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TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira: Demographics and the Parties

Probably no one in the United States has a better handle on long-term demographic changes and their impact on politics than TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira. So it's a major event when Teixeira releases a new study that consolidates most of the recent work he's done on this subject, along with some new thoughts about the implications of demographic change for the strategies of the two major parties.

Demographic Change and the Future of the Parties, a working paper published by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, contains Teixeira's most detailed analysis yet of the demographic trends that have long convinced him that we are likely to be entering an era where Democrats hold a significant advantage in national contests.

The big picture Teixeira paints is familar enough: the future electorate is currently being shaped by the growth of relatively pro-Democratic groups--notably minorities, college-educated (and especially post-graduate-educated) white voters, younger voters, and those with no religious affiliation--and the decline of relatively pro-Republican groups, most importantly non-college educated white voters. Geographically, Democratic success in "mature" and "emerging" suburbs is more than offsetting Republican strength in exurban areas, while Republican majorities in high-growth states are being eroded by the very elements of their population that are growing most rapidly.

But what can Republicans do to deal with an electorate that is less sympathetic than today's? Teixeira suggests that moderation on cultural issues is particularly critical if the GOP is to strenghten its position among college-educated white votes, and particularly "millienials" who have recently entered the electoral picture. But more importantly, he says, Republicans need to offer voters something other than tax-cutting and antigovernment populism. It's rather obvious that Republicans at the moment are moving in a very different direction than the demographic trends would indicate.

Democrats, on the other hand, are positioned well with their demographic coalition, but must show that their policy agenda can successfully address the country's problems:

Conversely, if the Democrats fail to produce--whether through ineffective programs, fiscal meltdown, or both--even an unreformed GOP will remain very competitive despite the many demographic changes that are disadvantaging the party. The next few years will tell the tale.

As Teixeira observes, the GOP's current strategy seems to depend almost entirely on Democratic policy failures, along with turnout advantages that make their minority coalition more powerful than their numbers would suggest.

Now I suspect that most conservatives, if confronted directly with Teixeira's findings, would object that he's placing too much emphasis on trends within demographic groups as measured by a single presidential election, 2008, in which Republican policy failures, not the core message of the GOP, was repudiated. In other words, voters rejected the "big government conservatism" of the Bush administration, and are now showing they did not endorse a shift to "big government liberalism" under Obama. That's an argument that is at least superficially plausible, but the trends Teixeira is talking about have been underway for decades, so writing off 2008 as a temporary reaction to George W. Bush is a dubious proposition, and there's almost no evidence that fast-growing demographic groups are attracted to the current anti-government populism of the GOP. At the moment, at least, likely Republican gains in 2010 are attributable to very big turnout disparities and to the low-hanging fruit created by big Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, not to some fundamental shift in the ideology of the electorate.

Some conservatives of a more apocalyptic bent seem to be under the impression that the events of the last two years--the financial sector collapse, double-digit inflation, TARP and other "bailouts", the stimulus package, ObamaCare--are producing a massive conservative shift in political attachments similar to the pro-Democratic shift generated by the Great Depression. In other words, you can forget all the data and ignore all the long-range trends; we're in entirely new political territory now.

That sounds a lot like wishful thinking among ideologues who have always been able to divine, beneath the surface and despite the facts, a conservative majority in the electorate which is always on the brink of being manifested once and for all.

So as a Democrat, it's fine by me if Republicans want to toss all the objective evidence in the nearest trash can and put their faith in the proposition that 2010 likely voter tracking polls, not long-term trends, are the best evidence of where the country is going over the next few decades. But meanwhile, Teixeira's analysis should remind Democrats that even the most favorable demographic landscape won't produce electoral majorities if policies fail to improve real-life conditions in the country. Particularly for the party of public-sector activism, governing matters most.