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Don’t Declare a Permanent Democratic Victory Just Yet

One of the more amusing aspects in American politics is the rotating sense of triumphalism that both parties go through when they win an election. After Reagan was elected, some Republicans thought this would usher in a permanent Republican majority. They thought that again after 1994 and yet again in 2010 when the Tea Party swept so many of them into power. I don’t usually agree much with Russ Douthat, but he’s right on this:

Liberalism’s majority is real, its demographic base is growing, its opposition is in disarray. The current confidence of liberal pundits is less jaunty than it was after the sweep of 2008, but perhaps more justified. Indeed, it’s quite possible that we’ll look back and see the conservative backlash of 2010 as the new progressive era’s greatest test, a brush with death which it has now successfully survived…

These potential fissures within liberalism won’t matter if the G.O.P. remains as hapless as it is today. And there’s a increasingly popular strain of opinion on the left that holds that Republicans are now structurally incapable of moderation, reform and self-correction — that the grip of ideology is too strong, the demands of the base too intense, the party’s distance of twenty-first America too great. If this view is right, the G.O.P. is almost irrelevant to liberalism’s fortunes, and Obama’s political legacy is really only threatened by “black swan” events like suitcase nukes and 2008-style financial panics.

But just because the G.O.P. looks like it could spend a generation in the wilderness doesn’t meant that it actually will. National parties exist to win national elections, and that incentive alone often suffices to drive changes that the party’s interest groups and ideological enforcers dislike. For every case like the Republicans of the 1930s and the 1940s, the Carter-Mondale-Dukakis Democrats, or the British Tories between John Major and David Cameron, there’s another case where a party that seems to have lost its way completely turns out to be one successful campaign, one appealing nominee or one change of circumstances away from a comeback. In modern G.O.P. history alone, the Goldwater rout was swiftly succeeded by the Nixon realignment, and the various Gingrich-era debacles by the rise of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” We are only one presidential term removed from the latter rebranding, and the idea that it cannot happen again (albeit hopefully along somewhat different lines) seems ahistorical and naive. Yes, obviously, the Republican Party might remain a mess for years to come. But liberals who expect that continuing conservative dysfunction will help cement Obama’s legacy are betting on a trend, not counting on a certainty.

I agree with him. Yes, the Republican party does have some major divisions within it and they do face serious demographic problems, as I’ve written about many times. But that was no less true of the Democratic party in the late 50s and early 60s, when the crackup over racial segregation led to the Dixiecrats jumping ship to the Republican party (which had made a major shift internally from the days of Lincoln and was now more hospitable to racists like Strom Thurmond). Parties change and they often do so much faster than one would expect.

Do not mistake a short-term political victory as a permanent shift in partisan fortunes. Remember that only two years ago, the Republicans were crowing about the death of liberalism and the Tea Party movement overturning the entire progressive agenda. Reports of the death of one of the two major parties are always likely to be premature.

Comments

  1. garnetstar says

    Quite right. The pendulum always swings. Conservatives will come back into power at some point, even if they aren’t calling themselve Republicans, and even if they’ve incorporated some of the policies they now disparage as “liberal”.

  2. saukko says

    I just hope that if/when republicans make their come back it won’t be done by tea party candidates.
    I mean American public is becoming more accepting to gay marriage, abortion rights, etc. how could they vote en masse someone who is not for those issues?

  3. alanb says

    I’ve lived long enough to see a few swings of the pendulum, but this feels different: the Republicans seem to me to be on full-destruct mode. Unless the adults can find some way to get in charge, they would appear to be in serious trouble. Having said that, however, it only takes a few ticks down on the economy to get voters fleeing whatever party is in power.

  4. atheist says

    Another thing about the demographic changes that liberals often point to, such as whites becoming a numerical minority. This is only true if the definition of “white” remains constant. Yet history shows that this is often not the case: consider the Irish, for example, who, as recently as a century ago faced real racism. Nowadays they are practically the definition of American whiteness, and the idea of anti-Irish racism is a joke.

