First the bad:
As expected, the GOP won control of the House, having nabbed over 80 seats from the Democrats. They also gained six seats in the Senate and came very close to snatching power there as well. At the state level, too, the GOP won 7 governorships. On the up side, most of these losses came not from the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but from the (fairly useless) Blue Dog wing. It’s also good to bear in mind that the president’s party routinely loses seats in the midterm elections. Viewed in historical perspective, the Democratic losses are not so unusual, particularly given a terrible economy with nearly 10 percent official (and 22 percent “actual”) unemployment.
Still, this is undoubtedly a set-back to the Progressive agenda, as the Left suffered important losses. These include the fire-breathing champion of working-class Americans, Representative Alan Grayson (D), and the incorruptible reformer, Senator Russ Feingold (D), who co-sponsored historic campaign finance reform and has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform, conservationism and environmental protection, fair trade, banking reforms, and eliminating the death penalty. Moreover, while the Blue Dog Democrats are beloved by no one, the Republicans who turned them out of office are mostly mean, Shi’ite Republicans you would not want to meet in a dark alley (at least not if you are an illegal alien). Many of these so-called “Tea-publicans” (such as their de facto leader, Rand Paul, who has been linked to white Supremacists) make George W. Bush look like a paragon of multicultural tolerance.
How damaging is this unhappy turn of events? I will argue that there is at least one short-term and several long-term reasons why, in spite of this latest disappointment, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of progressivism.
(1) Calm down: we are not teetering on the precipice of fascism.
For one thing, the newly-elected Tea Partiers are almost certainly too incompetent to fundamentally transform our government, even if they had the numbers on their side. Moreover, the total elimination of women’s reproductive rights, deportation of illegal aliens, and militarization of the southern border are not big priorities for their corporate sponsors and may even be downright bad for business. After all, these Tea-publicans were brought to you by corporate America, and in this sense are really no different from the corrupted and corruptible Republican class of freshmen that took control of Congress in 1994. True, there will almost certainly be at least one government shutdown (not to mention impeachment hearings), and Obama's limited reforms are in serious danger of being scaled back. The GOP takeover may also delay an economic recovery and exacerbate unemployment. However, illegal immigrants are in no danger of mass deportations, and we are not about to witness the emergence of an American theocracy presided over by Palin. These right-wingers are simply not inclined to do the kind of work it would take to affect regime change.
It may sound Pollyannaish, but really, it could be so much worse... Happily, there are also significant structural changes that promise to improve the body politic (over the long run, at least):
(2) America is becoming truly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.
In the aggregate, that is. The graph below shows that the proportion of self-reported European or “white” Americans has dropped decade by decade. In the 1950s, the country was 80 percent white. By the middle of this century, however, folks of European extraction are projected to have dipped below 50 percent of the population. This is mostly an outgrowth of immigration from non-European countries, but partly also differences in birth rates. The U.S. Department of Education shows the decline of white America in the chart below.
Why is this a good thing for progressivism? Because minorities are traditionally left-wing voters. Jewish and African Americans have historically trended strongly Democratic, while Asian Americans and Hispanics have been more likely to split their vote. However, in the decades since civil rights legislation was passed, the Republican party has sought to mobilize angry and alienated lower middle-class white folks who virulently oppose anything that challenges, as Bill O'Reilly once put it, the “white Christian male power structure”: affirmative action, immigration, feminism and social welfare programs.
Electorally, the picture is even starker. The charts below show the percentage of whites that voted Republican in the last three presidential elections. Using data from CNN exit polls, L. David Roper shows that in 2000 George Bush did poorly in almost every major demographic except for whites and church-goers. Still, Bush was able to eke out victories (or at least a tie) in 2000 and 2004.
This last chart shows that McCain--who attracted about the same proportion of white voters as Bush did in 2000 or 2004--suffered a decisive defeat in 2008. The reason: white voters are no longer a commanding electoral demographic.
