Majority Rules

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POLITICS AUGUST 5, 2002

Majority Rules

Long before George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election, his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, was predicting to reporters that a Bush victory would produce a historic political realignment. This new Republican majority would resemble the one William McKinley built roughly one century ago. "I look at this time as 1896, the time where we saw the rise of William McKinley and his vice president, Teddy Roosevelt," Rove declared. "That was the last time we had a shift in political paradigm." Just as McKinley exploited America's shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy to build his majority, Bush would exploit America's "transformational" shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy to build his. Bush would be the candidate and the president of the "new economy."

In Rove's mind, September 11 has reinforced the parallel: Bush's war on terrorism is the political equivalent of McKinley's Spanish-American War. As U.S. News %amp% World Report columnist Michael Barone wrote in February, Rove "looks back to William McKinley, who was elected with 51 percent of the vote in 1896 but whose successful war and domestic policies built that up to a solid majority for years ahead." And the current financial scandals are merely a bump along that inevitable road. The scandals, Rove told NBC's Tim Russert on July 13, are a "business problem ... not a political scandal" and will not affect the underlying movement toward a new Republican majority.

Rove is half right. He's correct that we are in a transformational political era that displays marked similarities to 1896. And he is correct that this era will produce a majority party that dominates American politics for years to come. It just won't be the GOP. To the contrary, ever since the collapse of the Reagan conservative majority, which enjoyed its final triumph in November 1994, American politics has been turning slowly, but inexorably, toward a new Democratic majority. It was evident in Al Gore's popular-vote victory in 2000 (made more significant by the overhang of the Bill Clinton scandals and Gore's ineptitude as a campaigner) and in Bush's and the Republicans' sinking fortunes in the first two-thirds of 2001. It was obscured by the patriotic rush of support for Bush after September 11, which to some extent carried over to the Republican Party as a whole. But it has resurfaced in recent months as Americans have turned their attention back to the economy and domestic policy and away from the war on terrorism. Far from being a temporary distraction from a long-term shift toward the GOP, popular anger at the business scandals and the plummeting Dow heralds the resumption of a long-term shift toward the Democrats.

If this emerging Democratic majority has eluded many observers, perhaps it is because it differs substantially from the New Deal Democratic coalition that dominated American politics from 1932 to 1968. Today the Democrats are increasingly a party of professionals, women, and minorities rather than of blue-collar workers. They are based in postindustrial metropolitan areas rather than in the small-town South and the Rust Belt North. And they are a party of the progressive center rather than the Great Society left or the laissez-faire right. The new Democratic Party's true historical antecedent is, ironically, that same progressive Republican Party of the early twentieth century that Rove identifies with the Bush Republicans. It, and not Bush's GOP, will oversee America's postindustrial transition because it, and not Bush's GOP, embodies the demographic and cultural changes that this new America will bring.

 

THE ROVE-BARONE THESIS

It is difficult to assess Rove's theory of Republican realignment because, although he refers to it often, he has never publicly spelled it out in detail. For that, one must turn to U.S. News's Barone, who in the 2002 edition of The Almanac of American Politics uses Rove's categories and his assumptions to argue that an America evenly divided between Bush and Gore in 2000 is gradually but unavoidably becoming what he calls the "Bush nation." Bush and Gore voters, Barone writes, represent "two nations of different faiths. One is observant, tradition-minded, moralistic. The other is unobservant, liberation-minded, relativist." Barone also depicts Bush and Gore supporters as divided in their view of the free market: Bush voters want "more choice" in economics, Gore voters "more government." The GOP's ace in the hole, argues Barone, is that Bush's voters are growing far more quickly than Gore's. According to Barone, Republicans enjoy an advantage in "the fastest-growing parts of the United States." The United States, he writes, is "moving, slowly, toward the Bush nation."

