There’s an excellent piece by Jamelle Bouie in Slate today, The Disunited States of America, about the midterm voters versus the general election voters. It’s longish, which means, sadly, few will finish the piece before they begin attacking it in the comments section. Which is too bad, because Bouie does a fine job explaining the natures of midterm voters and non-voters and how that difference has set us up for a gridlocked, dysfunctional Congress term after term. Basically, the proportion of older, white, male, well off, conservative voters is significantly higher in the off year (that is, midterm) elections, with everyone else piling in for the general. Which means that the presidents will likely remain Democrat over all, and the senate will slowly shift blue as conservative Republican senators elected in off year elections are beaten six years later as the GOP base gradually, well, dies off. Gradually at first anyway. Once they hit their eighties they disappear as a voting block. That is happening now, though it won’t start becoming noticeable in a big way, I imagine, in four years. That’s the thing about life expectancy, people don’t live much past it. However, the House of Representatives, gerrymandered all to hell, will stay red for a long time.
If you look at it generationally if makes a little more sense. The GOP vote is essentially what remains of the Reagan generation, but that was thirty five years ago and those voters, as I said, are aging and dying off at a steady rate, but a rate soon to increase dramatically as they keep reaching life expectancy. Maybe this sounds cold, a little clinical, but the Reagan generation replaced the New Deal generation in the same way. Only that transition, back in the 1980’s, went faster and was more complete because life expectancy was much less a generation ago. People aged faster, died sooner, and died of more things. People live a good decade longer now, are healthier, livelier, and less alone (due mainly to Facebook) which means Reagan voters will stick around longer. We don’t like to think of political change being a matter of actuarial tables, but more than any other factor it is life expectancy that drives long term political change. People don’t change their political party often, most never do. If they cast their first ballot Republican, they likely will cast their last the same. In those rare times when people do switch parties in a big way–in 1860, in 1932, in 1980–there will be a large advantage to one party that will exert a powerful influence on elections for decades. After thirty or forty years the actuarial tables begin taking their toll. That’s what happened to the New Deal voters. There were still tens of millions left in 1980, and Reagan had to reach out to them to pick up Florida, California and other states. He dared not say what he really thought of the New Deal. By 2000 those voters were much, much fewer. Politically insignificant. George W. Bush did not have even pretend to like FDR. Among conservatives the New Deal became totalitarianism, FDR a traitor. FDR loyalists were not around to defend him. Today FDR remains a traitor in much of the GOP, though Herbert Hoover is perhaps not quite the hero he was during the NeoCon glory days before the economy collapsed.
Now those Reagan voters are beginning to disappear. In the north and west coast especially, you can see how they fritter away from presidential election to presidential election, though not as quickly as their New Deal predecessors. Yet even majorities in deep southern states like Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are not what they were, and even in this midterms the Democrat totals are in the low forties now. The used to be as low as the twenties. That’s a change you see little mention of. At the same time, however, there are also less young people now–perhaps the lowest proportion ever in the US population ever–so the old timers’ die off is not having as dramatic effect as it did when the New Dealers aged. The next generation will not flood ballot boxes like they did in the past. We’ll never see a scene like 1972 Democratic convention, beards and love beads all across the floor. There simply are not enough people under thirty for that kind of critical mass. The Pill cancelled the baby boomer’s own baby boom. And the disproportion of youth is even more evident in much of the GOP’s rural base, especially that column of thinly populated prairie states from Oklahoma to North Dakota. Younger people there have been moving out of state for decades, mostly towards the three coasts, and the proportion of older voters in the states’ rural counties has soared far above the national average. This virtually guarantees conservative republicans representation in those states. There aren’t that many congressional districts in those states, but they are always conservative. There are more senators there than congressmen actually (some states have only one congressional district) but with their aging populations the possibilities for Democratic senators is very limited. This wasn’t always the case, as some of the greatest liberal Democrats of the New Deal era sprang from the Midwest. Alas, the 1980 and 1984 elections cut through their ranks like a scythe. The New Deal supporters who once voted for them are long since dead. Too many of the younger voters moved away. The Reagan voters remain. It is by and large a matter of demographics.
