There are many factors that have made American politics so toxic. The 2000 Presidential election. The rise of the Tea Party and later Donald Trump. The Iraq war. The legacy of the Confederacy.
But there is one factor that has changed how our political parties operate, how they look at the world, and how they will govern America. As we enter the last few weeks of the Presidential campaign and in the aftermath of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, we need to understand how two progressive writers’ electoral hopes for the future changed America in ways they could not have imagined — changes that in many ways, weren’t for the better.
In 2002, political writer John B. Judis and political scientist Ruy Texeria published a book called The Emerging Democratic Majority. This was a take on another book written by then-Republican operative Kevin Phillips called the Emerging Republican Majority in 1969. Judis and Texeria’s book argued that by the end of the decade, the Democrats would take control of government thanks to the growing number of non-white Americans. Minorities and professional white progressives would combine to create an enduring Democratic majority. Why? Because non-white Americans were joining the Democrats and not the GOP. As this non-white population grew it meant that a fairly strong governing majority would come about and benefit the Democrats for years to come. The ascension of Barak Obama to the Presidency as the nation’s first black President in 2008 seemed to show the time had arrived. Writing in the immediate aftermath of that election Judis wrote about how Obama’s win could be a sea change in politics:
“If Obama and congressional Democrats act boldly, they can not only arrest the downturn but also lay the basis for an enduring majority. As was the case with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, many of the measures necessary to combat today's recession will also help ensure long-term Democratic electoral success. Many Southerners remained Democrats for generations in part because of Roosevelt's rural electrification program; a similar program for bringing broadband to the hinterland could lure these voters back to the Democratic Party. And national health insurance could play the same role in Democrats' future prospects that Social Security played in the perpetuation of the New Deal majority.”
But we now know that’s not how things turned out. Obama and the Democrats did pass the Affordable Care Act, but the Republicans found a new role as obstructionists, and the Tea Party created soldiers for a Republican mini-revolution. Judis has since shown more skepticism over his predictions that demography is destiny, worried that the Democrats are favoring identity over class.
Changing demographics still very well could change the fortunes of both parties, but before we get to that proposed future, we should acknowledge that this theory has in many ways helped bring President Trump to power and caused much of the political dysfunction we are seeing now.
What follows is my own theory. There is no real science to this other than my own observations over the last 20 years. So, do with it what you will.
When the Democratic Majority theory took hold among politicians, both parties reacted differently. Among Democrats, there was a sense that they didn’t have to court working-class voters, especially white working-class voters. They saw what happened in 2008 with the so-called “coalition of the ascendant” and believed they found a winning base that would be in place for decades. Now, this move away from the working-class was happening in the Democratic party for years, but the Coming Democratic Majority intensified things. This hope in the future changed how the party looked at a lot of things. One issue was immigration. Until about 2010 or so, the Democrats were split on immigration. If you looked at the 1996 Democratic Platform, you might wonder if you were reading the Republican Platform. There was talk of stopping illegal immigration and fear that illegal immigrants were coming to commit crimes. The 2016 Democratic Platform was markedly different. Gone was the talk of illegal immigrants and in was talk of fixing a broken immigration system that separated families. Between 1994 and 2019, the amount of Democrats that believed immigrants took jobs declined by 50 percent. More immigration, especially after the 1965 immigration reform, meant an even more diverse America, which meant good news electorally for the Democrats.
On the other side, Republicans were also changing and demographics sped up those changes. If demographics were destiny, then they had to do what they could to forestall that future as much as possible. If all of these people of color were going to be Democrats, it made no sense to really reach out to them. This also changed views on immigration for the same reason. More people of color meant more Democrats, so they needed to slow immigration down if not stop it in order to give the GOP the edge. They also had to find ways to keep enough of these people from voting. This is why Republicans have tried to suppress the vote in different places around the nation. Not every charge of voter suppression is true, of course, but efforts to prohibit mail-in voting and limiting the number of polling places in some cities is well documented. The Republican party has had issues concerning race since the 1960s, but this shift helped to turn it into the party of white resentment and hostility.
Donald Trump is the perfect politician for this climate. For Republicans, he is the bulwark against what they think is a demographic nightmare. For Democrats, he is either the last gasp of white America or the barrier to the promised land of demographic destiny.
The theory of demography as destiny also affected how we look at the structural nature of the American government. Our system is a republican form of government and not a pure democracy. This means we have some parts of government that are undemocratic in nature. These structures, such as the Electoral College and the Senate, were designed to give small states a say against larger states. So the smallest state by population, Wyoming, gets three electoral votes and two Senators. This means they have a lot of power compared, to say, the most populous state, California. The Golden State gets 55 electoral votes but gets the same number of Senators. This results in a lopsided result where Wyoming has a lot of power compared to California.
Have you ever wondered why people focus on these two states? The answer again lies in demographics: Wyoming is a mostly white state with whites making nearly 91 percent its population of about 579,000 people. California is about 60 percent white with 40 percent of the population being Hispanic (who can be people of any race). California is a solidly Democratic state, but its diverse electorate doesn’t count as much as tiny Wyoming in the Electoral College or the Senate. This explains the moves from the left to abolish both mechanisms, especially in light of the 2016 Presidential election where Hilary Clinton won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college. They are considered relics of a racist past, while Republicans see them as the only thing keeping them from the Democrats winning majorities indefinitely.
The problem with our focus on demographics is that we have a political system that is increasingly polarized and that no longer works. The founders created a system based on compromise, but the promise or doom of demographics has made any attempt at compromise impossible. No one wants to do anything that could be seen helping the other side.
When Judis and Texira created their theory nearly 20 years ago, I’m sure they had no idea how it would change America. Their take on demographics is true in the sense that we are becoming more “brown.” That’s a good thing for America all around. But when demographics became tied to electoral politics, it ended up poisoning our system as a whole.
In the end, it would have been better to keep race and ethnicity out of electoral politics. By tying our national future to the browning of America, we changed politics into a dangerous game of tug-of-war. No matter who wins, America will lose.