November 26, 2004

When Demographic Trends Collide

Two demographic trends, side by side. Leonard Steinhorn has a Salon piece suggesting that the conservative "moral majority" is dwindling, with young voters more racially tolerant and more sexually liberal than the country as a whole. (Via Matthew Yglesias.) Bad for the Republicans, eh? Perhaps not: In the Economist, Adrian Woolridge observes that the number of voters favoring the "pro-growth" message of the Republican party are rapidly growing. So what happens when these two trends collide?

It's not enough, I think, to argue that the emergence of a culturally liberal set will automatically augur well for the future of the Democrats. Political parties are all about coalition-building, and those sexually liberated young'uns still have a lot of incentive to join up with the Republican coalition so long as that party has a monopoly on the "pro-growth" economic message.

This is a trickier problem than it looks. From where I stand, the Republicans have nothing at all to do with pro-growth policies—DeLay-style cronyism actually hinders economic growth, as does the refusal to invest publicly in research and development, the pseudo-injunction against stem-cell research, and the dominance of vested corporate interests against various paths to economic growth. (The 2004 corporate tax bill, for instance.) But that's merely the perspective of one partisan hack who follows these issues daily. On the wider electoral stage, once the Democrats start railing against corporate excess, it's very easy for them to get painted into an "anti-growth" corner. Resistance to private savings accounts and tax reform, however well-intentioned, will only make this situation worse.

That means that so long as sex and cultural liberalism does not appear too imperiled—so long as the Republicans aren't actually banning abortion outright (which they probably won't) or sending gay people off too prison (which they definitely won't)—the balance of considerations will throw these pro-growth young cultural liberals back into the Republican coalition. Furthermore, so long as the religious right is part of this coalition, they'll appear to be part of the mainstream, regardless of how much Steinhorn thinks they should be marginalized.

The way out, I think, involves actually understanding tensions within the GOP coalition. One of the less-noted facts about the religious right is that it has a fairly natural antipathy to the "pro-growth" vision of America. I'm not just talking about the poor in the religious right, but the whole nine yards. The idea of a tight-knit "Christian community" that you find across the Baptist South is very much at odds with the radical egalitarianism you find in, say, Silicon Valley. Now Tom Frank would say that the way to exploit this divide is to appeal to the former—via economic populism—in order to crack up the coalition. That seems dubious to me, though there's some evidence that it could work (namely, Stan Greenberg's contention that Bush won in 2004 because economic issues faded in the last few days of the campaign, allowing cultural issues came back to the fore). Personally, I'm more partial to figuring out a message of "economic dynamism" that appeals to Woolridge's rapidly-growing exurbs and pro-growth voters—and by extension, utterly marginalizes what we consider the far-right. The Naderite criticism here is that doing so only pushes the Democrats further into corporate arms. But I don't think it has to. More later...
-- Brad Plumer 6:06 PM || ||