  5. says

    I just hope that if/when republicans make their come back it won’t be done by tea party candidates.
    I mean American public is becoming more accepting to gay marriage, abortion rights, etc. how could they vote en masse someone who is not for those issues?

    There’s an H L Mencken quote that comes to mind…

  6. dingojack says

    Quite right Ed, I for one welcome our new, [due for re-election any time soon], Whig overlords!
    (Don’t assume one party or the other, or both, will implode, split, mutate* or shift either)
    Dingo
    ——-
    * would Lincoln join a Reaganite GoP?

  7. raven says

    I would agree that it isn’t over with until its over.

    If you start believing your own propaganda, you are in trouble.

    Who says the GOP’s New Endarkenment strategy isn’t working? They control the US House, most governorships, and even with a Reptilian nonXian as candidate got 47% of the vote.

    The battle of light and dark is eternal and neither side ever wins for long.

  8. raven says

    All it would take for the Dems to lose, is one big mistake. Another pointless expensive war somewhere. Some dumb economic and tax policies that implode the economy for a generation. Like Bush did.

    That being said, the future is theirs to lose. The Dems do have a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

    The GOP’s base is old white people, preferably fundie death cultists. Old people are well on the way to being dead people.

    The Democrats BTW, aren’t liberal. They are centrist. The GOP isn’t so much conservative as just plain lunatic fringe.

    The obvious thing would be for the GOP to move to the center. Despite some rhetoric along those lines, they have shown no movement in that direction. It’s the same old anti-gay, anti-science, anti-women, anti-nonwhite, economic illiterate policies they’ve pursued for nearly two decades.

  9. xmnr says

    Before they start crowing about a permanent majority, democrats should first secure a temporary one by winning the House and maintaining the Senate.

  10. psweet says

    If you look just at presidential elections, George H.W. Bush is the only president since Herbert Hoover to succeed a president from his own party without that president either dying in office or resigning. And Hoover is the last one to do so without being Vice-President first. I’d say that a permanent majority on the national level is pretty darn hard to maintain these days!

  11. Trebuchet says

    I think that the Democrats, far from enjoying a permanent majority, are in danger of being a permanent minority. The Tea Party sweep of 2010 left conservative R’s in charge of a great many state legislatures. They’ve used that power to gerrymander congressional districts all across the country, concentrating likely Democratic voters in a few districts while setting up a majority of districts with slim, but viable, Republican majorities. Those same legislatures are now looking at revising the distribution of presidential electoral votes to be by congressional district, which would have given Romney the presidency. That scares the crap out of me.

  12. laurentweppe says

    this feels different: the Republicans seem to me to be on full-destruct mode

    That’s because the Republican party is an structuraly unstable alliance between the moderate right and the far-right: The far-right as an interest in allying itself with the moderates only if said moderates are willing to remain submissive to them, the moderates have an interest in remaining submissive to their far-right bullies only if this “alliance” keep winning national elections.

    If the submissiveness provides the moderate right nothing but more defeat during national elections, then the incentive to tolerate their bullies vanish: if you’re choice is between losing on your own or losing as someone’s lackey, better to face defeat with your head held high.

    So right now, the moderate republicans who believe that the alliance with the far-right keeps the democratic coalition mobilized are starting to open their mouths and challenging the far-right dominance of the GOP, while the extremists bullies who don’t want their moderate lackeys to find a spine are using thinly veiled threats of destroying the GOP through wingnut sabotage.

    The full-destruct mode you’re “feeling” is the political equivalent of hearing screams from the house where the abused spouse is starting to fight back her abuser who reacts by becoming increasingly threatening.

  13. schweinhundt says

    I agree that the GOP needs to adapt or it will be replaced. I suspect, though, the transition could be an ugly one. In addition to the election reform mentioned above, a scary number of Republican voters think the election was stolen instead of lost.

  14. laurentweppe says

    a scary number of Republican voters think the election was stolen instead of lost.