But Barone's--and by extension, perhaps, Rove's-- reading of the nation's changing demography is dead wrong. His argument about the GOP's advantage in the "fastest-growing parts" rests on a simple confusion between the rate of growth and the size of growth. Yes, Bush did better than Gore in the 50 counties that grew the fastest during the '90s, averaging 62 percent of the vote, compared with 33 percent for Gore. But these pro-Bush counties are relatively small--averaging just 109,000 inhabitants--so their high growth rates translate into only modest increases in actual Bush voters. By contrast, in the 50 counties with the largest overall population growth--metropolitan counties averaging 1.46 million inhabitants--Gore won by a decisive 54 percent to 42 percent.

What Barone's numbers really reveal is that Bush and the Republicans enjoy an advantage in rural areas and in the "collar" counties on the edge of metropolitan areas being formed primarily by white emigres from rural areas. If history were running in reverse, and if the United States were becoming a primarily rural nation, the GOP would enjoy a distinct demographic advantage. But rural America is shrinking--its share of the country's population has declined 17 percent over the last 40 years--while densely populated metropolitan America is growing and, with it, Democratic prospects.

 

A closer look at Barone and Rove's other categories reveals similar flaws. Take Barone's "observant, tradition-minded, moralistic" believers--a group Rove has cited in pep talks with Republican operatives as the basis for an expanding GOP majority. According to exit polls, Bush beat Gore among voters who say they attend church more than once weekly by 63 percent to 36 percent and among voters who say they attend church weekly by 57 percent to 40 percent. If these groups were growing as a percentage of the electorate, so would Bush's and the Republicans' political fortunes. But they're not; the number of Americans who rarely or never attend church is growing far faster. According to the National Opinion Research Center biennial survey, the number of Americans who said they never attended church or attended less than once per year rose from 18 percent in 1972 to 30 percent in 1998. In 2000 the National Election Study found that nonattenders--who overwhelmingly vote Democratic--represented 27 percent of the electorate. By contrast, voters who identify themselves as members of the religious right fell from 17 percent of the electorate in 1996 to 14 percent in 2000. And according to Notre Dame political scientist David Leege, the proportion of observant Catholics--another Rove-targeted group--also dropped during the '90s.

Barone and Rove's contention that Republicans better represent the public on economics also lacks basis in fact. Popular support for deregulation and privatization (what Barone calls "more choice") peaked between 1978 and 1984 in the wake of Jimmy Carter-era stagflation, but it has been in retreat ever since. Newt Gingrich learned that the hard way in 1995 when he mistook the public's discomfort with Clinton's overly ambitious health plan for public opposition to regulation and social programs like Medicare. If anything, the public now wants more spending on social programs and more regulation of business. Bush and Rove have admitted as much by co-opting Democratic rhetoric on key domestic issues--from prescription drugs to environmental enforcement to corporate reform--rather than arguing, as Ronald Reagan did in the early '80s and Gingrich did in the mid-'90s, against greater government regulation. From geography to demography to ideology, the structural forces in American politics--the ones that endure the idiosyncrasies of any given election--are trending the Democrats' way.

 

THE EMERGING DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY

The most straightforward evidence that the American electorate is trending Democratic is actual election results. Since losing Congress in November 1994, the Democrats have gained seats in three successive congressional elections; Democrat Bill Clinton easily won reelection in 1996; and Al Gore won the popular vote against George W. Bush in 2000. Perhaps equally telling were the scattered elections held in November 2001. Bush's popularity had soared in the aftermath of September 11, and Republican candidates across the country tied their candidacies to his popularity and to public concern over security. Despite this, Democrats won almost every important election. These included the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia (historically bellwethers of national trends) and mayoral contests in Dayton, Ohio; Los Angeles; and Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina--each of which saw Democrats replacing Republican incumbents. The election in Dayton means every major city in Ohio--often considered a bastion of Republicanism--is under Democratic control. In the longtime GOP stronghold of Nassau County, Long Island, Democrats won both the county executive race and a majority on the county legislature--their first since 1917. The only significant Republican victory came in New York City, where the GOP nominated Michael Bloomberg--a liberal Democrat who had rented the Republican label because he didn't think he could win the Democratic primary.

