An Emerging Democratic Majority

illustration by Taylor Jones--click to go to his websiteThe 1994 election devastated the self-confidence of the Democratic
Party, and 1996 only partially restored it. After narrowly escaping
the "Republican revolution," many Democrats have lowered
their expectations and become resigned to the prospect of center-right
government. And now President Clinton's budget and tax deal with
the Republicans in Congress has left his own party without a clear
long-term agenda or any resources for new initiatives. Especially
on the party's liberal side, Democrats are thoroughly demoralized,
gloomy about the prospects for recovering control of Congress
in 1998 and reviving momentum on what at least used to be the
party's distinctive progressive concerns.

Skepticism about progressive possibilities does not simply reflect
the latest voting returns, opinion polls, or signals from the
White House. Even sympathetic observers don't see why the underlying
trends in American society and politics should return the Democrats,
much less liberals, to a majority position. The conventional wisdom
is that the Republican Party has become the "sun" and
the Democratic Party merely the reflecting "moon" of
American politics—to use a metaphor first suggested by Samuel
Lubell in 1954, when the parties seemed to occupy the opposite
roles. Democrats themselves do not have a believable narrative
of the future that explains how and why they can become a majority
party again. But their long-term prospects may not be as dire
as they look. Although my purpose here is not to predict a new
majority, I want to suggest why certain social and economic trends
over the next 30 years could help Democrats to achieve it—if they
can develop the ideas, strategies, and organization to capitalize
on the opportunities that these trends represent.

Of course, new majorities are rare, while dreams and theories
of new majorities are more common—hence mostly illusory. In recent
decades, two theories of new political majorities have proved,
if not exactly correct, at least substantially valid. Both were
based not merely on a hope, a prayer, or a debatable historical
lesson, but on long-term changes in American society that could
be the rational basis of new political strategies.

The first was the theory famously proposed in 1969 by Kevin Phillips
in what remains the single most brilliant recent work of political
The Emerging Republican Majority
Published when Republicans were far outnumbered in Congress and had just
barely won the presidency after losing seven of the nine previous
races, the book should ironically be an inspiration as well as
a benchmark for Democrats today. Much of the analysis still stands
up a quarter of a century later, even though the author's own
views have evolved.

Phillips's original new majority formula was one part political
realignment, one part geodemographic transition: The Democratic
Party's embrace of black interests had opened the South to the
Republicans, while rapid economic and population growth in the
Sunbelt presaged a continuing shift of power toward the most reliably
conservative region of the country. The analytical force of the
book came from Phillips's command of patterns of ethnic settlement
and county-level voting since the Civil War. Putting those data
together with the growth of the Sunbelt, he correctly anticipated
the sources of the Republican ascendancy that would make Ronald
Reagan President and Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House. That
ascendancy did not happen automatically; the Republican Party
drew new leadership from the South and West and altered its policies
to take strategic advantage of the opening that Democrats had

The second theory of a new majority, also originating in the late
1960s, was the conception of the New Politics or new liberalism
that emphasized such issues as civil rights, consumer protection,
broader political participation, openness in government, feminism,
and the environment instead of traditional lunch-bucket concerns.
The immediate impetus for this vision of a new majority, including
the young, minorities, and women, was of course the wave of political
energy set in motion by the Vietnam War. But this strategy also
built on a long-run trend: Surveys from the 1950s to the 1970s
show that Americans did become more liberal on such issues as
race, the role of women, sexual behavior, and the environment
(though not on economics, taxes, or crime) in a historic shift
of opinion that has not been reversed. The new liberalism also
took advantage of the opening that the Republicans' Sunbelt strategy
was giving Democrats in other regions. And while many analysts
now hold this version of liberalism responsible for the decline
of the Democratic Party, it provided new vitality (particularly
in the form of hard-working, highly committed candidates) and
helped Democrats keep control of Congress and state legislatures
for another quarter century after the 1968 election and Phillips's
forecast, for a total run of 62 years, about twice the duration
of typical party regimes.