The racial divide in the 2010 midterm elections was even starker--the vast majority of whites voted Republican, while Blacks and Latinos voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
As the GOP tacks yet further right and white, the party is, as GOP Strategist David Frum put it, in danger of becoming a “rural white rump.” Such a party will need to secure ever increasing proportions of the white vote to offset the declining proportion of whites in the voting population. At some point, this will no longer be sustainable, and the GOP will have to abandon the tried-and-true “Southern Strategy” that it has relied upon to win elections since the Nixon administration. Such a development is bound to change the political discourse in America for the better.
(3) We are losing our religion.
Over the past couple decades, it has become increasingly acceptable to declare oneself a non-believer. Indeed, the percentage of secular Americans or "nones" (those who identify as atheists, agnostics, and simply non-religious) has increased significantly since the 1990s, particularly among younger respondents.
The emergence of more and more secular Americans promises a positive paradigm shift in national politics. This is because secularism generally goes together with progressivism and support for evidence-based policy-making. It is worth noting in this respect that non-religious people are far more likely than their religious counterparts to accept the science behind global warming. They also support gay marriage, and are far more likely to believe that evolution provides the best account of the origins of the universe.
A generational shift in religiosity is sure to hurt the Republican party. This is because the GOP has depended for decades on the support of highly religious Christian voters:
Major caveat: Americans will probably always be more religious than Europeans, who declare themselves Catholics or Protestants but rarely go to church. In America, religion seems to be in the country’s DNA, and an overwhelming majority of Americans still declare themselves to be God-fearing and predominantly Christian.
(4) Younger voters tend to be more progressive.
According to surveys, younger people today reveal themselves to be less homophobic, less racist, and more supportive of civil rights and social welfare programs than older people. Overall, younger people are also better traveled than their elders, sometimes living for extended periods in other countries. As a consequence, they have a tendency to be less nativist and more aware of how the actions of the U.S. affect people in other parts of the world. We can hope that this openness will promote not only other-oriented thinking and behavior, but also humility about the extent to which America ought to be teaching to, rather than learning from, other societies.
What is relevant for party politics is that younger people are less likely to identify with (and consequently vote for) the Republican Party. The graph below by Gallup shows that Democrats have a huge advantage over the Republicans among the youngest voting demographic (18-29). According to another survey by Pew, the average age of Republicans increased by three years from 1987 to 2009, whereas the average age of Democrats remained constant. The survey also notes that "For the first time in at least two decades, Republicans are older than Democrats on average." This surely cannot be good for the long-term prospects of the GOP, suggesting that the GOP may have to change much of its character to appeal to younger generations as time goes on.
(5) Rural America is disappearingThe right-wing base is shrinking not only because it is predominantly white, religious, and older, but because its voters are disproportionately rural. According to one analysis, fully two-thirds of the GOP wins in the 2010 elections were in rural districts, which make up a fraction of all electoral districts in the U.S.
Political Scientist Seth Mckee has researched the regional and urban-rural divides in America, finding that the traditional north-south political cleavage has in some ways been eclipsed by the rural-urban divide: "the growing divide between rural and urban voters has widened because the North-South sectional cleavage among rural voters has narrowed," meaning that rural voters in the north and south have largely fused to become today's GOP base. He concludes, "it now appears that future Republican presidential success may be heavily reliant on rural support--turning the traditional southern rural-urban cleavage on its head."
The trouble with this as a long-term Republican strategy should be obvious. Like practically everywhere else in the world, rural Americans are migrating to urban areas for jobs and upward mobility. McKee cites ANES data indicating that rural voters as a proportion of the overall electorate dropped from 37.9 percent in 1952 to 31 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2004. Sarah Palin's "real America" is a pale shadow of its former self. This is shown graphically by the following chart from the US Global Change Research Program:
Of course none of this precludes the emergence of a new cultural divide at the national level, nor does it mean the end of political tribalism. What it does mean is that in a two-party system, it will be impossible for one party to rise to power by appealing solely or even mainly to white nationalism. It means that the GOP will be forced to broaden its electoral appeal in order to win national elections, which will almost certainly improve the quality of political discourse in our country.