By itself, of course, the string of recent Democratic successes does not prove a Democratic majority is emerging. But demographic trends suggest something deeper is at hand. Over the past decade not only have Democrats won back some white, working-class voters who deserted them during the '70s and '80s, but they have forged a new coalition that includes three groups: women (especially working, single, and highly educated women), minorities, and professionals--all of whom are growing as a portion of the electorate. These groups overlap in composition, but each entered the party in different stages over the last 40 years for different reasons.

Given the GOP's well-known "gender gap," it's easy to forget that not long ago American women voted disproportionately Republican. In 1960, for instance, women supported Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy 53 percent to 46 percent. But starting with Barry Goldwater's nomination in 1964, and accelerating after Reagan's nomination in 1980, the GOP's growing social conservatism began driving away women voters. That led, by the '90s, to women regularly supporting Democrats by absolute majorities. In 2000, women backed Gore 54 percent to 43 percent.

This change in women's voting reflects the convergence of an economic trend and a social movement. For at least 50 years working women have supported the Democratic Party at much higher rates than have homemakers. But until recently, most women were homemakers. As more and more women have entered the workforce, however--from 37.7 percent of adult women in 1960 to 57.5 percent in 1990--women have begun voting more Democratic. Their entrance into the workforce has been accelerated by the rise of modern feminism, which has produced a spate of contested political issues, from abortion to child care to Title IX. Before 1980, Republicans and Democrats were largely indistinguishable on these issues. But in that election, the first in which gender issues like abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment played a major role, a gap opened that has not closed since--as working women began to suspect that Republican social policy was undergirded by the belief that society would be better off if women returned home.

 

Making matters worse for the GOP, the subcategories of women who trend most strongly Democratic are also the ones growing the fastest. Single, working women--who have grown from 19 percent of the adult, female population in 1970 to 29 percent today--backed Gore 67 percent to 29 percent. College-educated women--who have grown from just 8 percent of the 25-and-older, female population in 1970 to 24 percent today--backed Gore over Bush by 57 percent to 39 percent. By contrast, those groups of women who still vote Republican--for instance, white homemakers who live outside metropolitan areas--comprise a steadily diminishing proportion of American women and of the American electorate.

Then there is the "minority vote"--a catchall for a range of groups with varying political histories. African Americans have been voting heavily Democratic since the New Deal and voting overwhelmingly Democratic since the 1964 Civil Rights Act; barring a radical change in Republican social attitudes and economic priorities, they will continue to do so. Among Hispanics, only Cuban-Americans vote Republican, and they make up just 4 percent of the overall Hispanic population. Most Hispanics are either Mexican-American (59 percent) or Puerto Rican (10 percent), and both groups have voted strongly Democratic since the '30s. Although President Bush has, on Rove's advice, loudly courted Hispanic voters, they don't seem particularly receptive. In 2000, for instance, Bush pursued California's Hispanics extensively while Gore neglected the state; but Bush still received only 28 percent of the Golden State's Hispanic vote. Bush did better in his home state of Texas, winning 43 percent of its Hispanic vote. But even there, the broader political trend suggests Hispanics are making the Democratic party their political home. In this year's races for the Texas statehouse and state legislature, Hispanics ran in just four Republican primaries--and lost all of them. By contrast, Hispanic candidates ran in 39 Democratic primary contests and won 35, including the gubernatorial primary.

Until the '90s, Republicans could at least count on Asian American voters. While Japanese immigrants voted for the Democrats as the party of civil rights and Filipinos backed Democrats as the party of the working class, the largest Asian group, Chinese-Americans, favored Republicans as the party of anti-communism and of small business. But over the past decade even Chinese-Americans have also moved to the Democratic Party--thanks to the end of the cold war, the party's move to the center, the GOP's opposition to immigration, and its nativist attacks on Asian donors during the 1996 fund-raising scandals. According to the National Asian American Political Survey, Asian Americans favored Gore over Bush by more than two to one.

