“Demography is Destiny.” It was a phrase first popularized in the 1970 bestselling book The Real Majority by Democrats Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg in which they argued that the Democratic Party was veering leftward (particularly on social issues and “law and order”) and that, to win, the Party had to pay attention to the demographics of the rising middle class. To a large extent, their thesis echoed that of Republican Kevin Phillips, who the year before had written The Emerging Republican Majority.
There will be a great many excuses why Republicans lost their majorities in both houses of the General Assembly yesterday, and two stand out as reasonable propositions: The abrasive personality of President Trump alienated huge swaths of voters and the Democratic Left outspent the Republican Right by massive margins using outside money from billionaires.
But perhaps it is time to dust off the argument that “demography is destiny.”
Two maps developed by the Virginia Public Access Project demonstrate an irreversible trend the Republican Party has largely ignored. The first shows the change in partisan performance between 2013 and 2017; the other shows the actual and projected population change from 2010 to 2040:
One doesn’t need to read the county-by-county details to see the trends: The areas voting Democratic are growing in population. The areas voting Republican are declining in population.
A long-time political operative told me a few days before the election that he’d heard absentee ballot requests had been running strong from voters identified as Republican. The problem is that those “identified Republicans” had voted Democratic in 2016, 2017, and 2018. They’d gotten in the habit and once the habit is created, it’s hard to break: Ask the Baby Boomers who fell in love with Ronald Reagan.
Forty years ago, political consultant Arthur Finkelstein was able to elect Republican after Republican with one simple accusation against their opponents: “He’s a liberal!” and pound it home. Too much of Campaign 2019 sounded like Campaign 1979, with appeals for Republicans to get out and vote using Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as bogeymen to drive turnout.
A campaign empty of ideas is no campaign at all.
Indeed, while Republicans had an enviable record that should have appealed to suburban voters – four teacher pay raises in six years and college tuition freezes – the overarching choice of issues for Republicans seems aimed at rural and small town voters. But the number of rural voters is declining and what once had a small town feel isn’t feeling so small anymore: Chesterfield/Henrico and Fairfax/Prince William ain’t what they were 40 years, or even 20 years ago.
Politics is the art of addition. This can be a challenge for conservatives who may be torn between reverence for the past and a belief in the individual. But across America, where their emphasis has shifted to empowering individuals and families, freedom-loving conservatives have seen their policy prospects advance.
In education, an emphasis on giving families choices about their child’s education has cut across party and philosophical lines, especially when the focus is on low-income families with children in low-performing schools and without alternatives. Virginians looking to “create their own jobs” are blocked by state regulations making the commonwealth the seventh worst state for occupational licensing restrictions. Millennials seeking a place to live find housing expensive and limited, owing to permitting restrictions, zoning codes, comprehensive plans and other government requirements. Conservatives know that certain law enforcement techniques enhance safety, others have little effect on safety, and some may actively diminish public safety because law enforcement dollars are being spent inefficiently or in counterproductive ways. We now need to act on that knowledge and recognize that – like the social welfare system – criminal justice systems are expensive and make mistakes.
Under the new state regime, conservatives will find plenty to fight for … but also plenty to fight against. Health care, which should be about choices, portability and quality will find all three declining as new state leadership imposes mandates limiting choice and lowering quality. Small businesses and entrepreneurs need to be free to grow without more economic and regulatory barriers. New or higher taxes, a mandated minimum wage higher than federal law, an end to the Right To Work law, the existing local “gross receipts tax” and increased costs from a “Green New Deal” … these all combine to hurt employers. And without employers there are no employees.
Non-profits like the Thomas Jefferson Institute do not take sides in partisan elections – but partisan elections are proxies for the health of a movement and the ideas it fosters and by that measure the time is overdue for a reinvigoration of ideas.
The old top-down conservatism of the past needs to yield to a more welcoming and inviting bottom-up conservatism that helps every Virginian succeed because economic and regulatory barriers are low, individuals and parents are empowered to make informed choices for themselves and their families, and that recognizes the primary role of government is protecting citizens from each other and the overreach of government itself.
Demography may be destiny. But it all depends on what you do in response to those changing demographics.