Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics is one of the better analysts of basic political trends out there, so I was looking forward to his new book The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs – and Who Will Take It. I was fortunate enough to snag a review copy for RedState, and found it to be a fairly persuasive argument that our general assumptions about the implications of any given election are usually wrong. It was not exactly a groundbreaking argument for me, but then I’m already familiar with Sean’s writing on RCP.
Sean makes three claims in The Lost Majority:
“First, that the 2010 midterm elections were a result of Barack Obama and the Democrats misreading both their mandate and how they had been brought to power, imagining a realignment in 2008 when, in fact, none had occurred. Second, that the emerging partisan majorities described by theorists from both parties are mirages. Third, that the entire concept of realignments/permanent alignments, which underlies much of the misbegotten analysis of the 2008 elections, is bankrupt and should be abandoned.” (page xiii)
The first claim is not exactly going to be controversial to anybody who isn’t a Democrat; the second and third are perhaps more likely to be matters of some controversy to ideologically-minded readers. They should not, however, be dismissed out of hand; after all, there were a lot of very book-smart people advising the Democrats in 2009 and 2010 who based their opinions on the belief that long-term partisan majorities are inevitable and that alignments are possible The collapse of their models should at least be seen as cautionary.
The bulk of the book examines the American political system from the 1920s to the 2010 midterms, and in the process calls into question pretty much every commonly-believed, after-the-fact description made of it. This includes, but is not limited to: the enduring New Deal coalition (which Sean argues ended in the 1940s) ; the ‘Southern Strategy’ (although I don’t remember that the author ever formally referred to it as such in the text); and the Reagan Revolution (which Sean categorizes as marking the end of the previous Eisenhower coalition). In all of these cases, the author dives into actual voting patterns – both geographical and demographic – and generally demonstrates that said commonly-believed descriptions are at best over-simplified and at worst flat-out wrong.
To give just one example: the traditional liberal narrative of the ‘Southern Strategy’ is that LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act in 1964, and then racist Southern Democrats switched over to the Republican party en masse. Only… they didn’t. As the author noted: voting patterns in the South began to shift a decade earlier under Eisenhower; continued with organization on the local level in the Sixties that started before the VRA’s passage; and then generally chugged along until enough older Southerners (who largely remained stubbornly Democratic) died of old age, while the younger ones largely declined to vote for a party that had been calling them racist hicks for forty years (I am paraphrasing, obviously). But it’s easier to go with the existing narrative, in much the same way that it’s easier to go with the narrative that the House was under firm Democratic control for forty years… instead of the more complicated and ideologically-hostile one that Congress was divided up between Republicans, Democrats, and conservative Democrats who felt free to vote with Republicans on key issues.
Which leads to the last argument of Sean’s: that, essentially, realignments are impossible because (again, I paraphrase) there’s not really any such thing as “Republican” or “Democrat” in the first place, as they’re commonly described. The author more or less takes the position that both parties are comprised of a variety of interest groups (some voting on ideology, others on party loyalty, and yet others out of pragmatism) that can and will shift their voting patterns as necessary. Worse, from an ideological point of view: as one group is accommodated, another will likely be ignored or dismissed… and change their votes accordingly. Which is one reason why Sean Trende (and I, for that matter) is somewhat dismissive of the ‘demographic is destiny’ argument; there’s no way of knowing that a group that votes Democratic or Republican today will always vote that way.
Generally, I enjoyed The Lost Majority as being readable and logical; my major criticism of it is that I don’t think that it takes into account fully the ability of a party’s leadership to let its own ideological biases affect its thinking. I’m referring specifically to the Democrats, here: due largely to districting issues, its current leadership hails from districts and areas that are reliably liberal, and are in fact heavily so. In an environment where the basic rule of thumb for the electorate is 40% conservative, 40% moderate, and 20% liberal, this is at least a potential problem for the Democratic party… and if the Democrats continue to ignore the fact that they’re allowing their fringe to set policy then their party is at least somewhat at risk of utter collapse. And the collapse of a party is something that could cause a realignment, for quite some time.
Mind you, I am a proud partisan hack, so take that observation with a grain of salt. In the meantime, I heartily recommend The Lost Majority: particularly if you want to have a good idea how people have actually been voting for the last ninety years…
Moe Lane (crosspost)