly Republican. In 2006 Democrats made no net gains across the five contiguous states of Louisiana (which, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's depopulation, can be expected to become more Republican), Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. But Democrats picked up one Senate seat, six House seats, one governorship, and 31 state legislative seats in the other Southern states. Democrats are competitive in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida. They have the upper hand in Arkansas and West Virginia, where the latest Gallup party-identification data give them stunning advantages of 26 and 24 points, respectively.

In Florida Democrats picked up two U.S. House seats, six Florida House seats, and the position of state chief financial officer. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson easily won reelection. And opinion polls indicate that Florida's electorate is moving back toward the center. From 2004 to 2006, the percentage of Floridians identifying themselves as "conservative" dropped from 31 percent to 27 percent, while the percentage of those identifying as "middle-of-the-road" or "liberal" rose from 35 percent to 42 percent.

No state or region is as uniformly in one party's camp as the old Solid South used to be. Democrats, for instance, have a 74-to-46 majority in the Mississippi state House, and Maine has two Republican senators. However, the Democrats can generally count on winning a majority of races in the Northeast (from Maine to Maryland), in Pennsylvania and across the upper Midwest (including Illinois), and on the Pacific Coast (except Alaska). That's a total of 248 electoral votes. Republicans can count on the Deep South, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. That's a total of only 154 electoral votes. The parties are more evenly matched in every other state, including formerly Republican states such as Colorado, Arizona, Montana, Virginia, and even Indiana. In these states, Democrats' success will depend on the skill and representativeness of their candidates and on the issues that most concern the electorate at election time.

Democrats also have an important base in large postindustrial metropolitan areas -- what we have called ideopolises. These are large areas that merge suburb and city, and that specialize in producing services and ideas. They often generate a distinctive culture of arty boutiques, restaurants, cafés, and bookstores, and they take their political cues from the professionals who live there. The white working class in places like greater Portland or Seattle doesn't vote dramatically differently from the professionals whose culture dominates these areas. And the culture of the ideopolises is spreading to such smaller cities in the heartland, such as Omaha, which now sports an "Old Market District" (similar to Denver's Lower Downtown) and a Democratic mayor.

During the dot-com bust of 2000–2001, many of the ideopolises lost population, but, according to demographer William Frey, they are bouncing back. "It's a tale of two kinds of cities," Frey told The New York Times in April. "Growing and ‘new economy' metros that have rebounded from early decade woes, and large coastal and Rust Belt metros where high housing costs or diminishing employment prospects propel continued out-migration … Among the former are a series of high-tech-driven centers like Austin, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Boise, Raleigh and Atlanta, where growth slowdowns were reversed or modest growth has accelerated."

The Democratic percentage of the Senate vote in these ideopolises expanded from 52 percent in 2002 to 58 percent in 2006. Democratic House pickups in areas like suburban Denver, suburban Philadelphia, Connecticut, and southern Florida were powered by ideopolis coalitions where professionals and minorities take a leading role. Jim Webb's Senate victory in Virginia was largely due to his margin in Northern Virginia's high-tech suburbs. Democrats also made headway in districts that aren't yet ideopolises but contain significant towns and cities devoted to the production of ideas of services. Democrats now control two House seats in Kansas: one includes the University of Kansas and the high-tech suburbs of Kansas City, and the other includes Kansas State University. In Iowa, Republican Rep. Jim Leach was defeated in a district that includes the University of Iowa. In southern Indiana, the district where Baron Hill defeated a Republican incumbent includes the University of Indiana.

The Democrats also did well in medium-size, older industrial cities in the Midwest, reflecting their increased support among the white working class. In Ohio, Democratic Senate candidate Sherrod Brown picked up 60 percent of the vote in midsize metro areas like Akron, Canton, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown. In Indiana, Democrats carried the House vote 62 percent to 38 percent in the Evansville area -- an area that Bush carried 61 percent to 38 percent in 2004. And in Iowa, Democrats got 54 percent of the House vote and 57 percent of the governorship vote in the Davenport area.

