by Jonathan Chait about the renewed demographic threat faced by the GOP got me thinking about a thread I've been meaning to revisit.
For obvious reasons, the broadly liberal demographic trends in American politics have received much less attention since the 2016 election. Yet the fact remains that America is politically sorted by generations in a way it never has before. The oldest voters are the most conservative, white, and Republican, and the youngest voters the most liberal, racially diverse, and Democratic. There is absolutely no sign the dynamic is abating during the Trump years. If anything, it is accelerating.
The most recent Pew Research Survey has more detail about the generational divide. It shows that the old saw that young people would naturally grow more conservative as they age, or that their Democratic loyalties were an idiosyncratic response to Barack Obama’s unique personal appeal, has not held. Younger voters have distinctly more liberal views than older voters:
One could probably quibble with the overall definitions of which voters have liberal views and which have conservative views. What’s telling here is the comparison between generations. By Pew’s given definition, younger voters are wildly more liberal than older ones. The youngest voters have nearly five times as many voters with liberal views than with conservative views. The oldest voters have one and a half times more conservative than liberal voters.
Correspondingly, the Democratic lean of millennial voters is as strong as ever:
In the upcoming midterm elections, millennials are providing a huge share of the Democrats’ edge, with older generations splitting their vote relatively close:
In the first few months of the Trump administration, we did a series of posts on how the underlying dynamics of the Republican Party were changing and what some of the consequences might be. One of the fundamental ideas of the thread was that the country had entered a period where our normal ways of talking about subjective probability made no sense in terms of politics. You could still make directional and even ordinal statements, but we were so far outside of the range of data and precedent that you could no longer confidently assign upper and lower bounds to the probability of a number of events including the destruction of the Republican Party. Note, I never said that this was "likely" to happen, but rather you can't say that it can't happen now.
If I were writing this today, there are obviously things I would handle differently, but I'm reasonably comfortable standing by the main points.
I've argued previously
that Donald Trump presents and existential threat to the Republican
Party. I know this can sound overheated and perhaps even a bit crazy.
There are few American institutions as long-standing and deeply
entrenched as are the Democratic and Republican parties. Proposing that
one of them might not be around 10 years from now beggars the
imagination and if this story started and stopped with Donald Trump, it
would be silly to suggest we were on the verge of a political
But, just as Trump's rise did not occur in a vacuum, neither will his
fall. We discussed earlier how Donald Trump has the power to drive a
wedge between the Republican Party and a significant segment of its base
[I wrote this before the departure of Steve Bannon. That may diminish
Trump's ability to create this rift but I don't think it reduces the
chances of the rift happening. – – M.P.]. This is the sort of thing that
can profoundly damage a political party, possibly locking it into a
minority status for a long time, but normally the wound would not be
fatal. These, however, are not normal times.
The Republican Party of 2017 faces a unique combination of interrelated
challenges, each of which is at a historic level and the combination of
which would present an unprecedented threat to this or any US political
party. The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but it hits
the main points.
The GOP currently has to deal with extraordinary political scandals, a
stunningly unpopular agenda and daunting demographic trends. To keep
things symmetric and easy to remember, let's break each one of these
down to three components (keeping in mind that the list may change).
With the scandals:
1. Money – – Even with the most generous reading imaginable, there is no
question that Trump has a decades long record of screwing people over,
skirting the law, and dealing with disreputable and sometimes criminal
elements. At least some of these dealings have been with the Russian
mafia, oligarchs, and figures tied in with the Kremlin which leads us
2. The hacking of the election – – This one is also beyond dispute. It
happened and it may have put Donald Trump into the White House. At this
point, we have plenty of quid and plenty of quo; if Mueller can nail
down pro, we will have a complete set.
3. And the cover-up – – As Josh Marshall and many others have pointed
out, the phrase "it's not the crime; it's the cover-up" is almost never
true. That said, coverups can provide tipping points and handholds for
investigators, not to mention expanding the list of culprits.
With the agenda:
1. Health care – – By some standards the most unpopular major policy
proposal in living memory that a party in power has invested so deeply
in. Furthermore, the pushback against the initiative has essentially driven congressional Republicans into hiding from their own constituents
for the past half year. As mentioned before, this has the potential to
greatly undermine the relationship between GOP senators and
representatives and the voters.
2. Tax cuts for the wealthy – – As said many times, Donald Trump has a
gift for making the subtle plain, the plain obvious, and the obvious
undeniable. In the past, Republicans were able to get a great deal of
upward redistribution of the wealth past the voters through obfuscation
and clever branding, but we have reached the point where simply calling
something "tax reform" is no longer enough to sell tax proposals so
regressive that even the majority of Republicans oppose them.
3. Immigration (subject to change) – – the race for third place in this
list is fairly competitive (education seems to be coming up on the
outside), but the administration's immigration policies (which are the
direct result of decades of xenophobic propaganda from conservative
media) have already done tremendous damage, caused great backlash, and
are whitening the gap between the GOP and the Hispanic community, which
leads us to…
As Lindsey Graham has observed, they simply are not making enough new
old white men to keep the GOP's strategy going much longer, but the
Trump era rebranding of the Republican Party only exacerbates the
problems with women, young people, and pretty much anyone who isn't
Maybe I am missing a historical precedent here, but I can't think of
another time that either the Democrats or the Republicans were this
vulnerable on all three of these fronts. This does not mean that the
party is doomed or even that, with the right breaks, it can't maintain a
hold on some part of the government. What it does mean is that the
institution is especially fragile at the moment. A mortal blow may not
come, but we can no longer call it unthinkable.