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The Ecstasy and Agonies of a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why the Obama coalition might still flop.

BARACK OBAMA’S REELECTION is evidence of a Democratic realignment that dates back almost two decades. This might seem like a bold claim. After all, President Obama won by 3 percentage points—certainly no landslide. And many Republicans insist that his victory was a passing phenomenon. “There is no realignment, just a loss after a rain delay killed our starter’s momentum,” the radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt wrote. Political scientists, too, were skeptical about the election’s significance. George Washington University’s John Sides insisted that a realignment cannot occur without “an extended period of party control,” and “a notable shift in policy.” Even those who discussed the election as marking a major change in U.S. politics generally confined themselves to one idea: namely, a growing Hispanic population finally displayed its power at the polls.

But the Republicans are in denial, and the political scientists are clinging to an outdated model. Due to the decline in party organization and the rise of independent voters, realignments have become more gradual and less comprehensive. They go by fits and starts. The conservative Republican realignment began in 1968, was waylaid by Watergate, and only resumed in 1980. At its height, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Republicans did not even control the House. The current Democratic realignment began in the Bill Clinton years, hit speed bumps during the 2002 and 2004 elections (thanks largely to September 11), and hit another bump in 2010, when voters blamed Obama for the flagging recovery. It resumed in earnest this year and is going strong.

By the same token, realignments don’t necessarily result in dramatic policy shifts. California went deeply blue in the mid-’90s but has been paralyzed on the policy front for years. Nationally, both Bill Clinton and Obama have had trouble getting things done even as public opinion was shifting their way. The reason for this is that U.S. politics consists of not one but two systems—a visible electoral process that supplies officeholders and a less visible machinery of interest groups and lobbies that influences both elections and governing.

In the wake of Obama’s reelection, the crucial question is whether the political realignment taking place will lead to an equally dramatic breakthrough for his agenda, which includes increasing spending on education and infrastructure and counteracting global warming. At the polling booth, Democrats have gained the upper hand. But outside the electoral arena, powerful forces will continue to encourage Republican intransigence. Only by taming and defeating them can Obama and his party deliver on the promise of realignment.

THE CURRENT Democratic dominance is the result of the shift of voting blocs away from the Republican Party and the growth of existing voting blocs within the Democratic Party. Women, young voters, and professionals were once predominately Republicans but have increasingly become Democrats. Professionals—who can be very roughly identified in exit polls as voters with advanced degrees—now make up approximately one-fifth of the electorate. They favored Obama by 55 to 42 percent. The margins are even higher in high-tech states like New Jersey, where they went for the president by two to one.

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Meanwhile, ethnic minorities are becoming both more Democratic and more numerous. African Americans continued to vote overwhelmingly Democratic and, this year, they turned out in greater numbers in the battleground states. In Ohio, they made up 12 percent of the population but 15 percent of the electorate and went 96 percent for the president. Hispanics and Asian Americans have also become more Democratic and were the key to Obama’s victories in Florida, Nevada, and Colorado. In Colorado, Hispanics were 14 percent of the electorate and backed Obama by three to one. Nationally, the Hispanic share of vote has increased from 7 percent in 2000 to 10 percent this year.

Republicans, by contrast, have become overwhelmingly white. Romney received 59 percent of the white vote, much of it concentrated in Deep South states like Mississippi, where he was backed by 89 percent of white voters, and in states like West Virginia and Kentucky, where coal and guns reign. However, in the New England states and in Washington and Oregon, Obama actually racked up a majority of the white vote. The discrepancy is the result of several factors, but in Southern and border states, white opposition to Obama may be partly based on race and may not carry over as much in future elections.

Loyal Republican voting blocs, which include white evangelicals, farmers, non-union blue-collar workers, small-business owners, managers, and CEOs, are not expected to grow proportionately. The Democrats—based in the Northeast, industrial Midwest, and the far West—can also be expected to eat away at Republican strength in the Southwest and South. In the coming years, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia could become Democratic-leaning states. All of this, combined with the Democrats (and two sympathetic independents) taking 25 of 33 Senate races and actually winning a majority of the overall House vote (the Republicans retained control largely because of gerrymandering) suggests that there are underlying trends that are moving the electorate to support Democrats.