    No: they pretend that the election was stolen because they know better than being sincere and saying publicly “democracy sucks because we don’t win every time, would’nt it be nice if we had the firepower to just kill the people who don’t agree and refuse to submit to us?“.
    That’s why the GOP elites are attempting to rig the elections: they know that there won’t be a backlash from their voters because most of their voters want them to cheat

  15. says

    There are people projecting a permanent Democratic victory? This election was only just barely a victory at all (which is really depressing in its own right). The 2010 redistricting (read: gerrymandering) has skewed things pretty significantly, and Democrats are going to be at a disadvantage in terms of numbers until the next redistricting after the 2020 census (unless something else happens in the interim). I’m not exactly optimistic.

    (Frankly, I’m not even sure I care to see a permanent Democratic majority; I’d much prefer to have the Democrats forced to cooperate with a sane party rather than the Republicans.)

  16. inquisitiveraven says

    As Raven noted, the Dems aren’t actually liberal. I suspect that may happen is that that the Republican party will self destruct, and the when the Dems lose out, it will be to an actual left wing party, e.g. the Greens.

  17. llewelly says

    I am surprised to hear that Democrats are declaring victory. Is this actually a common thing among Democrats recently, or did Douthat just scrounge up a few cherry-picked examples?

  18. thephilosophicalprimate says

    Immediately after the election, I made an argument that the Republican Party probably CANNOT fix what is currently wrong with it and avoid the slide into increasing political irrelevance, at least not in the foreseeable future. But that’s hardly the same as predicting continued Democratic hegemony, because in the most important ways, the Democratic Party is not any sort of genuine alternative. While I didn’t talk about the possibility of backlash based on Democratic inadequacies to our real problems, I stand by the general sentiment of my concluding paragraph:

    …Republicans simply CANNOT change in the sorts of substantial ways that would prevent their inevitable decline into political irrelevance — which would be wonderful, if only it changed anything fundamental about American political life. Unfortunately, both the Democrats and Republicans are thoroughly wedded to the interests of a loss-of-privilege-fearing segment of the populace which exercises influence wildly out of proportion to its numbers: the wealthy. I didn’t mention economic privilege [in the argument preceding this paragraph] precisely because there is not very much difference between our two major parties in that respect. (Libertarians are thoroughly wedded to the interests of the wealthy, too, so don’t look to them for change.) And as long as that remains the case — as long as Democrats remain nearly as dedicated to serving the interests of the plutocracy as Republicans are, with the only differences lying in rhetoric (and perhaps a slight… willingness on the part of Democrats to undo a miniscule proportion of the past three decades’ upward-redistribution of wealth through minor policy changes) — American political life will not change significantly. Yes, women’s rights and welfare are better served by Democrats, as are the rights and welfare of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities, etc. And that does matter, and I’m glad for it — especially if Obama gets to appoint a few more Supreme Court Justices. But if the interests of 99.9% of the populace remain subordinated to the interests of the 0.1%, those comparative improvements will ultimately be no more than bread and circuses, providing only a bit of distraction and a few minor improvements in some respects while the inevitable collapse of our society proceeds apace.

  19. D. C. Sessions says

    laurentweppe@13:

    The far-right extremists have the power to hold hard to the far-Red States (basically the South, Western States colonized by the South, and some of the old Midwest.) Plus, they’re in position to both gerrymander and engineer districting for both State and Federal elections to ensure that all Red States vote as a bloc, (Red) winner take all, while all but the bluest States get divvied up so that most of the House, most of the Electoral College, and half of the Senate go Red.

    Even compared to the bare-knuckles politics of the 19th century, that’s pretty hardball. In other circumstances we might expect the courts (or perhaps a residual sense of shame) to moderate things, but I don’t see it. Right now, the Party is in full “if they don’t like our message, we’ll sugar-coat it. If that doesn’t work, fuck ‘em” mode. (BTW: this heavily depends on the USSC not changing dramatically in the next four years. Which isn’t a particularly bad bet, between Obama’s centrist tendencies and the Senate blocking anyone to the left of Scalia.)

    And it works. The deck is going to be seriously stacked until at least 2022, and maybe longer. And because of that, the surviving moderate Republicans are going to avoid pissing off the radicals because the radicals are in control of the local organizations and because they have the power to primary any moderates right out of office. The big money (aside from Rove, Norquist, etc. who are already radical) will play along because that election engineering can deliver power. Don’t mess with success.