But how can these two theories, with opposite implications,
have both been right? As a result of the trends that they identified
and strategies that they suggested, the parties have reached a
position of rough parity in electoral strength, each with the
capacity to form a new majority—that is, a majority different
from the one it previously assembled. Republicans can now usually
count on majorities among men, Democrats on majorities among women.
Republicans win majorities among whites; Democrats can sometimes
assemble majorities from whites and other groups combined. The
parties have exchanged regional bases with the South trending
toward Republicans, New England toward Democrats. The rough parity
between the parties has produced a divided federal government
in 22 of the past 28 years. In 1996 the total vote for the House
of Representatives was split almost evenly—49 percent for the
Republicans, 48.7 percent for Democrats. The Republicans maintained
control primarily because of the way in which the votes were distributed;
they won the overwhelming majority of close races, while Democratic
votes were clustered in districts where they won by lopsided margins.
Even so, the Republican House majority in 1997 is the smallest
in four decades.

Rough parity in electoral strength does not, however, mean parity
in all respects. Rising to parity creates a different sense of
direction from falling to the same point. Some years ago, after
Harvard scored two touchdowns in the final minutes of the Harvard-Yale
game, the Harvard Crimson ran a headline: "Harvard
Beats Yale, 24-24." Like Yale, the Democrats seem to have
been losing tie games. While many observers have talked of party
decline and "de-alignment" as if they afflicted both
parties equally, the changes have been asymmetrical, as my colleague
Robert Kuttner persuasively argued a decade ago in his book The
Life of the Party
. It's the Democrats whose machinery has
deteriorated most (the party as organization) and who have lost
most in popular self-identification (the party in the electorate).
Since 1994, Democrats have also surrendered much of their own
agenda to stay politically competitive. They have had fewer resources
and run into more trouble (and scandal) in scrambling to obtain

Financial scandals have decimated the leading parties of Italy
and Japan in recent years, and they could similarly do severe
damage to the Democrats in the wake of the 1996 campaign (if only
by chilling donors in a system still dependent on private money).
Yet if we look to the long term, there are signs more favorable
to the Democrats: demographic growth among groups of voters with
Democratic affinities; economic trends likely to emphasize the
importance of issues identified with the Democratic Party; historical
shifts as Democrats finally shed some of the burdens they have
carried since the 1960s. These developments pose two related strategic
and intellectual challenges: Are the Democrats capable of capitalizing
on these emerging tendencies? And in the face of scandals and
cynicism, can they revive themselves not just as a party but as
a cause?

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The 1996 presidential election diverged in several ways from the
patterns of political support that Phillips had predicted in 1969.
Clinton did better, for example, among Catholics and in the Midwest.
But, most remarkably, he won a series of states across the southern
rim of the United States—Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, New Mexico,
and California—that were supposed to be anchors of the new Republican
majority. What makes these results especially significant is that,
except in Louisiana, Clinton and other Democrats received critical
support from two groups whose numbers will increase dramatically
in coming years—Hispanics and the elderly. Continued Democratic
support from these groups certainly isn't guaranteed, but their
growing numbers provide a historic opportunity for a flip of the
lower, "Latinized" Sunbelt back to the Democrats.

Although 1996 was not generally a realigning election, it may
have had something of that character for Hispanic voters. Realigning
elections characteristically see both an increase in turnout and
a swing in party support, and among Hispanics both took place
in 1996. Nationally, the Hispanic vote rose an estimated 22 percent
over 1992, and Hispanics cast 72 percent of their votes for Clinton,
up from 55 percent four years earlier. (These and all other exit
poll data for 1996 that I cite come from the Voter News Service
exit poll; some of the figures were generated from the data on
the CNN/All Politics site on the World Wide Web.) In what may
be a signal of future bloc voting, 78 percent of Hispanics under
age 30 voted for Clinton. In Arizona, which no Democrat had won
since 1948, Hispanics put Clinton over the top with 81 percent
of their votes, as they did in New Mexico, where Clinton "merely"
won 66 percent of Hispanics. Perhaps the single most electrifying
results were in California, where Loretta Sanchez upset Robert
Dornan in a congressional race in what used to be the conservative
bastion of Orange County, and where the Democrats retook control
of the state assembly and chose a Hispanic, Cruz Bustamente, as
the new Speaker. Clinton won 75 percent of the California Hispanic
vote; he even won half of the Hispanic vote in Florida despite
long-time Republican strength among Cubans.

