A New Progressive Era Begins

It’s morning in America, again.

In the previous blog entry posted before the election I laid out the unambiguous choice that Americans faced this election between a conservative or a progressive way forward. In the Presidential contest as well as all the Senate races, this choice was crystal clear and the results are now crystal clear as well. America made a clear decision on Tuesday to turn from the conservative worldview that Reagan ushered in 30 years ago and that was characterized by the campaign slogan “It’s morning in America.” They clearly decided to begin a new era, but this time, a progressive one.

Don’t for a second listen to the media or Republicans who try to spin this election as anything but a rejection of that conservative agenda and the embrace of an emerging progressive one. The only possible place that you could begin to make the argument that the country is still evenly divided is in the results of the House – but even there the results fit into this broader narrative of an historic progressive shift. (I’ll explain that further down.) Let’s look at the overwhelming evidence:

  • Obama took the presidency with 332 electoral votes. We had to endure a year of everyone talking about this as going to be super close or a toss-up. (Even the hallowed pollster Nate Silver pronounced that Obama was “toast” in a New York Times magazine cover story in February this year.) In fact, in electoral college terms, it was not close. Obama took every state he did in his historic first election with the exception of two of the most conservative ones: Indiana and North Carolina (though that state was pretty close too). He also handily took the popular vote by about 3 million votes despite all the predictions that he would not.
  • The Democrats won 25 and lost only 8 of the Senate races. This is extraordinary given how vulnerable they were with the extremely lopsided number of seats they had to defend going into this. For two years all the politicos could talk about was how the Dems could never hold onto their majority in the Senate. In actually, they increased their numbers by two to hold a 55-45 advantage.
  • All the statewide ballot measures that posed a big choice between conservative or progressive options went the progressive way. The most notable had to do with gay marriage – from Maine to Maryland to Minnesota to Washington. People clearly decided to go with the flow of history and get on with it. But even marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington. The just-say-no era is done.
  • The California results are instructive nationally too. California elected Democratic super-majorities to both their Houses for the first time – which means that the Republicans in the chambers can’t do their knee-jerk rejection of anything having to do with taxes.  (All tax measures must have 2/3 majorities.) And Californians overwhelmingly voted to raise taxes on themselves and even more on their affluent fellow citizens to finally deal with structural deficits. I often say that California is the future – it often prefigures what comes to other states years later. If so, the conservative Republican brand is decimated. They hold zero statewide offices and less than one-third of the seats in the legislature – because they refuse to let go of the conservative dogma that simply does not play anymore in this dynamic, diverse state. Which brings us to…
  • The Hispanic and other racial and ethnic demographic results. The coalition that backed Obama is the future, pure and simple. He got an extraordinary 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, and Hispanics defied the skeptics and turned out in large numbers – pushing their percentage of the electorate to 10 percent. He took an even higher percentage (73 percent) of the Asian-American vote, which, granted, is much smaller in absolute numbers than Hispanics. He took 93 percent of African-Americans (which may not be surprising, but is significant in numbers) and 58 percent of all other racial and ethnic minorities.
  • The Millennial Generation vote. Obama took the vast majority (60 percent versus 36 percent) of the Millennial youth vote, which also defied all those who said they would not turn out. They did – with those age 30 and under coming out in even higher percentages than the 2008 election, from 18 percent of all voters in 2008 to 19 percent this year. In fact, about 23 million young Americans voted, a full 50 percent of those eligible – significantly higher than previous generations of young voters.
  • These demographic developments are huge game-changers for long-term politics. (I’ve long argued this, including in this 2007 Mother Jones magazine piece.) Obama is locking in these two constituencies to the progressive side and both will only grow larger and more powerful in the coming decades. They are the constituencies that can sustain transformative change over the long haul. The conservatives have nothing remotely comparable. In fact, they are becoming the party of aging white guys. Which brings up…
  • The women’s vote is Democratic and progressive – and they’re half the country. All the results support this. Obama’s share of the women’s vote was 11 percentage points above Romney’s. The Democrats consistently put forward woman candidates: Democrats will add 4 new female senators from this election, and 10 of their winning 21 senators were women, making women 30 percent of the Dem senate caucus – and all but a handful of the 20 female senators are Dems. The new House will have 61 female Democratic representatives, compared to just 21 female Republicans. And that’s not even wading into the public relations disaster that conservative senate candidates stirred up with talk of “legitimate rape” and the like.