However, even though those young voters are not so great a proportion of the population as they had been in decades past, they are more leftist than ever. Far more so than the vaunted baby boomers…whose under 24 year olds favored Nixon and Reagan and tripped up every Democratic nominee from Humphrey to Gore who expected to pick up the youth vote in overwhelming numbers. That didn’t happen till Obama, and now when the youth votes at the same rate as other voters they can tilt an election result to the left. Today’s under thirty vote is not only the most leftwing voting block since the New Deal and they actually vote more than their predecessors. The internet seems to have given young votyers today a political identity separate from their parents…not always the case before, when the youngest voters (under 21) would vote their parents’ ticket. There is no serious GOP youth vote anymore, at least outside the South. There was under Reagan. There was even under Nixon. But it has slipped dramatically. That Texas has made voter registration so difficult for students and young voters is hardly an accident. Kids don’t vote Republican as often, certainly not in numbers to make up for the numbers of Republicans dying geriatrically. Of course, those kids have to vote. They love voting in general elections, love voting for president. It’s exciting. Democrats in general get really worked up by national elections, and Democratic senatorial candidates do well when they share the ballot with a presidential candidate. Between presidential elections, though, Democrats have trouble getting themselves worked up. You saw a perfect example of that last Tuesday.
The House of Representatives, though, even in general elections, has been locked down by the GOP through brilliant feats of gerrymandering. Districts are deliberately designed so that the Democrats will be overwhelmingly represented in a few, while the GOP is spread out over many districts with just enough republican voters to ensure a win. If there are twelve congressional districts in a state, for example, four can be 80% Democrat and eight 60% republican. A Democratic congressional candidate in the Democrat district will win 80% of the vote. Republicans in their districts will only win 60% of the vote. But the Republicans will have twice as many congressional districts in that state than the Democrats. This is one of the things (there are others, too, like malapportionment, more complicated to explain) that has ensured that the Republicans, less numerous than Democrats, continue to hold on to a majority in the House of Representatives. The GOP dominates state houses, which is the fault of Democratic voters and activists who simply don’t understand how important state houses are. Since we win presidential elections, we think nationally. Republicans rarely win presidential elections and know that their power is almost entirely at the state level. They do that very well. By far their best politicians are their governors. At the federal level all they can do federally is try and block Democratic legislation. Which they also do well. The Party of No.
The core of the GOP now is the old South, who were solidly Democratic until Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1972 flipped them, a process completed by Reagan. The populist southern Democrats of FDR’s era, racist but very anti-plutocratic, died out ages ago. Now the Republicans of the South are pretty hard conservative, often extremely so. The Dixiecrats they spring from were also a party of No. No to all civil rights legislation. This was a policy that the south–especially the Senators–had followed since John C.Calhoun in the early 19th century in his defense of slavery. Championing slavery is perhaps a better description. A lot of revisionist nonsense since the Civil War has the south quietly minding it’s own business, tending its peculiar institution and wishing the capitalist Yankees would leave them alone. Gone With the Wind. That is utter crap. Slavery was expansionist, had to be. The entire southern economy was based on the value of slaves. Slaves were worth huge money, in fact the value of all the slaves in the United States–that is, below the mason Dixon Line–surpassed the value of all industry, assets, railroads, banks, stocks, shipping and real estate in the states banning slavery put together. The only thing in the United States worth more money than slaves was the land itself. The more states that allowed slavery, the more demand for slaves, the higher the price of slaves, the richer the slave owning plutocracy (and the slave owning middle class). Slavery had to be destroyed because it made so much economic sense to own slaves. Southern industry was already using slaves in its new factories. Slaves were used by small businesses and farms. Slaves served as teamsters. Slave Slavery, Calhoun was convinced, was the best possible social system on earth, and indeed was decreed by God. John C. Calhoun also developed the concept of nullification, where a state has the right to disavow all federal laws it doesn’t agree with. That has been part of the