Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama’s policies or his presidency (and I am a critic), he is an historic figure. His election and now re-election were not only a signature moments for African-Americans, but for all minorities of color. The percentages of the minority vote reflect that.
The numbers indicate the danger for Republicans that, unless some changes are made, these constituents could be lost for generation. As the country becomes less and less white, Republican will have to receive more than 60% of that vote. This is a daunting but not an impossible task.
The white vote is complex, if not somewhat vexing. For example two of the most affluent white-dominated counties in the country, Montgomery County in Maryland and Marin County in California gave Obama over 70% of the vote. At the same time many of working class white counties in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia went for Romney. What explains that?
I will venture a guess; and its more than coal. As government programs, regulations, entitlements, tax breaks and subsidies have grown over the past 40 years, the rich in the wealthy zip codes around New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles have seen their incomes grow. They see no conflict between the growth of government and their own economic prospects. A modest increase in their income tax rate would do little to impact their affluence. Those at the lowest end of the income spectrum have benefited directly from food stamp programs, Medicaid, rent supplements, and earned income tax credits. Those in the middle are less likely to be the beneficiaries of such programs. Consequently, their economic situation has deteriorated as government programs grew and the economy stagnated.
We have a strange bifurcation of the American electorate. The Democratic base consists of racial minorities, single white women, gays and lesbians, the very poor, urban voters, self-identified liberals (many affluent), and those with post-graduate degrees. On the Republican side there are older white males, increasing numbers of working class whites, rural voters, evangelical Christians, self identified conservatives, and married white women. Despite of the current conventional wisdom, these coalitions are not rigid. Numerous voters in those coalitions can shift from one election to the next due to conditions.
The Democratic coalition had the upper hand in this election. It won the overall popular vote by two percentage points, gained two Senate seats and yet failed to capture the House. Put it in historical perspective. The Roosevelt coalition of the 1930s and 1940s won five straight presidential elections, most with greater margins, and with one exception (1946) carried both houses of Congress. The current Democratic coalition has yet to amass that kind of strength.
As the percentage of the white voting population declines, the demographics give Democratic coalition the potential for that strength. A bromide claims that demography is destiny. That is true except when it is not. People also vote on results, and the party in power, in this case the Democrats, has to produce. Should the economy continue its sluggish growth and weak job creation; no demographic coalition will keep them in power.
Whatever the outcome of any particular election, this political division does not augur well for our country. America seems to be on a collision course with itself. We have a strong pro-government constituency close to colliding with the realities of growing debt and deficits. There is such a collision in Greece. It is a train wreck where no one wins. When more people become disillusioned with democratic politics, authoritarian forces emerge such as the Greek Golden Dawn party. The ultimate nightmare is Nazi Germany.
We are far from that gruesome nightmare. We can stop the collision and prevent any kind of nightmare. The elements of a grand bargain are here; not just for next year but for the long-term future. Conservatives should not object to raising revenue with a modest lowering of the income tax rates combined with a hard cap on deductions and loopholes; liberals should not object to the means testing of entitlements and raising the age of eligibility to perhaps 70 for Social Security and Medicare. This should be the broad concept of a bargain. Constructed sensibly, it could bring in additional revenue, put the brakes on the growth of spending and actually produce greater economic growth.
None of that will happen without presidential leadership. Barack Obama can do things on entitlement and tax reform that no Republican could. His party would swallow such a deal just the Republicans swallowed Nixon’s opening to China and the Democrats Clinton’s welfare reform. The Republicans, chastened by the election, may be ready. As John Kenneth Galbraith said in a letter to John F. Kennedy, “Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” The time has come to make that choice.
Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, Penn State Harrisburg