The Professional Edge

All in all, Democrats can now count on about 75 percent of the minority vote in national elections. And like other Democratic-leaning groups, minorities are growing rapidly. Nationally, minorities made up about one-tenth of the electorate in 1972; by 2000 they were almost one-fifth. By 2010, if present trends continue, that could rise to one-quarter. If you don't think that strikes fear in Republican hearts, just look at California, where a rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian population has helped decimate the state GOP.

 

THE PROFESSIONAL EDGE

The most surprising component of the emerging Democratic majority is professionals. Professionals are highly skilled, white-collar workers, typically with a college education, who produce ideas and services. They include academics, architects, engineers, scientists, computer analysts, lawyers, physicians, registered nurses, teachers, social workers, therapists, fashion designers, interior decorators, graphic artists, writers, editors, and actors. In the 1950s they made up about 7 percent of the workforce. But as the United States has moved away from a blue-collar, industrial economy toward a postindustrial one that produces ideas and services, the professional class has expanded. Today it constitutes more than 15 percent of the workforce.

As the professional class has grown, its politics have shifted. Typically self-employed or working for small firms, professionals once saw themselves as proof of the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism. They disdained unions and opposed the New Deal and "big government." In the 1960 presidential election, professionals supported Nixon over Kennedy 61 percent to 38 percent. Since then, however, their views have changed dramatically. In the last four presidential elections, professionals have supported the Democratic candidate by an average of 52 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, counties disproportionately populated by professionals--such as New Jersey's Bergen County, the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomery County, and California's Santa Clara County--have gone from Republican to Democratic.

Why do professionals switch party affiliation, while corporate managers and executives--who share a similar economic profile--remain faithfully Republican? One answer lies in their relationship to the private market. While corporate managers are trained to gauge their success through profit and loss, professionals are trained to see theirs as primarily, or at least equally, linked to the quality of the service or idea they produce. Writers want their books or articles to win literary prizes; teachers want their pupils to learn; doctors and nurses want their patients to be cured. But as the ranks of professionals have grown, they have increasingly become subject to control from large institutions--media conglomerates, insurance companies, etc.--that have imposed what they see as alien profit-and-loss standards onto their work. As a result, many professionals have come to draw a sharp distinction between their priorities and those of the market. Once advocates of laissez-faire capitalism, they have grown increasingly amenable to government regulation of business. Thus, in 1999 the American Medical Association--which for decades fought government intervention in the medical field--backed the Democratic version of the patients' bill of rights. Similarly, professionals are the occupational group most supportive of campaign finance reform and environmental and consumer protections. They've even begun joining unions--about 20 percent of them to date.

 

Of all occupational groups, professionals were also the most affected by the political movements that took root on college campuses during the '60s. As a result, they are far more culturally liberal than their occupational forefathers--sympathetic to feminism, minority rights, and gay rights and hostile to the religious right. These are the people Barone derisively refers to as "liberation-minded"; they value tolerance as an end in itself. In the 2000 election 55 percent backed affirmative action as a response to discrimination, and 62 percent--more than any other occupational group--supported allowing homosexuals to serve in the military.

Initially, professionals voted Democratic out of opposition to conservative Republicanism rather than any affinity with the Democratic Party of labor and big-city machines. Raised in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate, they were more suspicious of government than was the Democrats' traditional blue-collar base. They favored government regulation but also government reform, including controls on spending. They wanted government to alleviate poverty but not to provide make-work jobs. They were sharply critical of unchecked corporate power but, unlike many labor unionists, didn't see themselves as an interest group arrayed against business, seeking its share of power or wealth. Instead, they saw themselves representing the public interest against the special interests of both business and labor. Children of the cold war and the United Nations, they were more internationalist than hard-hat Democrats and more supportive of free trade and immigration. More than any contemporary social group, they resemble the progressive Republicans of the early twentieth century who defined themselves against laissez-faire conservatives on one side and against socialists and populists on the other.