This Democratic coalition, like all coalitions, is held together not just by complementary interests, but also by a common worldview, which realignments can help cement. Not all members of a coalition subscribe to its outlook wholesale—in the 1930s, Southern whites chafed at some New Deal reforms, while today many African Americans are uneasy about gay marriage. But these voting blocs still feel more comfortable with the majority party than the opposition, and while that worldview holds, the coalition remains intact. In the case of today’s Democrats, there is no sign of a major rift, as there was over civil rights among yesterday’s Democrats.

The current Democratic philosophy reflects the outlook of the professionals who began joining the Democratic Party as early as the late ’60s. It was most clearly articulated by Clinton during his presidency and has been updated by Obama. This philosophy envisages the United States as part of a global marketplace. It seeks to provide Americans with the training to compete in that marketplace, as well as sufficient economic security to cope with the hardship that competition can bring. This vision entails funding education, scientific research, and technological innovation, but also strengthening and expanding the New Deal’s safety net.

Republicans could always count on Americans’ centuries-old distrust of government to counter this approach. According to 2012 exit polls, a majority of Americans think government is “doing too many things better left to individuals and businesses.” But this distrust has always co-existed with support for specific initiatives. When elections hinge on abstractions or unrealized programs, as the 2010 election partly did, Republicans fare well. When they hinge on specifics— like the auto bailout or taxes for the wealthy—Democrats often thrive. In the next four years, one major target of Republican attacks—Obama’s health care reform—will cease to be an abstraction. If the program is managed properly, it should become a Democratic asset.

Moreover, Democrats are winning increasing support for a socially liberal agenda, particularly among women and young voters. In 2004, George W. Bush raised the specter of gay marriage to spur evangelicals to the polls. This year, Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage helped his campaign, as did Democrats’ championing of abortion rights. The country was once evenly divided on this issue, but in this year’s exit polls, 59 percent of the electorate said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Those voters went overwhelmingly for Obama. In two socially conservative states, Missouri and Indiana, voters rejected Republican Senate candidates who had made draconian remarks about abortion.

Right now, there is a lot of talk among Republicans about the need to “welcome” women and Hispanics to the party. But words alone won’t do the trick. New voting blocs will demand that the GOP break with much of its political base, and since the nominating process is still controlled by voters and not Washington elites, that won’t happen overnight. The GOP’s best hope lies in Democratic stumbles, which happened in the fall of 2009 and summer of 2011, and could happen again.

THE U.S. POLITICAL system works differently from that of most other democracies. In Western Europe, political democracy came out of a struggle among labor, business, and agricultural interests, and the parties became identified with them. In the United States, universal male suffrage dated from early capitalism before national interest groups had taken root. As a result, the United States developed two parallel sources of political power: the electoral system, which chooses and elects candidates; and the pressure system—the lobbies, interest groups, and political organizations that try to influence not only who gets elected, but what politicians do after the votes are counted. Only when a party dominates the pressure system can it truly advance its agenda.

During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats were able to enact far-reaching reforms, because the rise of labor and populist organizations effectively countered the older business lobbies, which were discredited and divided after the stock market crash. In the early ’70s, however, corporations began setting up hundreds of lobbies on or around Washington’s K Street in response to the creation of new regulatory agencies. They also formed the Business Roundtable and funded new conservative think tanks and policy groups. These lobbies worked with Republicans to defeat Jimmy Carter’s liberal initiatives on labor law, consumer protection, and campaign finance. The business lobbies were initially leery of Reagan, but eventually backed his campaign and presidency. In the ’90s, the political system began tilting toward Democrats, but the pressure system is still very much dominated by big business and its Republican allies.

When Clinton took office, major corporate groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, were willing to work with him. Sensing danger, Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, and John Boehner succeeded in convincing business to oppose Clinton’s health care plan. Afterward, they created an odd alliance, led by the Chamber and the National Federation of Independent Business and political organizations like Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. These groups worked with the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association, with the tacit understanding that each would support the other’s initiatives. That coalition helped elect and influence the Republican Congress from 1994 through George W. Bush’s presidency.