According to Census Bureau projections, Hispanics will represent
an astounding 44 percent of net population growth in the United
States through 2025. The source of this growth is not only continuing
immigration, but also Hispanics' relative youth and high fertility
rate. The median age of Hispanics is 26, compared to 35 for the
overall U.S. population; thus even if Hispanic women had children
at the same rate as non-Hispanics, the Hispanic population would
grow more rapidly. Census projections for 2025 show Hispanics
growing to 18 percent of the population in the United States as
a whole, but to 32 percent in Arizona, 38 percent in Texas, and
at least 43 percent in California.

Moreover, among Hispanics, the slowest growing group is the most
Republican, the Cubans, with a median age of 41, while the most
rapidly growing groups are those from Mexico and Central America,
who tend to be more Democratic. Thus the internal dynamics of
the Hispanic population augur stronger Democratic leanings.

To be sure, several things could upset these projections. The
Hispanic population will be smaller if immigration is sharply
reduced or if Hispanic fertility rates converge more rapidly with
the general population than the Census assumes. Some critics,
such as the columnist and population watcher Ben Wattenberg, argue
that Census forecasts of fertility are generally too high. But
even if Wattenberg is right, non-Hispanic fertility rates might
fall in parallel with the Hispanic fertility rate, leaving as
large a differential. And tighter immigration laws might not halt
the growth of the Hispanic population if, as Douglas Massey, a
sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues, greater
economic integration between the United States and Mexico (and
other Latin American countries) increases the flow of people along
with goods regardless of immigration laws.

Hispanics also might not vote in numbers that reflect their share
of the population. Today Hispanics represent a much smaller percentage
of the electorate than of total population because of their low
median age, the high proportion of noncitizens, and low voter
turnout. Nationally, Hispanics made up 10.5 percent of the population
in 1996 but only 4 percent of the electorate; as they rise to
18 percent of the population, they have the potential to double
or triple their share of the vote. Whether they will close the
gap in turnout with other groups is impossible to say; the spurt
in 1996 could turn out to be a special case. But as their median
age increases and a larger proportion become citizens because
they have naturalized or were born here, the Hispanics' share
of the electorate should grow faster than their share of the population.

The Hispanic turn toward the Democrats in 1996 could also prove
ephemeral. Republicans might increasingly appeal to Hispanics
on the basis of conservative cultural values or by running more
Hispanic candidates, and Hispanics themselves might become more
conservative as they advance socioeconomically. The history of
other immigrant groups suggests, however, that early political
identifications tend to be highly persistent; Irish Americans,
for example, have maintained their identification with the Democratic
Party long after its original basis disappeared. Some writers
have properly cautioned that Hispanics are not as reliably Democratic
or liberal as African Americans. But African-American voting patterns
(roughly 90 percent Democratic) aren't a reasonable standard.
Not even Christian fundamentalists vote Republican at that rate.

Of course, the Hispanic preference for Democrats in 1996 was well
above prior levels because of the alarm created among Hispanics
by Proposition 187 in California, the congressional cutoff of
welfare benefits and other services to legal immigrants, and Republican
support for making English the exclusive language of public business.
Yet even if Republicans soften their stands, there is no mistaking
which party will remain the home of both nativist sentiment and
opposition to social programs that benefit groups with large numbers
of poor working families. Family incomes among Hispanics, again
except for the Cubans, continue to lag far behind those of non-Hispanic
whites. Given recent trends toward growing income inequality and
relatively slim gains among low-wage workers, Hispanics seem likely
to remain predominantly working-class in orientation and more
favorable to the party that supports increases in the minimum
wage and earned income tax credit and is more closely identified
with unions, expanded educational opportunities, and broader access
to health care.