    Yes, in the long run business as usual is a losing strategy. In the long run, BAU with carbon will trash the economy as well as much of the world. Maybe the short-run benefits are enough to make it worthwhile n both cases.

    As the old Islamic (or Jewish; they both claim it) joke goes, “And maybe the horse will learn to sing.”

  20. scienceavenger says

    Remember that only two years ago, the Republicans were crowing about the death of liberalism and the Tea Party movement overturning the entire progressive agenda.

    Yeah, and I’m sure there were some witch doctors predicting volcanic eruptions at the time as well. That’s not going to effect how I evaluate geologists who predict one. While I agree with the general point of restraint on apocalyptic predictions for the other side, I consider the gap between the evidence the GOP uses to predict these things (witness 2012) and that of the democrats to be only slightly smaller.

  21. says

    Right wing nuts won’t go away until liberals start taking local races seriously (school boards and state legislators are overrun by fundies and tea party nuts). They wont go away as long as Citizens United stands and a few billionaires control the outcomes of our elections. They won’t go away as long as Democrats keep on ignoring their more numerous voters and cave in on their goals to appease the few loud right wing nuts that dominate the media.

  22. acroyear says

    What is really keeping the GOP alive right now, and in the near future, is their current dominance in state legislations. They first gerrymandered their way to holding on to the House, but more importantly they are targeting key battlefield states and changing the electoral college allocations in order to get rid of the state majority factor, allowing their gerrymandered congressional districts to allocate the college points. Result being, of course, that there would be no way at all for any Democrat Party candidate to ever get elected president again.

    In other words, they can’t win. They can never win. So they cheat. And then when they win after cheating, it is all because the country is revealing its true values in supporting their causes.

    In the end, the ONLY thing that can save us is to destroy us. The only way to get these idiots out for good is to let them destroy the country and then we painfully pick up the pieces, all the while millions will starve and die and millions more suffer their oppression in the name of their religion.

    Seriously. Just like 1933, the only way it will change is for them to break the system so much that the Rich stop being rich.

  23. laurentweppe says

    The far-right extremists have the power to hold hard to the far-Red States

    The far-right is parasitic by nature: it can retain political power only insofar as moderate voters remain submissive enough to vote for the bullies and the few remaining smart right-wing technocrat are willing to serve rather than to challenge it. Take that away, and the far-right hold will wither fast: the dixiecrats fled en masse toward the republican party instead of building their own brand precisely because they knew that on their own they would soon be overpowered.
    .
    The thing is, the surviving moderate republicans could (and should, but so far fortitude as not been their forte) decide that craven obedience toward bullies is not worth the diminishing scraps of power the bullies allow them to have and stop supporting them. At first, it would turn the political landscape into a competition between an hyper-dominant democratic party and a far-right dominating a few bastions, but without the support from the moderate voters, the number of far-right bastions would not be that big to begin with, and the lack of moderate technocrats doing the actual work pf administrating the far-right bastions would make the incompetence and intellectual sloth of the far-right to glaring -and harmful- to be ignored by its own voters. Eventually the far-right bastions would collapse leaving a vacuum of power that sane conservative could fill.
    .
    Of course, they could remain the loyal servants of the far-right, help them rig elections until one day someone from the left gets pissed enough to climb on a soapbox, say “Wait a minute: We’re more numerous than them, Smarter than them, Stronger than them, we can hit them Harder than they can hit us so let’s just do that” and start the second slaughter of the South’s youth.

  24. Michael Heath says

    Russ Douthat writes:

    Obama’s political legacy is really only threatened by “black swan” events like suitcase nukes and 2008-style financial panics.

    The president’s political legacy has most likely already been set; and it’s not the death of political conservatism but instead the lack of federal accomplishments during his tenure precisely due to conservative obstructionism. Obstructionism from a Republican party who has no liberals or even moderates, has swung far to the right, has become a Christianist party, and is happily willing to win political victories at the expense of the country and humanity’s best interests.

