Remember back after President Obama won in 2012? We heard from a lot of Democrats about how “demographics are destiny.” The idea was that the Obama coalition would simply carry the Democratic Party to future majoritarian status. In the time since, it’s true that Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 were built largely off of that coalition, but there have been cracks in the foundation that should be concerning, particularly given the radicalization of the GOP in the Trump era.
It is true that in the coming 20 to 30 years, the country should move from majority white to non-white in population. It is also true that within the next 20 years, half of the country’s population will reside in just eight (8) states. Yes, the diversifying country is happening in about 8 states, or roughly 16 Senate seats. In many of the more rural, smaller, more red states, the country may even be whitening. Those 42 other states will have 84 Senate seats. When you add on that the Democratic coalition of voters tend to live together in urban and inner-suburban House Districts, you get close to 200 Congressional seats where Democrats routinely win north of two-thirds of the vote, but those 200 seats aren’t enough for a majority. This means Democrats will need to win in more moderate suburban districts, where the politics can tend to be at odds with the politics in the blue districts that make up most of the Democratic caucus. In other words, an emerging non-white majority in America is in danger of being ruled by a shrinking minority of rural white voters, if Democrats can’t balance the politics just right to win the moderate suburbs.
Of course, all of this is assuming the current political alignment even holds, which is at best murky. If this isn’t clear yet, non-white voters in the Democratic Party tend to be more moderate than a lot of white Democrats, particularly the men. Making things even harder is a slight but noticeable split between white voters in the big cities and suburbs, breaking down clearly along educational grounds. When you combine more conservative non-white voters voting more ideologically than based on identity (seen in 2020 as very slight shifts towards Trump) with urban white working class voters behaving more like suburban are rural blue collar whites with their vote, because of culture grievances (canceling Christopher Columbus, Blue Lives Matter, “socialism,” etc.), you get the kind of minor cracks in the Democratic coalition foundation that can be lethal in the long-term. You get a 2016 to 2020 shift map of Eastern Pennsylvania with weird red pockets where you don’t expect them (see below).
That map tells us a lot of things, but what it’s screaming at us is that the places Trump did better are generally the places where Democrats have essentially one party rule- Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, Reading, Bethlehem, Easton. Again, we know the slight shifts among non-white men, and the more pronounced shift in white, blue collar urban neighborhoods explains a lot of this change. What I think we don’t appreciate enough is how hard it is to try and stop it. Big city mayors like Jim Kenney or Bill de Blasio are not going to be the kinds of spokes people that can push on more progressive politics, it’s antithetical to them winning. The same can be said for more progressive members of Congress that can increasingly win districts in cities and inner suburbs. While I loathe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the damage she does to Democratic candidates in the 40-50 competitive House seats left with her messaging and presence, she represents the district she represents. Asking her to “tone it down” would probably harm her as bad as asking the New York Mayoral candidates to endorse “stop and frisk.” She’d end her career taking that advice. Sure, it might help us in Long Island Congressional races and Presidential elections, but exactly zero members of Congress are taking one for the team like that. In short, the impediment of the politics in blue seats on Democratic victories is probably inevitable right now.
The map above screams a second thing at us- Joe Biden is a particularly strong politician. His ability to take the slight hits in Democratic strongholds across the country, but still flip nearly every major battleground state through suburban America is a unique political ability we haven’t seen in a long time. His coalition of voters probably had 90% overlap with President Obama or Secretary Clinton, yet he found the gains in the electorate that he needed to beat a motivated GOP electorate that produced the second most popular votes ever- behind him. Biden’s coalition was broad, really diverse, and most importantly improved on all the areas where Democrats underperformed in 2014 and 2016. Contrary to the views of pundits that Biden was “lucky” to get nominated, you could see the contours of his coalition in the primaries before Covid hit- he was winning black working class, white working class, and suburban educated voters, in some states literally taking every county. In short, Biden was the guy for right now.
So what can the President do to try and fight off the demographic and political doom that seems to be setting up a “red horizon” for us? While many Democrats are arguing policy particulars, I actually don’t think this comes down to how much they raise the minimum wage, or cut student debt, or any of the things people are rage tweeting about right now. I think there are three broad themes he needs to hit in this Presidency to stop our political decay.
- End “Messiah politics,” turn down the political temperature. In short, be a boring, normal guy. Democrats, going back as far as JFK, have elected charismatic, big personality types. The GOP has done similar. We pretty much reached the peak with the Trump cult. Americans don’t elect kings, in fact we were founded on not doing so. The concentration of American power in Congressional leaders, nine lifetime appointed judges, and a singular American President has not done us well. It has divided leaders from the people, and created the perception of the “elite” ruling class. It has also made us concentrate a lot on the personal characteristics and scandals of Presidents, which short of breaking the law, should largely be irrelevant. The President doesn’t have to be a perfect person, in fact none of them are. The President can be boring, we don’t need to see them on TV every day. We certainly shouldn’t be hanging on their 1am tweets. The press is struggling with the lack of news from President Biden, and that is a good thing. Our hope and savior shouldn’t come from one elected leader, but from ourselves. Joe should be a boring guy, a devoted family guy with a very important job. We need to break our addiction to sensationalistic political news coverage that has become the new normal, post-Gingrich.
- Deliver tangible victories and results for his base. I would say a $1.9 trillion recovery package that revolutionizes public health, saves small businesses, puts cash in pockets, eradicates child poverty, and does a bunch to kill Covid is the best start we’ve seen in forever. It is not enough. Voting rights must be codified through federal legislation. The right to organize for unions must be strengthened after decades of attacks. Public education needs to be strengthened and funded. Action on climate change and the environment is needed. President Biden needs to enact legislation with Congressional Democrats that touch the lives of as much of his 82 million voting block as possible, particularly those groups who made up the backbone of his coalition.
- Convince whatever portion of the Republican electorate he can that government can still be useful, at least sometimes. This is admittedly the trickiest part. Most of the Trump voting block was less interested in policy, but more so in grievance politics. Thank God for that. Had Trump went beyond his isolationist rhetoric on trade and wars, and actually combined action for the “forgotten man” on economics with his white man grievance politics, he may very well have rebuilt the FDR coalition and governed a new dynasty. Fortunately the grievances are still the lede in the GOP platform, but they can’t cross their rich donor base. Trump used their bigotry views to align lower educated white voters with millionaire Republicans better than anyone in modern time, in part because many working class white voters haven’t felt they get benefits from the government acting in decades. Of course they do, but the connection isn’t made. Whether it is on Covid relief, a massive infrastructure bill, or creating green jobs, the Biden Administration needs to change that perception. Left with their current presumptions, 47% of Americans were willing to follow an ignorant con-man into the abyss. We are on the verge of losing one of our only two American political parties permanently to the conspiracy theorists descending from the John Birchers through the Tea Party, a set of loons who stormed our Capitol and romanticize a second Civil War. In fifteen years the Republican Party will either be a healthy political party with political ideas, or it will be a dangerous, white nationalist cult that is governing the majority of the country through essentially an apartheid government. How they are brought back to the table after President Biden will decide that.
Looking at the future through the lense of reality is hard. In a couple decades, we could be a hellscape of a nation. That is, unless Joe Biden can restore some public confidence in the institutions that govern us. Unless he can convince us that DC is not a bunch of out-of-touch, hyper educated folks representing interest groups and eschewing reality in our lives. If he succeeds, he’s one of our greatest Presidents. If he fails, we will fall to the chaos of extremist politics and a bleak future.