Nationally, voters over age 65 favored Clinton over Dole by 51
percent to 42 percent in 1996. Although this nine-point margin
was just above the average for all voters, it was significantly
higher than among voters between the ages of 50 and 64, who split
for Clinton by only 46 percent to 44 percent. Except for the elderly,
age was positively correlated with voting Republican; the deviation
from this pattern among the over-65 voters suggests some distinctive
influence affecting those in retirement. The preferences of the
elderly particularly mattered in Florida, where they favored Clinton
by 56 percent to 40 percent and tipped the state to him, giving
Democrats their first win in a presidential race in Florida since

In 1996, the elderly made up about 13 percent of the national
population and 16 percent of voters; in 2025, they will make up
one out of five Americans and perhaps about one-fourth of the
electorate. As with Hispanics, the growing elderly population
in coming years will be regionally concentrated; Census projections
for 2025 show the elderly rising from 19 percent to 26 percent
of Floridians (and probably close to a third of voters). The regional
concentration of Hispanic and elderly voters has particular relevance
to presidential elections. During the 1980s, some observers spoke
of a Republican lock on the Electoral College in large part because
the party's base in presidential elections seemed to include California,
Texas, and Florida. By 2025, these states will be the nation's
three most populous, and if the concentration of Hispanic and
elderly voters gives Democrats an edge in those states as well
as in traditionally Democratic New York (the fourth most populous
state in 2025), Democratic candidates may begin presidential races
with a big electoral college advantage.

Compared to the Democratic leanings of Hispanics, however, those
of the elderly are much weaker to begin with and therefore more
uncertain in the future. One key question here is whether their
voting patterns mainly reflect formative political experiences
earlier in life, their current economic interests (such as Social
Security), or demographic factors, such as differences in mortality
rates. Today's elderly came of age during the middle decades of
the century when there were high levels of unionization and Democratic
partisan identification. The elderly of 2025 will be drawn mainly
from today's middle aged—the most Republican cohorts in 1996—who
formed their views when unions and Democratic identification were
declining. If such generational effects predominate, we might
expect a shift among the elderly toward more conservative voting.

Some evidence does suggest generational differences between today's
elderly and those just behind them, but the data from the 1996
presidential race are ambiguous. The generational effects should
apply no less to men than to women, but men 65 and older gave
Clinton about the same proportion of their votes (44 percent)
as did men between the ages of 50 and 64. Clinton's wider margin
among the elderly than among the 50- to 64-year-olds was due entirely
to a four-point-wider edge among elderly women and to the larger
proportion of women among the elderly population because of their
lower mortality rates. These patterns suggest that, at least in
1996, the Democratic margin among the elderly was related to the
gender gap.

Voting patterns among women under age 65, particularly differences
by marital status, may offer a clue to future trends. Among the
married middle aged, there was no gender gap in presidential voting;
married 50- to 64-year-old women voted for Dole by 51 percent
to only 42 percent for Clinton, much as their husbands did. In
contrast, unmarried 50- to 64-year-old women favored Clinton by
63 to 31 percent, displaying the same voting preferences as younger
unmarried women, more than 60 percent of whom also voted for Clinton.
Single women might be more partial to Democrats for a variety
of reasons: more experience in the workforce, higher probability
of depending on government programs, and—not least of all—less
influence by more conservative men.

As the 50- to 64-year-old cohort ages, the proportion of women
will increase, and more of these women will become single through
divorce or widowhood (though the latter may have less impact on
political attitudes). On the basis of these demographic factors
alone, the elderly of 2025 will probably become more Democratic
than they were in middle age.

And as the 50- to 64-year-old cohort retires, Social Security
and Medicare should also become more salient issues for them.
But how they construe their interests as beneficiaries may depend
on whether those programs continue to exist in their current form.
Extensive means testing, for example, could remove the more affluent
elderly from the program and turn them into opponents of more
generous benefits. Similarly, privatization of Social Security
could expand the number of the elderly who see themselves as investors
and reduce the number who see themselves as beneficiaries. This
is precisely the objective of many who favor means testing and
privatization. And some version of these changes may well result
from the bipartisan reform of Social Security and Medicare that
Clinton is now calling for. Even with some means testing and partial
privatization, however, the most likely outcome is that the elderly
will remain the age group most dependent on public social protection—policies
historically identified with the Democratic Party.


In 1996, the age group that supported Clinton and the Democrats
most strongly was actually not the elderly, but the youngest voters.
Those between the ages of 18 and 29 favored Clinton by 53 percent
to 34 percent; first-time voters gave him an even higher margin,
58 percent to 40 percent; and, according to the pollster Stanley
Greenberg, surveys of high school students showed still stronger
support. This is a reversal from the pattern in the 1980s, when
the young were more Republican; as Reagan tutored new voters then,
so Clinton and Gore may be doing in the 1990s. No doubt Dole's
age cost the Republican ticket support among the young, a factor
unlikely to be repeated. Clinton also did well among the young
because of demographic characteristics, such as low income and
unmarried status, that will become less pronounced as these young
voters age.

