If you read Thomas Edsall's New York Times opinion columns -- and you should if you care about intelligent presentation of data about the political opinion and trends among the United States population -- you might think that he contradicted himself in a couple of recent articles.
On March 4, he wrote about popular responses to rising economic inequality and offered a dismal prediction about inequality's implications for people who hope to use the Democratic Party to win populist changes.
He goes on to document that Democrats are nearly as dependent on big money as Republicans, so the preferences of the base have a hard time getting heard.
A week later, Edsall weighed in on the hardy perennial topic of how Democrats could increase their vote among members of the white working class. For decades, many white working class voters have distrusted Democrats as the party of affirmative action and care for poor people, policies they firmly believe advantage black and brown folks at their expense. But in this column, Edsall shares data about why this may be changing.
If these voters, who are by-and-large sympathetic to economic populist policies like raising the minimum wage and taxing the rich also finally are making peace with the 60s and thus participating more comfortably in the Democratic coalition, the party's demographic advantage will simply become overwhelming.
If East Coast pundits paid a little more attention to California, they'd notice this has already happened in the Golden State.
In the early 2000s, I was commissioned to study election data for an outfit that was trying to sell itself as helping Democrats win statewide elections. After a decade of losing a series of nasty fights over initiatives (see Prop. 187, Prop. 209, and Prop. 227)designed to divide the state along age and racial lines, we'd elected a Democratic governor -- and then lost him to a smart Hollywood cartoon character. What was it going to take to forge a winning Democratic coalition in this racially and socially fractured state? I spent a week or so looking at numbers, and though I had to be encouraged by the increase in the proportion of the electorate from the various communities of color over the previous decade, I concluded that the process of forming a new Democratic majority would be a long slog. Why white people would remain a majority of the electorate until 2040 at the earliest!
I was simply wrong about my timeline. Whites will still be a majority of the electorate for a long time to come in California, but a significant and growing fraction of the white population became ready to dial back racial and cultural fear much earlier than I'd expected. The result, plus the very hard work of unions and community groups to increase turnout among new voters of color, is that today California is the new model Democratic state. The Democratic coalition doesn't need a majority of white voters; it needs a significant fraction, maybe 40 percent of these mostly married whites, and a lot of other voters. And in California, that is the shape of the electorate.
The outcome of these happy demographic changes is that the struggle about whether the democratic process can be used to moderate inequality now resides not between Republicans and Democrats, but within the Democratic party.
This isn't something that demographic change can make us complacent about. In progressive San Francisco, where all office holders are Democrats and actual leftists have long been a force, progressives have lost power to tech tycoons and developers. They were smart, but we were also somewhat asleep at the switch after a decade of hard fought victories. In consequence, the mass of more entrenched San Franciscans again need to struggle for the soul of the city.
Edsall's slightly contradictory data do point toward where this is going. We need to understand where the fights take place these days and organize our Democratic coalition accordingly. We still need more Democrats -- but even more, in California we need better Democrats. This should be a project that many in the aging white working class can get behind.