Though the movement of professionals toward the Democrats was evident as early as the 1972 Nixon-McGovern election, it was not until 1988 that a majority of professionals backed a Democratic presidential nominee: former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Unlike Walter Mondale, a party man with deep roots in the labor movement, Dukakis looked like them--a suburban reformer who said the 1988 election wasn't "about ideology, it's about competence." Since then, professional support has become vital to Democratic success. Professionals may only make up 15 percent of the workforce, but they vote at higher rates than any other occupational group. Nationally, they account for about 21 percent of voters; in many Northeastern and Far Western states, they form probably one-quarter of the electorate.

And professionals have contributed more than just their votes to the Democratic Party; they have contributed their political ethos. This ethos--socially liberal, fiscally moderate, critical of the market without being anticapitalist, and yet comfortable with the emerging new economy--first appeared in the early '80s among so-called Atari Democrats like Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas. But in the '90s it became the dominant political sensibility of the Democratic Party. Clinton staffed his campaign and administration with professionals like Robert Reich, Ira Magaziner, Bruce Reed, Bill Galston, and Laura Tyson, who had come of age in the '60s and '70s and embraced this sensibility. Indeed, Clinton's presidency, particularly after his mid-course correction in 1995, better reflected the political sensibility of professionals than of traditional-base Democratic groups. Clinton stiffed the minority groups that opposed welfare reform and clamored for large-scale jobs programs. He espoused free trade despite union complaints. But African American and labor leaders, chastened by defeat in the '80s and in 1994, deferred to Clinton's ideological leadership and by extension to that of the professionals. If the Reagan coalition had been built primarily around the priorities of the Sunbelt nouveaux riches and the religious right, the new Democratic coalition was rooted in the views of college-educated professionals.

 

THE IDEOPOLIS

Just as the McKinley majority was closely tied to the onset of industrialization, the emerging Democratic majority is closely linked to the spreading postindustrial economy. Democrats are strongest in areas where the production of ideas and services has either redefined or replaced assembly-line manufacturing, particularly the Northeast, the upper Midwest through Minnesota, and the Pacific Coast--including the Sunbelt prize of California--but also including parts of Southern states like Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. Republicans, meanwhile, are strongest in states like Mississippi, Wyoming, and South Carolina (as well as in former Democratic enclaves like Kentucky), where the transition to postindustrial society has lagged.

The Democratic vote is anchored in postindustrial metropolises, or "ideopolises." Because postindustrial society is not organized around a rigid separation between city and suburb, these ideopolises comprise entire metropolitan areas, not merely central cities. Some ideopolises contain significant manufacturing facilities--as in Silicon Valley or Colorado's Boulder area--but it is the kind of manufacturing (whether of pharmaceuticals or semiconductors) that relies on the application of complex ideas to physical objects. This has become true even of automobile production in eastern Michigan. While much of the actual production of cars and trucks has moved south to middle Tennessee, Alabama, and Oklahoma, much of the research, development, and engineering of automobiles (which now make extensive use of computer technology) is conducted in Michigan by college-trained professionals. This is one reason Democrats now win elections in once-Republican suburbs like Oakland County outside Detroit.

 

Some of these ideopolises specialize in what Joel Kotkin and Ross C. DeVol call "soft technology"--entertainment, media, fashion, design, and advertising--and in providing databases, legal counsel, and other business services. New York City and Los Angeles are both premier postindustrial metropolises that specialize in soft technology. Most of these postindustrial metro areas also include a major university or several major universities, which funnel ideas and, more importantly, people into hard- or soft-technology industries. Boston's Route 128 feeds off Harvard and MIT; Silicon Valley is closely linked to Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley; Dane County's biomedical research is tied to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. And all of them have a flourishing service sector--computer learning centers, ethnic and vegetarian restaurants, children's museums, bookstore/coffee shops, and health clubs. To borrow David Brooks's phrase, this is where Bobos (i.e., "bourgeois bohemians") live.