VI. WINNING THE WHITE HOUSE

This new Democratic majority should result in Democrats maintaining control of Congress for most of the next 12 to 16 years. But it won't necessarily result in Democrats consistently winning the White House. To win elections, a Democratic candidate for Congress or governor has to maintain the support of the party's base while reaching a sufficient percentage of the swing voters in a given state or district. In Ohio, Iowa, or Indiana, that can mean appealing to white working-class voters in small towns. In Colorado, Arizona, or Montana, that can mean appealing to libertarian independents. In these local and state elections, Democrats can run candidates who reflect the special political mix of their state or congressional district. For example, in Ohio last year, Democrats ran a gubernatorial candidate who opposed gun control and a Senate candidate who campaigned against free trade. In Colorado, Democrats ran a gubernatorial candidate who opposed abortion and gun control. In Pennsylvania, Democrats ran a Senate candidate who was pro-life who appealed to working-class Catholics. And in every one of these cases, the Democratic candidate was elected.

But in presidential elections, parties don't have the luxury of appealing to individual states and regions. A candidate can't favor gun control in New Jersey but oppose it in West Virginia, or be pro-choice in California but pro-life in Indiana or Kentucky. To win national elections, Democrats have to win not only their base in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the far West, but also swing states such as Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Missouri, each of which contains large numbers of voters who might be uncomfortable with a platform that would appeal to a voter in Massachusetts or California. That puts a premium on the political skill and background of the presidential candidate.

Since 1964 the only Democrats who have won the presidency are white Protestant males from the South who appeared to be moderates rather than liberals and whom white working-class voters could envision as "one of us." Candidates from the Northeast or upper Midwest have been trounced, in part, because they were unable to bridge the political and cultural divide between the Democratic base and the swing voters in the Midwest and border South. As the Democrats prepare for the 2008 election, their two leading candidates are Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton, who is seen by voters as a Northeastern cultural liberal, will also probably face resistance from some white working-class males because she is a woman. Obama, a black man from Chicago, will also likely be seen as a cultural liberal; in addition, he could be at a disadvantage among many white voters in the South, lower Midwest, and interior West because of his race.

None of this suggests that the Democrats can't win the White House. Indeed, they will enter presidential elections with a slight advantage because of the tilt in the country toward the political center. But whether they can win will depend on how well they can maintain the Democratic base while reaching out to swing voters, and on the strength of the opposition. Republicans, obviously, will face problems of their own in placating their conservative Christian and pro-business base while reaching out to suburban professionals and the white working class in the North and West.

VII. REFORM AND REALIGNMENT

One way that the new Democratic majority could be sustained, and even grow, over the next decade is for Democrats to enact popular, landmark legislation. The passage of Social Security legislation helped keep New Deal Democrats in power for decades. The creation of an effective national health-insurance program, despite Republican opposition, might do the same for today's Democrats. But there are major obstacles facing the Democrats in getting major reforms like these through Congress. First, the Democratic coalition itself is not a left-wing coalition but a center-left one, in which the views of independents and professionals have considerable weight. Democrats will have difficulty agreeing among themselves on new, large government programs that may require higher taxes. In 1971 and 1979, disagreements among Democrats played a role as central as Republican opposition in blocking new health-care legislation. That could happen again.

Second, Congress, and particularly the Senate, is structured to prevent the passage of dramatic reform measures, which can be stopped through filibuster or even bottled up in conference. Labor-law reform, which is vital to reviving unions, faces a stiff test in having to overcome a filibuster. Third, given these structural obstacles, adopting major reforms has been easiest during periods of crisis and popular upsurge, such as the Progressive Era, the 1930s, and the 1960s. But we are not presently in such a period.

Lacking such favorable social conditions, Democrats have found it difficult to pass major legislation even when they have controlled the White House and Congress. Jimmy Carter failed in 1977–1978, and Bill Clinton failed in 1993–1994, to pass any major social legislation, even though they had that control. A more tractable alternative in the short run is to do what the Clinton administration attempted (not often successfully) during its second term: to introduce incremental reforms that are not just cosmetic but put in motion a process that can eventually lead to dramatic reforms. For instance, extending eligibility for Medicare to everyone under 21, or to adults 55 and over, could lead toward national health insurance. But incremental reform, by definition, has a smaller effect on voters' lives and will do less to weld the Democrats' coalition firmly to the party.

If the Democrats are limited to incremental reform, what we foresee is a realignment similar to the Republican realignment of the 1980s but different from the massive, dramatic realignment that occurred in the crisis of the 1930s. Democrats will hold Congress and the White House for most, but not all, of this period, and they'll suffer intraparty recriminations (as the Democrats of the 1990s did) from their failure to do better. But if they are able to anchor their majority in landmark legislation, they could achieve the kind of historic realignment that Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats enjoyed. At minimum, that would require Democratic politicians to put aside their own differences and mobilize pressure from below. The past record on this is not encouraging, but there's always the chance that today's Democrats will rise to the occasion.

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