Review: The New Democratic Majority


The hottest book of the last political season was "The Emerging Democratic Majority" by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Using political, economic and especially demographic data, the authors predict "the dawn of a new progressive era" based on the votes of professional women, high-tech workers and minorities. This did not occur last year: On Nov. 5, 2002, Republicans won solid unified control of all three branches of the federal government for the first time since 1929 and their first majority of state legislators since 1952. Judis credited President Bush's popularity due to foreign policy for the Republican victory, and he's undoubtedly correct. But beyond 2002, how does this book stand up to reality?

The answer is that it's two-thirds of a good book. The book understands and uses demographic data well, but comes up short on programmatic content. The authors are certainly right that the potential for a Democratic comeback exists, mainly in the form of new Third World immigrants and women who work outside the home. However, there is very little explanation of the ideas needed to make it a reality. In short, the "Emerging Democratic Majority" lacks a coherent worldview to bind all its diverse elements together.


Judis and Teixeira openly state they are using "The Emerging Republican Majority" published in 1969 by Kevin Phillips as a model. (They call that book "an indispensable guide for conservatives through the 1970s and 1980s.") Phillips turned out to be quite prophetic in foreseeing a new conservative Republican presidential majority based in the South, the West and suburbia: Republicans have won six of nine national elections since the wave of urban riots and the Vietnam War escalated, both in 1965. And Judis and Teixeira hope they can equal Phillips' predictive success.

Most suburbanites and farmers outside the South already were voting Republican. So the key to the GOP ascendancy of the last generation as described by Phillips was the defection of once staunch Democrats in the South. Although Phillips first propounded his theory in the late '60s, the effects of the GOP realignment in Dixie were lasting: Al Gore lost every Southern state in 2000 and that cost him the presidency.

The key to Democratic future hopes are three groups who began to come of age in the Sixties: "women (especially working, single, and highly educated women), minorities, and professionals -- all of whom are growing as a portion of the electorate. They are based in post-industrial metropolitan areas rather than in the small-town South and the Rust Belt North." The authors refer to the large urban areas populated by college-educated voters "who produce ideas and services" as "ideopolises." Although this "post-industrial" vote is solidly middle class, the authors believe that they are more interested in "quality of life" issues than economic class issues. The classic examples of ideopolises are California's "Silicon Valley" in the San Francisco Bay area and the "Route 128" corridor near Boston. Others would include Seattle (the home turf of Microsoft), Hollywood (seat of the entertainment industry), North Carolina's "Research Triangle" (which contains three major universities and is the only white-majority area in the state that still votes Democratic) and Washington. All are famous for their socially liberal politics.


The authors note that nearly 60 percent of American women are in the workforce compared to 38 percent in 1960. That fact has led to the rise of various feminist issues (abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, childcare, etc.), which have driven working women away from Republicans. Since women with a college degree have the highest turnout in the nation, the clout of working women is even more important. Democrats are also counting on minorities: blacks, non-Cuban Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Blacks and Puerto Ricans vote almost exclusively Democratic, while Mexican-Americans go 2-1 Democratic and Asians switched parties in the 1990s after voting strongly for President Reagan in 1984. These voters were about 10 percent of the national electorate in 1972, but have doubled to 20 percent. Blacks, Hispanics and Asians will be a majority in key states such as California, Texas and New York by 2010 and could be 25 percent of all voters in presidential elections in 2008 or 2012. The late Everett Carl Ladd documented in the 1970s how "liberal" views on the new social issues such as Vietnam, civil rights and the environment correlated with higher education levels. Therefore, well-educated professionals over the past few elections have focused on social concerns rather than economic issues like taxes. Those with a post-graduate education voted for Gore by 52 percent to 44 percent.


Judis and Teixeira compare today's Democrats to the Progressive Republicans (Teddy Roosevelt, Bob LaFollette, Earl Warren) of the last century -- socially liberal, fiscally moderate, willing to regulate business for the public interest. That's an excellent point as the Democrats are now winning the Northern tier states that had a long history of moderate-to-liberal Republicans (New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Oregon, etc.)

Judis and Teixeira are certainly correct that any Democratic candidate who won a majority of white women (43 percent of all voters), 90 percent of the black vote (10 percent), two-thirds of Hispanics (7 percent), a majority of Asians (2 percent), plus about 35 percent from white males would carry the popular vote. That's essentially what Gore did in 2000. Judis and Teixeira apparently believe that "demography is destiny" in predicting the Democrats will "dominate political discourse in post-industrial America." (But demographic potential is one thing, actual winning can be quite another). The authors note that Republicans dominate the fast-growing smaller new suburban areas and declining rural sections, but that Democrats are doing best in the big areas metropolitan areas that cast the most votes. The book's strengths are the authors' understanding of historical trends and skill at using demographic data. What, if any, are its weaknesses? There are two flaws, one minor, one major.


The minor weakness is a wistful look back to the 1970s -- Judis apparently has a soft spot for George McGovern, who managed to lose every state except Massachusetts. In the second chapter (spurred by a Y2K Judis article in The New Republic titled "How George McGovern Won Election 2000 for the Dems"), the authors stumble into an embarrassing gaffe that will make readers question not just their theory, but their basic political judgment and common sense as well. They admit that McGovern's 1972 campaign was a failure in losing all but one state and then write: "Perhaps it is time to reappraise McGovern campaign -- not as a model of how to win presidential elections, but as an election that foreshadowed a new Democratic majority in the twenty-first century." This assertion is patently absurd (and I voted for McGovern in our seventh-grade mock election).