In the most advanced ideopolises, like the San Francisco Bay or the Chicago metro areas, the work and culture of the ideopolis pervades the entire metropolitan area and its occupants. Many of the same people, the same businesses, and the same coffee shops or bookstores can be found in the central city and in the suburbs. The racial conflict that used to define such areas politically, with heavily minority cities voting Democratic and overwhelmingly white suburbs voting Republican partly in response, is fading. Indeed, the more fully a metropolitan area has entered the postindustrial economy, the more the suburbs and the city vote alike. In the 2000 election Gore didn't campaign in Colorado but still carried the Denver-Boulder area 56 percent to 35 percent. He won Portland's Multnomah County 64 percent to 28 percent. Seattle's King County went 60 percent to 34 percent for Gore; and Gore carried Cook County, whose suburbs used to be Republican, 69 percent to 29 percent. And while such ideopolises generally boast a large quotient of new Democratic groups--professionals, minorities, working women--their political ethos is not restricted to these groups. In King County, white, working-class voters backed Gore 50 percent to 42 percent; in Multnomah County, it was by 71 percent to 24 percent. (By comparison, working-class whites nationwide supported Bush by 57 percent to 40 percent.)

 

If you look at the 263 "ideopolis counties"-- counties that are part of metro areas with high concentrations of high-tech economic activity or that contain a front-rank research university--most of them voted for Republican presidential candidates in 1980 and 1984. But in 2000 Gore garnered 54 percent of the vote in these areas, compared with 41 percent for Bush. By contrast, Democrats have continued to lose rural areas (it was Bush's dominance in rural sections of swing states like Missouri that propelled him to victory there) and low-tech metropolitan areas such as Greenville, South Carolina, and Muncie, Indiana. In all, Gore lost non-ideopolis counties 53 percent to 44 percent. Indeed, if you compare 1980--the beginning of the Reagan era--to today, it is clear that virtually the entire political shift toward the Democrats has taken place in ideopolis counties.

These counties, moreover, represent some of the fastestgrowing parts of the country. Together, ideopolis counties currently account for 44 percent of the vote nationally. But between 1990 and 2000, the average ideopolis county grew by over 22 percent, compared with 10 percent for the average non-ideopolis county. And ideopolis counties start from a far larger population base--an average of 475,000 inhabitants, compared with just 54,000 for the typical non-ideopolis county. It is these areas--their demography, their culture, and their politics--that Barone and Rove discount at their peril.

None of these trends are inevitable, of course. If the Democrats move too quickly to embrace the culture of the new Bohemia--say, by pressing civil unions or gun prohibition--they could lose much of their still-vital, white, working-class support. Or if they fall back into the bad pre-Clinton habit of wooing interest-group constituents with bloated spending programs, some professionals might start moving back toward the GOP. And if Ralph Nader and the Greens begin regularly pulling in more than 5 percent of the vote in ideopolis counties, Republicans could continue winning elections even as a center-left majority emerges. But as long as the Democrats maintain a fiscally moderate, socially liberal, reformist, and egalitarian outlook, they will enjoy a structural edge in national and most state elections. The Bush administration can scour the coal pits of West Virginia or the boarded up steel mills of Youngstown for converts, but America's future lies in places like Silicon Valley and North Carolina's Research Triangle. The party that most clearly embodies the culture and beliefs of these areas will dominate political discourse in postindustrial America at the dawn of the new century, just as the McKinley Republicans dominated nascent industrial America at the dawn of the last. Today only one party does--and Karl Rove isn't in it.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book, The Emerging Democratic Majority (Scribner).

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