Anti-Obamacare strategy since is passage…nullification. Indeed, southerners even talk of secession as if it is still a viable option. You’re never quite sure how much they believe that, but it eerily echoes the threats of slave state Democrats before the Civil War. 19th century pre-Civil War southern political philosophy has become one of the linchpins of the Republican party in the South. The defense of slavery has been replaced by a defense of southern values. Gun rights, gay marriage, school prayer, and on an on, all are defended as if the South itself were at stake. This is classic southern politics, going all the way back to the furious political battles over slavery in the 1820’s through the Civil War. Resistance was unyielding. It still is. It seems to infect the GOP nationwide, showing the profound influence of Southern political tradition throughout the modern Republican party. When Tea Party Republicans seem insistent on driving out anyone who doesn’t agree with them–all those RINO (Republican In Name Only) denunciations–and refusing to compromise on any of their positions at all, that is classic John C. Calhoun. He was far and away the most profound political influence on the Old South before and after the Civil War, yet pretty much forgotten after the passage of LBJ’s Civil Rights laws. Somehow, since then, Calhoun has reemerged in the South. Not his defense of slavery, but his defense of the South. He was the South in the South’s glory days, in that generation or two before the Civil War. It’s a land that loves its heroes, far more than the rest of the country does, almost to the point of ancestor worship, and Calhoun is right up there with Robert E Lee. It’s hard to think of another figure with anywhere nearly the same impact as John C. Calhoun–born in 1782 and died in 1850–has on the Republican Party in the South today. Which is where the heart of the Republican Party is. The Grand Old Party today is about as far from the party of Abraham Lincoln as it is possible to be. Lincoln himself is a RINO, if not an outright traitor. Amazing how John C. Calhoun still lays a heavy hand on American politics a more than a century and a half later, more so than Lincoln himself.
But no wonder. Something southerners understand that the rest of the country doesn’t at all is that the USA is actually two separate civilizations under one flag. The South was one of the last great world civilizations built upon slavery. Slavery defined it. Their peculiar institution, they called it, when peculiar meant special and not weird. Though weird it seems now. Way weird. As the Industrial revolution happened all around it, creating a proletariat that replaced the peasantry, the South had a massive labor force of slaves that filled almost every labor niche there was in the country. They were kept by middle class households, working in shops, working on small farms, working as teamsters and aboard trains and steamers, building railroads, roads–southern chain gangs replaced slave labor–and worked in the factories. They were skilled artisans as well. There was not a profession in the south almost that could not use slaves in place of paid workers. Southern wages were low as a result, small southern farms were often subsistence level. The wealthy class was wealthy to a degree almost unimaginable in the north. The only downside was the threat of rebellion. There were no moral scruples, for slavery, southerners knew, was the most perfect form of civilization in the eyes of God. In fact, slavery was vastly more moral than any other for of economics–I know this is hard to believe–and it became the mission of the South to expand slavery throughout the land as that was God’s will. Reading the writings and speeches of Southern politicians, writers, intellectuals and preachers from the 1840’s and 1850’s will chill you to the bone. You realize just how dangerous a civilization the south was. The visions of the Knights of the Golden Circle with its empire of “classical societies” (i.e., slave based) encompassing the Caribbean the way the Roman Empire encompassed the Mediterranean are as surreal a dream that ever came out of the United States. Southerners kept at it even past the Civil War, wanting to annex Cuba and more. Southerners weren’t terrified of Latin Americans yet. Of course, these slavocratic fantasies–though some could have become reality had the Confederacy won independence–all were destroyed by the Civil War. When we banned slavery we destroyed an entire civilization. The economic loss was not only in destroyed property–the planter class was ruined, by Union Armies, out of control guerilla warfare, emancipated slaves, and poor whites looting and burning–but also in slaves. Slaves were the main assets in the south. Most southern money was in property, and most of that property was slaves. The internal slave trade was vastly profitable, and as god an investment as ever existed in this country. While the north found wealth in agriculture, goods and gold and silver, the south had cotton and slaves. There was no need for a gold rush in the south, because Africans were worth more.
