What "emerging Democratic majority"?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 11 2002 5:42 PM

Democrats 36,000

Where's that emerging Democratic majority?

Book cover

You'd think that the Nov. 5 election would have pitched The Emerging Democratic Majority straight into the remainder bin. The Democrats lost their slim majority in the Senate; failed to acquire majorities in the House and in state governorships; and lost their plurality of state legislatures. It was an unambiguous rout. Yet interest in John Judis and Ruy Teixeira's new book seems, if anything, to be picking up. Joshua Micah Marshall cited it approvingly in a post-election analysis for the Boston Globe's Sunday "Ideas" section. David Brooks said in the New York Times' Sunday "Week in Review" section that Judis and Teixeira's thesis is "still compelling." Indeed, Brooks observed, the Democratic debacle was, in a way, good news for Judis and Teixeira; the fact that their predicted Democratic majority will "take a long time to emerge" ensures their book "an extra-long shelf life."

Authors of books that predict big, bold change are always well advised to put a face-saving caveat into the fine print. James Glassman and Kevin Hassett, authors of Dow 36,000, took care not to say precisely when their prediction would be realized. ("Hey, be patient!" read the subhead of an op-ed Glassman and Hassett published in the Wall Street Journal this past August.) In The Emerging Democratic Majority, Judis and Teixeira wrote that the EDM would emerge "sometime in this decade," which gives them seven years to claim victory. They also argued that the midterm 2002 elections were unlikely to reflect the trends discussed in their book:

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[T]he terrorist assault on the United States—and the Bush administration's successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan—cast Bush and the Republicans in a far more favorable light. … [A] continuing public preoccupation with national security will certainly benefit the Republicans (and generally incumbents) in November 2002 and at least mitigate whatever gains the Democrats might have expected from a recession occurring during the Bush presidency.

Judis now says (in post-election pieces in the New Republic and the Guardian) that the midterm election was, indeed, a referendum on the war against terrorism and proved only that the public still prefers Republicans to Democrats when national security is the paramount concern. He's probably right about that. But Judis presses his luck when he plays up the fact that Democrats, while failing to seize a gubernatorial majority, nonetheless achieved a little-publicized net gain of four governorships. This is significant, Judis writes, because "foreign policy is not a factor" in state government, allowing the Judis-Teixeira thesis to be tested in something more closely resembling laboratory conditions.

But Judis fails to mention the state legislative races, where foreign policy was also not a factor. So really, at the state level, the election was at best a wash. Why "at best"?  Because there are actually two ways to describe the Democrats' state-legislative loss, both of them especially dispiriting for Democrats. One way to describe it is that an 18-17 Democratic plurality turned into a 21-16 Republican plurality. (If Washington state, at the moment undecided, goes Democratic, the Republican plurality will be 21-17. In all but one of the remaining legislatures, neither party controls both chambers; unicameral Nebraska is nominally nonpartisan.) Since 1952, Republicans have held a plurality of state legislatures only once before, following the 1994 election.

The second way to describe the Democrats' state-legislative loss is that Republicans hold a majority of all state legislative seats nationwide. The margin is tiny—Republicans now have 18 more seats than Democrats in state legislatures (out of a nationwide total of 7,382) and pending recounts might conceivably reduce that slightly. But it's historic: The last time Republicans held a majority of state legislative seats was 1952. Taken together, these two ways of calculating Democratic statehouse losses make them comparable, in their own small way, to the 1994 loss of the U.S. House.

But enough petty scorekeeping. Forgetting the midterm election, how do Judis and Teixeira's long-term demographic analyses hold up? Impressively in some respects, less so in others. Chatterbox will delve into these weightier matters tomorrow.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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