What is the future for “once and future liberals”?

Democrats have to come to terms with populism.

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Somewhere in northern Arizona. © Dave DuBay

Will Republicans lose the Senate in 2018? Will Democrats make gains in the House of Representatives? Will President Donald Trump be reelected in 2020?

Who knows. Democratic victories in November 2017 show the strength of anti-Trump sentiments. But progressives are wrong to think that getting rid of Trump will make Trumpism go away. Trump harnessed a pre-existing dynamic. And that populist dynamic—white identity politics, nationalism, anti-free trade—will continue without Trump.

Democrats and the mainstream media, though, don’t have a good track record for making predictions. During the 2016 primaries they predicted that Republicans wouldn’t nominate Trump. Then they predicted a revolt at the Republican National Convention. Next they said Trump would not win the presidency. Then they said he’d be impeached within a few months of taking office. Some still think Trump will be impeached.

Even if Trump is eventually impeached, the Republican establishment won’t come roaring back. Writing for Arc Digital Media, Nicholas Grossman declares that “the Republican civil war is over—the populists won.” Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker framed their retirements as a principled decision, but really it’s a retreat.

Meanwhile, Democrats are doubling down on their support for the establishment, purging Bernie Sanders supporters from the Democratic National Convention.

Resting on their laurels and expecting dissatisfaction with Trump to provide Democratic electoral victories in 2018 would be a mistake. An alternative is for Democrats to listen to and talk with middle America. But identity politics truncates real discussion because it creates a power competition.

Mark Lilla’s postmortem of the 2016 election—The Once and Future Liberal—is controversial. Lilla writes that,

Speaking as an X…sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. …I think A…now takes the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.

He says that “JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country…became…what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Republicans historically have focused on our shared identity as Americans—as citizens of a democratic republic. But Democrats focus on “our identification with different social groups within it.”

As conservatives co-opt identity politics, however, their focus on our shared identity as Americans withers. And barely more than a third of Americans approve of Trump’s performance—lower than any president in recent memory. Generic polls asking whether possible 2018 voters prefer Democrats or Republicans vary from a three point Democratic lead (The Economist and Yougov) to a fifteen point Democratic lead (FOX News). Of course, a lot can change in a year. And we can’t assume that a general preference for Democrats will apply to specific House and Senate races.

But the Democratic Party leadership getting solidly behind the establishment is perhaps a bigger mistake. The populist wave that brought Trump to power—and which almost enabled independent Bernie Sanders to become a usurper in the Democratic Party—is not a fad.

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How the GOP Shot Itself In the Foot

The Republican Party is being hijacked by a bigoted demagogue because the Republican establishment fell asleep at the wheel.

Let’s take a trip back in time when Democrats were more racist than Republicans. Though Barry Goldwater and five other Republican senators voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 21 Democratic senators voted against civil rights.

Goldwater didn’t think government had the right to tell businesses what to do. And though Goldwater opposed the Ku Klux Klan, a lightbulb went off in the KKK’s head. White racists realized that arguments about limited government and states rights generated more public support than explicitly racist arguments did.

The South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War because it was the Republican Party that defeated the Confederacy, abolished slavery, and were early champions of civil rights legislation. Back then, Republicans were more popular in the North. Still, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed despite immense opposition from Southern Democrats.

Johnson remarked that the Democratic Party had lost the South. And in the 1968 presidential campaign this was too good of an opportunity for Republican candidate Richard Nixon to pass up. Today, thanks to Nixon’s Southern strategy, Southern whites are predominantly Republican.

But the Republican establishment seemed to think it could get the votes of right wing extremists down South without ceding control of the GOP to them. Meanwhile, Republicans like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and others used the airwaves to spread an extreme right wing message to workers throughout the country who were devastated over the replacement of good paying manufacturing jobs with low paying service and retails jobs.

The Southern strategy also meant courting evangelical Christians. In 1994 Goldwater supposedly said, “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me.”

Soon the racism that had been directed at African-Americans became generalized xenophobia reminiscent of the nativist “Know Nothing” party of the 19th century. Today, Muslims, Mexicans, and women are also major targets.

Donald Trump’s populist presidential campaign is the culmination of this, and it shows that the Republican establishment has lost control of the party. Ronald Reagan belonged to the Republican establishment, though he courted the extreme right. George W. Bush was born into the Republican establishment, but he felt more at home among right wing populists. That is, Bush had a foot in both worlds. But the last two Republican candidates for president (John McCain and Mitt Romney) were establishment Republicans, and both lost badly.

The Republican establishment has run out of steam, but right wing populists are energized.

Still, Trump has received only 37% of Republican primary votes – a plurality, not a majority. In the general election against Hillary Clinton, Trump is anticipated to lose by a similar margin.

