Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 12 January 2022

 What if Republicans become a majority party?

What happens if Democrats lose in 2024?
I don’t mean “What if Republican-controlled legislatures override the results of the presidential election?” or even a less noxious “What if a Republican wins the electoral college but loses the popular vote?” I mean, what if Democrats just … lose?
The question is admittedly speculative, but it’s not as far-fetched as my left-leaning readers might imagine. They ought to start imagining it, however, because the more the left assumes it can’t happen, the more likely it becomes.
Democrats have gotten out of the habit of thinking of the Republican Party as a normal opposition that sometimes beats them by the simple expedient of winning more votes. Even before Jan. 6, they often saw Republican victories as a bit of a cheat, the product of voter suppression, gerrymandering and the bad luck of a Constitution that grants outsize influence to low-population states. Democrats push election reforms so aggressively because they believe their cause is right. But it’s also true that they tend to assume that any accessible, fair and honest system will give the majority of votes to Democrats.
It’s understandable that they’d think so, since our current system gives such outsize influence to low-population states where Republicans outperform. And frankly, often, Republicans act like losers who can’t win elections fairly — the brazen gerrymanders, the craven coddling of Donald Trump’s “stop the steal” twaddle.
Yet the belief in an “emerging Democratic majority” predates any Trumpian alarm bells. It goes back to a 2002 book by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira that outlined how demographic change could give Democrats a durable advantage. Over time, the left elevated the authors’ modest hypothesis into a prophecy; in 2016, one heard repeated suggestions that Republicans might never win another presidential election.
That belief helped shift left-wing politics further leftward — less need to worry about wooing moderates when you can instead just turn out your growing base. Yet that leftward shift alienated a chunk of White working-class voters whom Judis and Teixeira had counted on keeping in the Democratic camp. Now, Teixeira is warning that Democrats risk losing many Hispanic and Asian voters, too.
Those are demographics they can’t afford even to win much less decisively. Election analyst Sean Trende recently told me that, all else equal, if Trump had won roughly half of Hispanics in 2020, he would have won the popular vote.
In reality, Trump got only about a third of them. But that was up from around 28 percent in 2016 — and now, a recent Wall Street Journal poll shows Hispanic voters evenly split between the parties. Democrats haven’t slipped as far with Asian voters, but Teixeira documents troubling signs for the party in New York’s mayoral race and Virginia’s gubernatorial election.
One can imagine Republicans building a working majority by picking up larger minorities of Hispanic and Asian voters, while winning back some educated White voters angry about school closures or worried about crime. That’s a possibility the left needs to prepare for.
A left that understood it could lose, outright, would still care about election integrity. But it would also try to stem recent losses by shifting focus away from the divisive issues that excite young progressives, and toward bread-and-butter policies that are broadly popular. That left would also make some contingency plans in case everyone does their best, and Republicans win anyway.
For example, the left has increasingly defined itself as a coalition of progressives and people of color against reactionary Whites. Would that be a viable organizing principle in a world where Republicans win a sizable percentage of non-White votes?
Beyond that, what sort of political positions should the left adopt, if Republicans start to outpoll them? The belief in a frustrated Democratic majority has made the left increasingly critical of the anti-majoritarian features of American democracy. How well will those criticisms read if Democrats take their turn as the party that can’t quite win a popular majority? Might their future selves come to appreciate the filibuster, celebrate the electoral college or regret their endorsement of various court-packing schemes?
Of course, conservatives should engage in similar introspection. If Republicans expected to win more elections, what would they say about the filibuster, or America’s growing preference for running all important decisions through the Supreme Court? For that matter, how would a party swelling with Hispanic and Asian voters position itself on immigration? And if Republicans can assemble a majority of the vote, won’t they want Democrats to accept the legitimacy of that vote? If so, shouldn’t they set a good example now?
As this suggests, there are upsides even for Democrats in the prospect of a few substantial Republican victories: Nothing is more likely to resign Republicans to the need to respect election integrity. Still, Democrats would probably rather arrive at that point having fought hard, and prepared themselves, rather than having spent their time fiddling with the rules and working the media refs while Republicans scooped up their voters.

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