Let's take a look back at 1972. The authors quote a Gallup pre-election poll showing McGovern doing better than 1968 Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey did with minorities. That guess is contradicted by network precinct studies and exit polls that prove Humphrey ran a few points better with both blacks and Hispanics. They argue that the "gender gap ballooned in 1972" because McGovern did better with women than men. The reality is that McGovern completely collapsed with men: he lost women by "only" 37 percent to 61 percent and men by 36 percent to 62 percent, according to the CBS News/New York Times exit poll. That's a gender gap all right, but also a disastrous defeat among both sexes. They note that McGovern did better than Humphrey with "highly skilled professionals." But some of those gains were from the black middle class who were voting Republican as late as 1960 and Humphrey lost that election with the second-worst Democratic percentage of the vote since the Depression, hardly a good comparison. They boast that McGovern won college towns such as Berkeley (University of California), Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) and Madison (University of Wisconsin) that had once voted Republican. But even this statistic needs an asterisk: the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972 and Humphrey also carried the youngest voters in 1968. The Democrats might have also swept the college towns in 1968 if most students were eligible to vote. Except for black voters, McGovern did worse than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy with every constituency in America. He was certainly an honorable man, but McGovern got fewer male, female, blue collar, white collar, urban, suburban, rural, Hispanic, Asian, Southern, Northern, Western, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant votes than FDR, Truman and JFK. Or Humphrey too, for that matter (McGovern was the first Democrat since Reconstruction to lose every Southern state). Truman and Kennedy won close elections by getting nearly 60 percent of the white working class vote. McGovern fell to just 37 percent of the white labor vote. Compared to other losers who paved the way for eventual realignment -- Al Smith brought out Catholic voters in 1928 and Barry Goldwater swung a majority of white Southerners to the Republicans in 1964 for the first time -- McGovern was a dismal failure. Of the 100 largest urban areas outside the South, McGovern lost ground compared to Humphrey in all but 10 of them. It seems a little silly to hold up as an example a man who lost by the greatest margin ever (18 million votes!). Michael Dukakis, the much-maligned 1988 Democratic nominee, actually qualifies more as a pioneer because he ran essentially even on the West Coast, a region well-known for anticipating the future. (See the rise of Ronald Reagan).


But let's not pile on too much on McGovern as he did continue the trend that first became visible in 1964: Democrats were making gains with well-educated voters based on social issues like civil rights, women's rights and especially, the environment. And he did hold onto to most of the black and Hispanic vote.

Enough of the past, how can Democrats turn the votes of working women, "wired workers" and minorities into the dominant coalition? Here is where this book compares unfavorably with Kevin Phillips' 474-page masterpiece that analyzed the voting patterns for the last century of every region in the country. The Nixon-Reagan-Bush-Phillip's GOP coalition had an easily understandable ideological thrust in supporting the interests of the middle class in suburbia and the Sun Belt. (Phillips told Gary Wills in 1968 that the new GOP majority was "against welfare and the Establishment"). The Republican mantra since the 1960s has been, "small government and lower taxes." What will be the ideas that will allow Democrats to maintain their grip on the big metro areas and expand into areas that Gore lost in 2000? Judis and Teixeira have no quick answers here, a major flaw for any model.

Judis and Teixeira point to Clinton's easy re-election in 1996 as the model for future Democratic campaigns. But the Clinton-style moderation of acting as a brake against conservative excess worked well when Newt Gingrich was the Republican leader. It isn't likely to score against a President who openly campaigned as a "compassionate conservative" and has gone out of his way to court minorities. The Clinton coalition of 1996 is certainly capable of winning under the right conditions, but it will need more substance to fashion a long-term dominant majority.


What are the ideas that will mobilize the millions of non-voting black and Hispanic Democrats (both groups stayed home in droves in 2002)? How will supporting gay rights and partial birth abortions win back the socially conservative white working class votes whose defection cost Gore so dearly in 2000?

Since 1965, the Democratic Coalition has been hemorrhaging white working class votes. From 1932 to 1964, Democratic nominees averaged nearly 60 percent of the white labor vote. Since 1965, that average has fallen to 45 percent. Gore did well enough with white workers outside the South, but was fatally shut out in Dixie. No Democrat has ever won the presidency without carrying at least four Southern states for the simple reason that Republicans are so strong in the Farm Belt and Mountain States. And no Democrat has ever won the South and Border States without carrying the white working man's votes (affectionately known in the South as "Bubbas"). In short, no Democrat has ever won without doing well in places like Wheeling, W. Va.,; Lafayette, La., Greensboro, M.C., and Murfreesboro, Tenn. Compare the performance of Democratic losers in those areas and you'll see that McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis & Co. ran well behind Truman and JFK there. An "Emerging Democratic Majority" based on wealthy social liberals will always be one tax increase away from breaking up. Whenever Democrats were a majority, they almost always had a broad-based coalition focusing on economics.


What the Democratic Party has needed since the 1970s is a simple message, almost certainly economic, that can unite white Democrats and minorities. This book does not supply that sharp message. UPI Editor in Chief John O'Sullivan in National Review has pointed out that all previous partisan realignments have been caused by a "catalytic failure" (depression, war, etc.). Judis and Teixeira are undeniably talented men who've written a fascinating and (for partisan Democrats) hopeful book. But since they offer no concrete reason why working class whites will come back to the Democrats in this decade, any hope for a new Democratic Majority rests on President Bush making mistakes. That's certainly possible, but hardly automatic.

Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.

Latest Headlines