But the Democratic leanings of the young may also herald a historical
shift. Beginning in the late 1960s, Republicans were able to paint
Democrats as being weak on crime, morality, and national defense
and to win over much of their traditional white working- and middle-class
base. Clinton's ability to reclaim these voters may stem not only
from his personal success in reframing the social issues, but
also from the diminishing resonance of appeals rooted in the experiences
of the 1960s and 1970s. The fading power of the past may be showing
up first among younger voters, who have no memory of those years.
And as time lifts that onus from the Democrats, the Christian
right is creating new burdens of the opposite kind for Republicans.

The swing among young voters may also be connected to economic
issues that work in favor of Democrats. Stagnant earnings and
cutbacks in fringe benefits have acutely affected workers in their
twenties. New jobs, particularly in small firms and the service
sector, often do not carry the health insurance and pensions,
much less job security, that were long part of the standard employment
package. If younger workers and their families are going to receive
health coverage and other benefits, they are almost certainly
going to need government's help, either directly in public programs
or indirectly in employer mandates. The Democratic Party is the
only political vehicle available for such demands. [See "Can the Democrats Become a Cause?"]


Democrats certainly cannot take Hispanics, the elderly, the young,
or any other group for granted. The trends only open up possibilities.
Some of the trends even threaten to produce cleavages among the
very groups that Democrats seek to unite. The aging of the population
brings higher costs for Social Security and Medicare, but because
total spending will likely be constrained, the politics of the
budget could turn even uglier than in the past—in the nightmare
scenario, into a civil war of the welfare state with older whites
on one side and younger Hispanics and blacks on the other. Support
for public education has already eroded because of the disparity
in racial and ethnic background between urban school children
and taxpayers; given the rising share of Hispanics in the schools,
white support for public education may erode even more. The growth
of the Hispanic population may also further arouse among whites
anxieties already evident in the vote for Proposition 187 and
the English-only movement. Thus, the same demographic trends that
might benefit Democrats could also divide them.

To maintain support among these and other groups, however, Democrats
do not need to be single-minded advocates for interests narrowly
conceived; they have to be the responsible guardians for legitimate
interests, anchored in broadly shared values. Democrats need to
make clear their fundamental concern for immigrants by strongly
defending their civil rights and opposing the English-only movement,
but they should be wary of supporting high volumes of legal immigration
and thereby undercutting the economic position of low-wage workers.
Democrats ought to be clear about protecting the integrity of
social insurance programs and, for that very reason, be willing
to compromise on such measures as raising the age of eligibility
for Social Security; the current and soon-to-be elderly will likely
accept a marginal reduction in benefits in exchange for the assured
longevity and solvency of the programs. Democrats should similarly
support expanded educational opportunities, a living wage, and
other policies that benefit young workers and their families,
but they do not need to develop separate programs that exacerbate
racial and generational cleavages.

In 1996, the Republicans drove the elderly and Hispanics toward
the Democratic Party by supporting measures inimical to their
interests, and they alienated the young with a candidate who seemed
to belong to another era; Republicans are unlikely to keep repeating
the same mistake. But what happened in 1996 does reflect more
than a casual Republican impulse. The conservative antagonism
to government is likely to keep threatening those who need it.
While the elderly depend on social insurance programs, Hispanics
and African Americans depend on public spending for education
and other social services because they are disproportionately
young and poor. The other demographic groups that supported Clinton—unmarried
women of all ages and young men and women—tend to face more economic
insecurity and have more need of government than older men and
middle-aged married women do. The core of the Democrats' emerging
majority consists, as it has since the New Deal, of the groups
that are struggling hardest to take care of themselves and their
families. Helping them realize that aspiration ought to be central
to the purposes of the Democratic Party. Democrats should appeal
to these groups not merely because they make up a new majority,
but because their aspirations are a just and necessary cause.