  25. Michael Heath says

    laurentweppe @ 13 writes:

    That’s because the Republican party is an structuraly unstable alliance between the moderate right and the far-right: The far-right as an interest in allying itself with the moderates only if said moderates are willing to remain submissive to them, the moderates have an interest in remaining submissive to their far-right bullies only if this “alliance” keep winning national elections.

    There are no moderates at the national level of the Republican party, nor in most states. I suspect those who you refer to as moderates are instead less-Christianist conservatives though they also share the same affliction with those who’ve went off the deep-end, and that is antipathy towards experts – especially science and academics.

    There was a day when the GOP had members who self-identified as either liberals or moderates who claimed they weren’t conservatives, e.g., speaker of the House in the late-1960s – Gerald R. Ford (not sure whether he claimed he was a con as president or not, but he explictly pointed out as Speaker he was not). But those days are long gone and now all we have are varying degrees of conservatives, almost none of whom are capable of good governance because all their forms of conservatives demand fealty to ignorance and ideology rather than doing what is pragmatic, advised by experts, and tested.

  26. sillose says

    we may end up with a new far right party (or two; big money and religion may both be arrogant enough to think they dont need the other to win) or we could see an actual left aligned party pop up and the democrats become the new conservative (center right) party assimilating any sane(ish) current republicans that remain (pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease god dammit let me have my fucking opium dream!)

  27. D. C. Sessions says

    BTW: as an outside chance, the flagrant election rigging this time around has a slight chance of causing enough of a backlash that the system gets changed in a way that will actually give us a shot at more than two viable parties.

  28. laurentweppe says

    There are no moderates at the national level of the Republican party, nor in most states

    Well, since 47% of american voters are far-right extremists, I suppose I’ll have to start lobbying my own government so they commit a preemptive genocide on suburbialand before the inevitable fascist takeover. Could you go to Honolulu, because I don’t think many other places in the US are going to have a decent chance of being spared by the fallout of radiocative MacMansions ashes.
    .
    More seriously: on their own, the far-right extremists level out at 20% of the vote: to go beyond this number, they need either the explicit support of the upper-class and the submission of a good chunk of the moderate conservatives (Northern Italy during the heyday of the Lega Nord, the Flemmish half of Belgium today, Israel, the USA, the Weimar Republic before the Reichstag burned) or the massive rigging of elections (french Algeria, apartheid South-Africa, Jim Crowed southern states, Germany after the Reichstag burned). But by themselves, far-right extremists never fairly won a majority of the vote, never got close, and probably never will. If the GOP can win close to 47% of the vote, it’s only because a good chunk of their electorate is moderate: otherwise, Obama would have been reelected with over 80% of the vote: shit like that happens.
    .
    But maybe you’re talking only about the politicians and the powerbrokers, not the people who vote for them, right? But frankly, if the GOP elites all had the intellectual “brilliance” of a Bachmann, or the criminal laziness of a Pallin, or the lack of self-restrain of a Todd Akin, I seriously doubt they would be able to administrate even a small town: to run the day to day operations of a local or state-level government, you need at the very least a few dozens of competent clercks and technocrats (that’s the minimum for a middle-sized town) who will not actively try to sabotage your policies at every turn: you cannot find them from the left, because they will not obediently cooperate in the implementation of far-right policies, you will not find them on the far-right, because they’re just not enough brain-power there, so where will you find the middle-managers if not from the submissive moderate right?

  29. Zugswang says

    I guess I was one of the few liberals who wasn’t celebrating this election cycle, but rather breathing a sigh of relief that we hadn’t traveled any further to the right than we could have. Seems like, while everyone was busy celebrating the few socially progressive issues that won the day, they forgot about all the other things that didn’t even get discussed because they weren’t areas where either party would be significantly different (campaign financing, economic reforms, defending civil liberties of citizens from unlawful detainment, searches, etc.).

    Economic liberalism has been in a coma for the last 30 years because the level of financing and motivation to succeed are significantly tilted to one side. Each election, the only thing I can really take comfort in is the chance that the current political inertia is slow enough that I’ll be dead before this country completely jumps the shark.