There was a countervailing alliance that tried to boost the Democrats, but they were heavily outgunned. Under attack from corporations, private-sector unions began hemorrhaging members in the ’80s. In 2005, the labor movement split into two warring federations. While consumer and environmental groups remained intact, they were at best able to block frontal assaults from the business lobbies. Some new Internet-based groups aided the Democratic resurgence in the Bush era, but were less successful in influencing domestic policy.

After the Great Recession took hold, the constellation of conservative organizations, strengthened by the rise of the Tea Party, moved once again to thwart the Democrats. In Obama’s first two years, conservatives succeeded in diluting his efforts at financial reform, environmental regulation, and national health insurance, and they blocked his attempt to boost the economy after the initial stimulus dissipated. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the Club for Growth, and other conservative political groups—buoyed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling—poured money into the 2010 and 2012 elections, hoping to elect Republicans.

The Club for Growth and various Tea Party groups also hoped to purge the party of legislators like Indiana Senator Dick Lugar, who had been willing to cooperate with Obama. These groups failed abysmally to win a Senate majority, but they may have succeeded in retaining a cadre of Republicans willing to perpetuate the gridlock that plagued the last Congress. Given that Lugar and Maine’s Olympia Snowe are gone, while Club for Growth favorites Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona won their races, the Republican Senate caucus has become somewhat more conservative—as has the Republican House.

Some Democrats blame the recent stalemate on Senate filibuster rules and urge filibuster reform as a first order of business. That’s not a bad idea, but it’s not a solution, either. Until recently, senators only filibustered legislation that struck at the heart of their constituency. In the last four years, however, they have been willing to filibuster almost any Democratic initiative. That’s not because Republicans have become nastier people, but because they are under intense pressure from conservative and business groups that brook no compromise. In the wake of Obama’s reelection, there are certainly going to be tactical disputes within the Republican constellation of interest and pressure groups. But all of them are likely to find common cause when it comes to opposing the Democrats’ economic agenda of higher taxes on the rich, public investment, and protecting consumers and the environment.

WHAT CAN OBAMA and the Democrats do to counteract the power of the business-Republican behemoth? One obvious move is to encourage and subsidize pressure groups on the left, such as labor unions and organizations like In the past, these groups were snubbed or ignored by the administration in favor of its own operation, which lay dormant until the election. But the most important step that Democrats can take is to transfer the fight for their agenda from the realm of pressure groups, where they are vulnerable, to the electorate, where they hold the advantage.

Almost all Obama’s troubles during his first term can be traced to his reliance on a purely insider strategy. He almost failed to get a health care bill at all by resting his hopes on backroom negotiations in the Senate and with drug companies. He embarrassed himself by trying to privately reach a “grand bargain” with Republican leaders on the debt ceiling. Conversely, when Obama and the Democrats have waged war for their causes in public, they have succeeded. In April 2010, Democrats were on their way to forfeiting a once-in-a-generation chance at financial reform when the Securities and Exchange Commission indicted Goldman Sachs for fraud. Obama and the Democrats took to the stump and finally passed a bill with the support of three Senate Republicans.

So far, Obama has displayed a willingness to openly battle for his agenda almost exclusively while campaigning rather than governing. But what happened this year in California might provide a fine lesson for the administration. Since 1996, Democrats have controlled both California’s Assembly and state Senate and occupied most of its state offices. Yet a Republican minority in the legislature has caused repeated fiscal crises by blocking any tax increases. This year, after Governor Jerry Brown and other Democrats failed to negotiate a budget with the Republicans, they put the issue of taxes to a referendum and won a tax increase to fund the state’s declining school system. At the same time, Democrats won a super-majority in the Assembly and in the state Senate that will allow them to raise taxes without seeking Republican cooperation.

Obama and the Democrats can’t hope for super-majorities anytime soon. Indeed, redistricting will make it very difficult for the Democrats to recapture the House in the next election. But they can emulate Brown’s strategy of taking politics out of the backroom. That’s what Obama has to do as he faces Republican threats to allow the United States to tumble over the so-called fiscal cliff. The alternatives are stark: increase public investment and pay for it partly by ending tax cuts for the very rich, as Obama urged in his campaign; or keep the tax cuts and pay for them by cutting Social Security and Medicare, as Republicans advocate. If the vote were taken on K Street and Wall Street, the Republican alternative would win hands down; but if America’s electorate has a choice, Obama and the Democrats will triumph.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Is This It?