When the South was conquered in 1865 they felt as if they’d been overrun by barbarians. We leveled their country and left them with nothing. We freed their slaves and made them their equals. We disenfranchised confederates, jailed others, seized property. And they resent this to this day. They resent losing the war. They believe in a mythical lost cause. They resent us telling them how to do anything. They are different. They are even the real Americans. And they are extraordinarily unified in this.
Since most Democratic majorities are in larger states with Democratic controlled state governments, Democratic voters, activists and money givers typically don’t see how the state house process can be used to control Congress. Though they are seeing it now in Ohio and Pennsylvania, each a stunning example of Republican gerrymandering art. Democrats used to be just as skilled, California being the ultimate example, the GOP has been almost destroyed here by clever Democratic gerrymandering. A strategy followed even more effectively by Texas Republicans this past decade. In both states, one party took the governorship and both houses and proceeded to marginalize the losing party to the point of barely being there at all. It’s not fair, but it’s effective.
Alas for our side, Democrats decided not to worry so much about statehouse races anymore. A catastrophic mistake–there are far more Republican governors and state legislators than would ever be if the Democrats hadn’t handed them the statehouse keys. We need to get back in the state house game and stop turning over governorships in Democratic states. A lot of this is new to many of the liberals reading this, but this would not be new at all to most conservatives reading this. Which just shows how deep the problem is. Republicans well understand that a minority party can only hold power through rigging the system. And southern Republicans know this more than anyone. They have always known it. It was at the core of John C Calhoun’s political philosophy. It is in the southern political DNA.
Of course, gerrymandering, vote suppression, none are new. The name gerrymandering itself comes from Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts, who back in the early 19th century used some very clever district redrawing to send the local Federalists into history. Gerry was a Democrat-Republican, which preceded the Democrats, and the fact that Democrats dominate Massachusetts today can probably be traced back in some sense to Elbridge Gerry’s shenanigans. And while Gerry used his namesake redistricting, as did California Democrats and Texas Republicans, to finish off a badly bleeding opponent, it can be used just as effectively to maintain a fading power base. You do what you have to do to stay in the game. The GOP, seeing the future does not look bright for older white male voters nationally, plays little tricks to stem the tide a while longer. Rather than expanding its base, it plays games.
Now to a twenty five year old this might seem absurd, but a typical fifty-five year old Republican voter isn’t thinking in the long term. If voter suppression will keep the Mexicans in Texas out of power for a decade, that is long enough. If gerrymandered districts in Ohio can keep a minority party in charge for a decade, that’s good too. Let the young Blue voters worry about the long run. To a fifty-five year old, a decade is a long time. In ten years he’ll be sixty five. A twenty five year old has a whole lifetime ahead of him, all kinds of time to not bother voting. A fifty five year old knows better than that. At the same time, if much of the GOP strategy now seems devoid of reaching out to young and ethnic voters and instead seeks to keep them from voting, I think it’s because they just want things to stay the same while they’re still around. You hit your mid fifties and you no longer want to deal with anything new. You certainly don’t want anyone in your party telling you it’s time to change everything. So you put your foot down and refuse to change. Unfortunately for the Democrats, these older, white male voters are around longer now, mean and ornery and voting. Come the midterms, they’ll be in the voting booths while Democrat voters are at work, or taking care of the kids, or too stoned or just forgot. Next time I’ll vote by mail, they say. Next time. So an “older, whiter, wealthier and much more conservative than the public at large” midterm electorate (quoting Jamelle Bouie in Slate) picks the winners in the midterms.
Or you can look at it from another angle. Bouie says “Put another way” Bouie says “the midterm electorate that chose this Republican Congress is itself a Republican electorate drawn from a subset of Republican voters.” Now that is wild. He’s saying that because the turnout in midterm elections among voters who are not older white arch-conservative guys making good money is so lousy that they have essentially turned a helluva lot of congressional and statehouse races into Republican only elections. So many of our voters can’t be bothered to vote that the rest of us in those districts might as well be flushing our votes down the toilet. Our lazy, distracted, bored, busy, stoned or too cynical to vote people who don’t show up are actually electing Republicans. And not moderate Republicans either, but the Joni Ernsts of the world. Every wacko Tea Party sympathizer who got elected in a midterm election in a state that regularly elects Democrats was elected by Democratic non-voters. Every one of them. If this were 2016, Joni Ernst would be back castrating hogs.
