A Realignment Is Reshaping the Republicans Into a Populist — and Multiracial — Party
Our press, politicians, and political scientists are almost all college graduates; most voters aren’t.
What happens when a political party becomes demotic? Before answering the question, note that the word in question is not demonic, from the Greek word daimon, meaning a deity — remember that the Greek gods were notoriously jealous and greedy — but demotic, from the Greek word demos, meaning the people, the same root as democratic.
My question is prompted by the ongoing transformation of the Republican Party, discussed in occasional bits in these columns over the years, with the definitive version set out in Republican political consultant Patrick Ruffini’s “Party of the People: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP.”
Mr. Ruffini argues convincingly that the classic picture of the two political parties’ constituencies — the Republicans as the party of the rich and ancestral Protestants, the Democrats as the party of the great masses and ethnic and racial minorities — is out of date. It described the nation emerging from World War II 80 years ago.
It stopped being true by the 1990s, when President Clinton’s Democrats made major gains among white college graduates clustered in the nation’s 50-some million-plus metropolitan areas, which account for about half the nation’s population.
Yet the other half of the nation, rural and small-town America, with few college grads, trended Republican. West Virginia, which hadn’t voted for a nonincumbent Republican presidential candidate since 1928, voted for President Bush in 2000. Without it, he wouldn’t have won, and the nation wouldn’t have spent weeks wondering who carried Florida.
This realignment of white college grads — call them gentry liberals — toward Democrats and white non-college grads — demotics — toward Republicans continued. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority” predicted that the first trend, if accompanied by new masses of nonwhite immigrants and continued white working-class support, would produce Democratic victories, which happened in 2008.
Only it didn’t last. Mr. Teixeira, in his and Mr. Judis’ recent book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?” argues persuasively that as gentry liberals increased their hold on the party, their policy and lingo preferences have repelled first white and then nonwhite demotic voters.
Mr. Ruffini, citing New York Times analyst Nate Cohn’s seminal June 2016 article, points out that there are many more demotic voters than recorded in exit polls. Our press, politicians, and political scientists are almost all college graduates; most voters aren’t.
President Trump won in 2016 by winning over demotic whites who voted for President Obama. He nearly won again in 2020 by winning over some demotic nonwhites, many of them new voters. Current polling suggests he is running better with both groups today.
Mr. Ruiffini believes, as I do, that American political attitudes arise more from cultural beliefs than economic interests and that nonwhite demotics, like their white counterparts, resent gentry liberals’ support of open borders, of defunding the police, and of referring to those of Latin origin as “Latinx.”
“Cultural divides are what voters vote on even if politicians don’t talk about them,” Mr. Ruffini writes. “Simply ignoring them while gesticulating wildly in the direction of economic populism isn’t a viable strategy.”
He notes two trends that have changed since Messrs. Judis and Teixeira’s 2002 book. College enrollments are going down rather than up, thanks to administrative bloat, racial discrimination, and tolerance of violent antisemitism. College grads were a growing part of the electorate from the 1940s to the 1990s. They aren’t anymore.
The second thing is that America just isn’t as racist as gentry liberals and self-appointed Black Lives Matter apparatchiks claim. Mr. Ruffini travels to middle-class Black subdivisions at suburban Atlanta to Asian communities at Orange County to Puerto Ricans moving into Disney World’s backyard and sees people working hard, moving upward, raising families, becoming not alienated rebels but self-identified Americans as the children and grandchildren of Ellis Island immigrants did several generations ago.
In the process, there’s lots more intermarriage than gentry liberals imagine. That’s erasing the sharp divisions in racial categories fostered by universities with their segregated dormitories and by big corporations with their human relations departments and their “diversity training” sessions.
What are some of the consequences of the emerging demotic Republican Party? One is that high turnout now probably helps Republicans and hurts Democrats, whose gentry liberals vote no matter what. Another is that Democratic campaigns have a big financial edge now, something forecast when the 2004 Democratic campaign slightly outspent even a Republican incumbent president.
The Electoral College tilt, which worked for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020, may vanish as he piles up votes in states he’s already carrying and as Democratic margins from nonwhites recede. The Electoral College may favor Democrats again, as it did in 2004 through 2012.
Meanwhile, today’s Republican congressional party is even more fissiparous and disorganized than the demotic Democratic congressional majorities were in the post-World War II years. Dissenting Democrats then just denied House speakers their votes; Republicans are throwing their speakers out.
The corporate establishment and heads of mainline Protestant churches, though their constituencies may be declining, are now and probably will be inclined to look askance at leaders of a demotic Republican Party, and not just Mr. Trump, as their counterparts did 75 years ago at President Roosevelt’s Democrats. Meanwhile, pro-Republican intellectuals are sounding as beleaguered and defensive as liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. sounded when most Ivy Leaguers voted Republican.
Which side owns the future? Neither one, Mr. Ruffini says. The “dueling realignments” of recent decades, amplified during the Mr. Trump’s tenure, “suggest a kind of self-regulating equilibrium where new divisions result in roughly the same competitive politics.” This is true even or especially when, as in this year, both parties seem bent on nominating candidates with glaring and arguably disqualifying defects.