  30. sumdum says

    @30 I think you’re confusing conservative with stupid there. They hold to their policies not because they are dumb or malicious, but for monetary reasons. They’re not too dumb to run stuff, they just run it in such a way they get richer at the cost of the lower and middle class.

  31. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    I think two things need to be kept in mind here. First, as has been said in #11, 16, 20, and probably others, the Right has been consciously gerrymandering as much as they possibly can, as well as pulling other shenanigans like the electoral “adjustments” that have been proposed, along with the attempted voter suppression in the last election cycle, and if they’re successful, will be able to change the results of elections without having a real majority. Just as they have in state legislatures.

    Second, remember that a number of elections turned this cycle because some of the more repugnant TPers couldn’t keep their mouths shut – and they had leads up to that point (Akins is a case in point, not to mention the various Romney gaffes). I guarantee that the handlers for the next set of TP candidates will absolutely hammer the point that the candidates have to keep their mouths shut about their true attitudes.

  32. Amphiox says

    But, if the GOP does succeed in rebranding itself into something that is sufficiently appealing to mainstream America to become a creditably able to win nation elections again, depending on how that rebranding comes about, it could still count as a “victory” for liberalism.

  33. says

    The GOP is far from done. They control the House. They also have a huge amount of power at the state level, even in several traditionally blue states. Thanks gerrymandering, they’ll likely retain both the foreseeable future. It’s true that the country as a whole is swinging toward more progressive views, perhaps the most progressive since the era of FDR. Whether that will translate into actual liberal politicians getting elected into positions of strong influence remains to be seen.

    Personally, I wouldn’t want a “permanent democratic majority” any more than I would want a permanent republican one. A party that stays in power too long becomes lazy and corrupt. So, for the long term good of the country, I hope the GOP resolves its current identity crisis eventually. Some republicans are already waking up to the fact that living inside the Fox Bubble is doing them tremendous harm. We do need someone to represent the conservative view in America. I just hope that it will no longer be the crazy Randroids/Birchers that have dominated the right for far too long now.

  34. laurentweppe says

    I think you’re confusing conservative with stupid there. They hold to their policies not because they are dumb or malicious, but for monetary reasons

    Every group dedicated to the preservation of hereditary privileges starts malicious and becomes increasingly dumb as their nepotistic practices weed out the smart people.

  35. says

    Mr. Douthat (rhymes with whooshflag) makes a case for his strawman, that’s about it.

    “But that was no less true of the Democratic party in the late 50s and early 60s, when the crackup over racial segregation led to the Dixiecrats jumping ship to the Republican party.”

    I don’t see any equivalence between what’s been going on in the GOP and what happened with the Klan-O-crats in the 60′s or the nominal dems who flocked to Reagan in the 80′s (for pretty much the same reasons). The DNC has chased away the ultra-liberals (for the most part) and replaced them with center right types. The GOP has just gone full-on Batshit KKKrazzzepants with no indication that they will be stopping what they see as a winning strategy, anytime soon.

  36. Pierce R. Butler says

    … 2008-style financial panics.

    Douthat just can’t help but throw in some lies even when he makes a partially valid point. What happened to the US economy in 2008 came about through (incomplete list) corruption, deregulation, lies, and cronyism, a process led by one party and abetted by the other. “Panic” implies a collapse caused by irrationality, but it was the preceding “boom” that had no realistic basis.

    As for the changing fortunes of the two heads of the one beast which makes up our body politic: their volatility reflects, in exact proportion, the superficiality of their differences, which increasingly boil down to little more than easily replaceable personalities.

  37. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    If D.C.Sessions and acroyear are right, one of the USA’s two viable political parties is now openly undermining the fundamental democratic principle that elections should be not only free but fair, and have determined to win power by undemocratic means. There’s plenty of room for dispute about what is fair – but that systematically redrawing political boundaries and rejigging electoral systems to your own advantage is unfair, is well beyond any good-faith dispute.

    If this is so and the Republicans succeed, that will surely be the greatest crisis of American democracy since the 1860s, if not its end. So, what, if anything, can be done to prevent their success, given their current strength in the House and in state legislatures (and the Supreme Court)?

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