Also notable is that Trump’s support is highest among older voters. He has very few supporters under 30. I’ve written before about the Republican Party’s aging and therefore shrinking voter base. It’ll take another 20 or 30 years before today’s 20-somethings are in their voting prime and the older, more conservative voting block is no longer politically significant. Between now and then we can expect more disarray from the GOP as it faces an identity crisis in a changing world.

 

The Demographic Times They Are A-Changin’

I’ve heard it said that by mid-century whites will be a minority in the United States. But strictly speaking this isn’t true.

The Center for American Progress, in collaboration with the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative American Enterprise Institute, released a report about America’s future. States of Change: The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate, 1974–2060 looks at where we’ve been and where we’re going.

And the demographics, they are a-changin’. The report describes the emerging American racial mix using the phrase “majority-minority” to describe whites being less than half of the population but larger than any other group.

I prefer the word plurality. Semantics aside, whites will not be a minority by mid-century because being the largest group, though less than half of the population, is not comparable to the place African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and others have held in American society.

Regional Differences

Also interesting are the expected regional differences. My home state of Maine is 94% white (non-Hispanic). By 2060 this is expected to drop to 88%. Yet, Asian-Americans today are the largest group in Hawaii at 37.7% while whites are 23%.

Northern states from New England to the Pacific Northwest are projected to remain majority white in 2060, but Latinos are anticipated to outnumber whites in the Southwest – including California and Texas. And this could significantly alter politics in Texas, with national ramifications. Whites and Latinos will be roughly equal in mid-century Florida.

Although the African-American share of the demographic pie is expected to remain constant, notable shifts could happen in the Deep South. Will blacks one day outnumber whites in Georgia?

The Asian-American population is likely to increase significantly, and California will notice this most, as will every major American city.

Immigration Is Good

Immigration is going to be a major driver of these shifts. The United States has always followed a predictable pattern with immigration: heavy immigration from certain parts of the globe results in xenophobia and racism among Americans whose ancestors immigrated a few generations earlier. The newcomers are often poor but within a couple generations are as well educated as anyone else and have added invaluably to American culture. And then they lament that today’s immigrants aren’t like their grandparents.

In the nineteenth century the Irish began showing up in droves, and Americans put signs in shop windows saying “Irish need not apply.” The Irish were drunks, lazy, always on the dole (welfare), and practiced a pagan religion (Catholicism). Then in 1960 the great-grandson of Irish immigrants got elected president, and on March 17 every American claims Irish ancestry. But Americans of Irish descent are counted among those who want to close the door to Latinos.

But Latinos are a different group. Italian-Americans were geographically separated from Italy, so the Italian language in America faded away. But the Americas are mostly Spanish speaking, and the Southwest United States was once northern Mexico. Thus, Hispanics will be the only major ethnic group to retain bilingualism. And that’s okay. Canada does it just fine. Switzerland is trilingual.

Generations

Let’s take a look at the 2016 presidential election, and what that might mean down the line.

States of Change tells us that the Greatest Generation (think World War II) is only 1% of the US population, so not a group politicians will be courting. Members of the Silent Generation (think Elvis Presley) are now in their 70s and 80s. They’re less than a tenth of the population.

Baby Boomers and Millennials are each about a quarter of the population, and they are the ones politicians must focus on. But Boomers are key (for this election cycle) because people are more likely to vote when they’re older. And politically, they’re very polarized. Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore are both Boomers.

Did I forget someone? Oh yeah, Generation X. My generation. Demographically, we are a baby bust. We’re a fifth of the American population. Like the Silent Generation, we will be forgotten. Reality Bites. Our best strategy is to ride Millennial’s coattails.

As the older generations pass away, Republicans will have to become more socially progressive to survive. Fiscally conservative young people are much more socially progressive than their elders. Fifty-eight percent of Millennial Republicans support gay marriage, and almost two-thirds would legalize marijuana.

The Millennial Future

Talkin’ ’bout my generation. It’s an American tradition. The Greatest Generation trashed Baby Boomers in the ’60s, and Boomers trashed GenX in the ’90s. Now it’s Millennials turn to be trashed. But they’re in their 20s. They will grow up, they will take the reins of leadership, and it will be fine. Expect an unprecedented number of women leaders from this generation.

Today, Millennials are 27% of the population. By 2060 they’ll be 21% (the same percentage GenX is today).

Not bad.

By comparison, GenX will be 8% in 2060. Those born after 2000 (a generation still being born) will be a quarter of the population, and folks born circa 2020 through the 2030s will be an equal score. The generation starting to be born around 2040 is, by 2060, expected to be slightly smaller.

Big picture: In the 2020s Millennials will start to fill the void left by Baby Boomers’ setting sun, and they will maintain this position until the 2060s.