One of the weird things about American politics today is that modern American conservatism–the Tea Party types–in large part hearkens back to early 19th century Southern political theory, defending today’s plutocracy the way Calhoun defended his era’s slavocracy. American liberalism, on the other hand, is mainly built on New Dealism–that is 20th century Democratic socialism. The two have nothing in common, are rooted in two different times, separated by seventy years, a Civil War, the end of slavery as an economic system, the Industrial Revolution, the extension of the popular vote, and tens of millions of European immigrants. It’s like they originated on two different planets. So different there is virtually no ground on which to have a political discussion. We look at a Jodi Ernst, say, and they look at Barack Obama and neither of us can believe anything like that could ever have won. Or even existed. Many of us (not me) actively hate the other side. Despise them. It balances out, though…in off year elections their planet wins, in general elections our planet wins. And it will be like this for the next decade, at least. Two alien species staring through each other every election, completely incapable of understanding the other side at all. Finally Republican voters will die, enough of them, and the balance will shift. That is how the Reagan Republicans too over, the New Dealers dying off. And through long years of numbing, aggravating stalemate we forget how quickly that balance can shift. California voted Republican just a generation ago. Very Republican. The Reagan Revolution began here. You can’t even imagine that now. But they couldn’t imagine that before, either. A president Ronald Reagan seemed simply impossible in 1970, the butt of Laugh-In jokes (“Washington, DC, 1988. President Ronald Reagan today denied once again that he is a candidate for the office of Governor of California”…) And a black president wasn’t imaginable in 2000. Not in our lifetimes, the wisdom went. Republicans today stumble about in with the same sense of outraged disbelief that Democrats stumbled about in back in the 1980’s. Somewhere I have a long piece I wrote on the morning after the 1980 election. I was in complete shock.
Complete shock. American political history is full of complete shocks like that, what they political scientists call transformational elections. Or they used to. Now they talk in terms of party systems, six of them in American history, typically happening around one or two significant elections. The First Party System lasted until about 1828 when Andrew Jackson’s big win realigned everything into the Second Party System. That was the beginning of American populism (and during the greatest inaugural ball ever, the end of a lot of very fragile White House furniture). The cancer of slavery brought the Second Party System down (the biggest party, the Whigs, completely dissolved), and the Third Party System crystalized with the election of Abraham election in 1860. 1896 brought in the Fourth Party System, ending agrarian populism forever (William Jennings Bryan crucified on a cross of gold, his campaign demolished by the first great American presidential campaign strategist, Mark Hanna). The Republicans dominated, the Progressives crusaded, the Socialists harangued and the Democrats kept losing except the time the Republicans split in two in 1912. Alas the GOP repaired the breach in 1920, then let unregulated capitalism and speculation run riot. Oops. That Fourth Party System disintegrated in the Depression, and 1932 was a truly transformational election, giving birth to a new kind of country, and with it the Fifth Party System. The New Deal was revolution, really, FDR’s speeches full of fury and threats at the plutocrats who, in turn, loathed FDR–“that man”–with a venom unseen again till now. That system began crumbling in the late sixties under endless social pressures and rebellion and the Viet Nam war until the 1980 election brought in the Sixth Party System. That brought out a new kind of country too, and today’s income disparity began then, and the birth of the most powerful plutocracy this country has ever seen. I’ve come to detest the Sixth Party System. It certainly is not functioning well, scarcely functioning at all, really, and seems to be in its final years. Change is coming, you can sense it, though we won’t know when till it happens, the old system collapsing with a tremendous crash, and in its wake a legislative system that actually functions again. Maybe then the elite will see their perks stripped away, their power hemmed in, their obscene wealth regulated and redistributed. It sounds impossible, I know, but it sounded impossible in 1930 too.