Whether the Democratic Party itself can become a cause for the
movements historically allied with it is an open question [see
"Can the Democrats Become a Cause?"]. Democrats are
divided about what kind of cause the party represents, and each
of the competing factions has its own theory of a new majority.
On the left, populist-progressives see a "sleeping majority"
that requires stirring nonvoters from their political slumber,
and on the right, New Democrats see a new information-age centrist
majority that includes independents and moderate Republicans allied
with moderate Democrats.

The difficulty with the populist strategy is arousing enough nonvoters
to win elections; people who tune out politics are inherently
hard to reach. A hard-edged populism may also inadvertently mobilize
opponents as well as supporters and thus have a negligible or
even counterproductive impact. As a short-term proposition, the
New Democrats' approach is more likely to succeed. Just as it
is easier to sell a new brand to those who have bought another
brand of the same product than to people who haven't bought any,
so it is easier to sell a candidate or reformed image of a party
to independents and moderates who vote than to nonvoters.

But while attracting middle-class independents and Republicans
requires narrowing and blurring the differences between the parties,
activating low-income nonvoters could create an electorate more
friendly to progressive ideas. In the long run, Democrats would
be better off with an expanded electorate in which the median
voter was closer to their position than with a smaller electorate
in which they moved closer to Republicans—better off because even
if they chose to make tactical moves toward the center, the electorate
would be weighted further to their side. The populist approach
would also be more likely to maximize the effect of the demographic
trends favorable to Democrats. The growing Hispanic population
turned out to vote in larger numbers in 1996, but it still lagged
far behind the rest of the country. A politics addressing the
needs of low-income workers may bring more of them into the electorate.
Similarly, an inclusive, progressive approach to education and
living standards is more likely to engage young people. The long-term
interest of Democrats is to invest in a broader electorate and
to develop ideas and networks of organization that connect with
the currently disengaged.

The New Democrats, however, have not articulated a program that
addresses, much less stirs, the politically disengaged and economically
insecure. The vision of America favored by the Democratic Leadership
Council and its Progressive Policy Institute highlights the benefits
of the information revolution and global economy but downplays
the losses to those least capable of taking advantage of them.
Like Gingrich, some New Democrats have accepted the view derived
from Alvin Toffler that the United States is entering a new technological
era that dictates "demassification" of large institutions,
including "big public systems." In line with that view,
they have supported partial privatization of Social Security,
Medicare, and public education. But why the information revolution
should favor privatizing these services is obscure. What is clear
is that privatization would aggravate inequalities in these spheres
and undermine the already depleted sense of common social obligation
in America. These policies threaten to alienate groups vital to
a new majority, drive a wedge through the Democratic Party, and
give conservatives the necessary margin (and cover) to enact their

To their credit, the New Democrats and President Clinton have
helped to reconstitute the moral authority of the Democratic Party
by redefining the political middle ground on the social issues,
such as crime and "family values," that hurt the party
badly in recent decades. The New Democrats' "tolerant traditionalism,"
as Bill Galston calls it, has more popular support than either
the conservatives' intolerant traditionalism and what is perceived
to be (and unfortunately sometimes is) the indiscriminate postmodernism
of the left. Although often presented as a repudiation of liberalism,
the New Democrats' views are not especially conservative on the
issues championed by the "new liberalism" of the 1960s—civil
rights, the role of women, environmentalism, openness in government.
The divisions inflamed by the Vietnam War have now faded. However
much they may vex each other, the right and left of the Democratic
Party are much closer than they were during the long period when
southern Democrats were bitterly opposed to the national party.

Each side brings valuable assets to the task of building a new
majority. Liberals and progressives are vital to party renewal
because the progressive project has the greater capacity to inspire
commitment to the party as a cause and expand its reach across
the electorate and among nonvoters. Liberals are unlikely to make
up a majority in the general population, but like conservatives
among the Republicans, they can realistically aspire to be a majority
within America's majority party. Managing this role requires a
sense of both strengths and limitations. Liberals and populist-progressives
have a right to insist on their core role in setting the party's
agenda. But their influence will often be less than their share
of party activists might appear to warrant because moderate voters
(and, alas, donors) will continue to provide the additional votes
and resources needed to win general elections. If the Democratic
Party is to build a new majority, it will need both its liberal
and New Democrat wings. The party won't fly without them both.

This article is adapted from a piece in the book, The New Majority, edited by Stanley B. Greenberg and Theda Skocpol.

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