The results of the House on the surface don’t seem to fit into this larger narrative of the electorate’s shift away from the conservative worldview to a more progressive one because the Republicans did hold onto that chamber. However, there are several factors that explain this in my view:

  • Democrats running for the House received more votes in total than their Republican counterparts (half a million as of this post), if you factor out unopposed canddiates from either party. So if you just go with the popular vote in more of a national referendum, the Dems won.
  • The difference came down to gerry-mandering. The Republicans held a big advantage in drawing the new lines of the Congressional districts after the 2010 census. Many of the Republican-controlled state legislatures did a masterful job of maximizing the seats they could reasonably expect to win. That proved to be a structural advantage that could not be overcome even in a wave election like this one. For example, take states that Obama the Dem won but that were aggressively redistricted by partisan Republican legislatures: in Ohio, only 4 of 16 districts went Dem, in Pennsylvania, only 4 of 16, in Virginia, only 3 of 11.
  • However, it’s worth noting that a redistricting strategy like that could backfire in the coming cycles. There is a big downside to maximizing the numbers of seats you take after the census because the margins you build into those districts are enough to work that year (say 55 percent versus very safe 65 percent), but might not be enough to hold for the whole decade of demographic changes that often comes in this churning country of ours. A cycle or two later, the risks are higher that you can lose those seats. We’ll see how this plays out in 2014 and 2016.
  • The big outside PAC money did matter at the Congressional level. Obama could raise the money needed to counter the super PACs. The high-profile statewide Senate races could do the same. One of the under-appreciated things that will come out in the final financial reportings is that the bottom-up aggregation of many middle class contributions did reach the scale needed to counter the billionaires. Obama is the master at this, and the high-profile Senate candidates became extremely good at it as well. However, they needed to draw off large bases of $30 to $250 contributors to aggregate enough money to do the job. For example, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads operations raised $390 million from their billionaires and other high net worth people who had no limits to what they could toss into the hopper. You need millions of small contributors to counter that. At the Congressional level, you simply can’t draw off a big enough grassroots base. So when those Super PACs dropped $1million into those races, as they often did, it was extremely hard to counter.
  • The Democrats did gain at least 7 seats in the House in this year to get to more than 200 (some are still being sorted out), just not enough to retake control of the House. In some places, like in California, Democrats gained at least 4 seats. The new Democratic caucus (61 women, 43 African Americans, 27 Hispanics, 10 Asian Americans) will more closely reflect the new demographic realities of the country and will likely continue to attract people from those growing constituencies in the years ahead.
  • Nowhere did conservative candidates make gains. In fact, many of the most high-profile Tea Party conservative House members got taken out:  Allen West, Joe Walsh, Chip Cravaack, Frank Guinta, to name a few. Dan Lungren is trailing his opponent as of this post. And Michele Bachmann barely hung on by 4000 votes. It’s going to be hard to put any kind of positive spin on that backlash.

The Republican party is now going to enter into a phase of serious factional warfare. You can already see the positioning happening in the post mortems coming off the election. The most healthy outcome for the Republicans and the country at large would be to see this election for what it was and get on with modernizing a more moderate, or dare I say, more progressive vision for the Republican party. Republicans have a long tradition of progressive politics – think Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, to name a few. And through the 1960s and 1970s they had large numbers of moderates. They could move back in that direction and still hold onto core party principles and values.

My prediction is that won’t happen for a while, though. Hardcore conservatives are so entrenched in the party apparatuses at all levels throughout the country that they will prevail over any efforts at moderation for years to come. I think many of them will conclude that Romney was not conservative enough and they will double down with more of the same for a cycle or two. Eventually, like in a decade or so, a more progressive vision for the Republicans will come to challenge the progressive ideas on the Democratic side.

So a new era is beginning in American politics. Americans have made their choice about the direction we will now head. Now comes the hard part of figuring out the solutions that will be informed by those progressive values and concerns but that will also actually solve the very real challenges that lie ahead. Now it’s reinvention time.
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