The Democrats have been in control of both the legislative and executive branches of government only since last November. Yet there are already pundits predicting a new, permanent Democratic majority in American politics.
Proponents of this idea think that changing demographics portend a new political reality. They point to the seemingly Democratic tilt of young voters, as evidenced by their strong support of Barack Obama last year. Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Obama as well. Young voters and Hispanics will make up an increasing share of the electorate.
Moreover, we are in the midst of a financial crisis that happened on the watch of a Republican administration. There is widespread belief that the conservative philosophy of deregulation helped cause the chaos.
There is logic then, in thinking that a new political era has arrived. But that assumes that the current state of affairs will persist forever, which it will not. Young voters may seem liberal now, but events could change them. Once they start paying taxes, and worrying about terrorism for example, they could be more receptive to the Republican Party. Many Hispanics are socially conservative, and if the Republicans ever get around to embracing comprehensive immigration reform, perhaps more Hispanics can be won on social issues.
The idea that there could be some sort of permanent majority is of course not new. Ironically, pundits were making the very same arguments after George W. Bush was reelected in 2004. Hispanics had delivered a high percentage of votes to Bush that year, and so called security moms worried about terrorism voted for him. More than anything, 2004 was supposedly the year when “values voters” showed what a force they would be in American politics. Referenda banning gay marriage passed in several states and helped draw voters to the polls who ultimately backed Bush.
Democrats were scrambling to get religion and find a way to appeal to these voters. But these values issues have little relevance today. True, a gay marriage ban passed in California in November. But it obviously didn’t affect results at the congressional or Presidential levels. Abortion failed to gain any traction during the last cycle as well. Even President Obama’s opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act as a state senator failed to help McCain.
If the last few years haven’t taught us to be cynical about talk of permanent majorities, then a look at a greater span of American history should. Politics can change in an instant. After the first President Bush successfully prosecuted the Persian Gulf War, his approval ratings were through the roof. Everyone assumed that he was a lock to win reelection. Yet when the ballots were counted in 1992, Bill Clinton, not George H.W Bush, was the victor.
The Republican Party after Watergate was in even more dire straits than it is now. Democrats were thoroughly in control of the legislative and executive branches after the 1976 election. But events intruded on any dreams of a permanent majority Democrats may have had. The Iran hostage crisis and stagflation sent voters into the arms of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
I could go on and on providing examples of times when hopes for a permanent majority for one party were quashed almost as quickly as such hopes had arisen. Even FDR’s vaunted New Deal coalition didn’t last forever. Politics is and will remain cyclical. I’ve heard nothing that has persuaded me otherwise in the new wave of punditry detailing how the Democrats can govern forever.