BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Lost Majority’

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By Sean Trende
Palgrave Macmillan, $27, 272 pages

Few authors are as appropriately named as Sean Trende. The senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics is a premier political number cruncher, regularly churning out readable ruminations on the latest, yes, trends in the American electorate.

Yet Mr. Trende’s first book, “The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It,” is an attempt to correct pundits who misuse political trend lines to make the case for their party’s impending dominance. The past 20 years have been frustrating for those who perennially predict the emerging (insert party name here) majority each election cycle.

In 1992, Bill Clinton and the Democrats didn’t just end 12 years of Reagan-Bush. They put an end to the speculation that Republicans had a lock on the Electoral College, replacing a Democratic national majority that was said to have existed since the New Deal. But the brave new world of Democratic rule lasted just two years, until Republicans swept the 1994 elections and seized control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades.

This began conjecture that 1994 was a belated reassertion of the post-Reagan political realignment, with Mr. Clinton looking more like a Ross Perot-induced accident of history. But Mr. Clinton was re-elected easily in 1996, albeit without an absolute majority of the popular vote, and Democrats gradually nibbled away at the GOP congressional majorities in subsequent elections.

George W. Bush was elected in 2000 after the cliffhanger Florida recount debacle. Republicans made unexpected gains in 2002 and ended up commanding 55 Senate seats after 2004, when Mr. Bush was re-elected with the first popular majority since 1988. The future seemed bright - bright red, that is. But in just two years, the Republicans would lose Congress. In 2008, Mr. Bush’s party would lose the presidency.

The election of Barack Obama also was supposed to be transformative, a signal of Democratic ascendance that made Mr. Bush’s re-election seem like a distant memory. “The win awed pundits,” Mr. Trende notes in his introduction, “who declared that Republicans were being reduced to regional party status, and that an extended period of Democratic dominance was forthcoming.”

As we saw in 2010 - another rapid turnaround in the two major parties’ respective fortunes - this was a misreading like all the others. Mr. Obama’s victory really had just been an extension of the Clinton coalition, which Mr. Trende describes as “the existing Democratic base of minorities, liberals, and the remaining Southern Democrats” combined with outreach to working-class whites and formerly Republican-leaning suburbanites.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Trende argues, didn’t govern like Mr. Clinton. “Obama’s failure to continue that centrist tradition, combined with some bad luck, brought about the Democrats’ defeat,” he writes. One could quibble that Mr. Clinton did not govern like Mr. Clinton, either, until he was rebuked by the electorate in 1994, but Mr. Trende’s broader point stands.

In fact, Mr. Obama’s coalition was always narrower than Mr. Clinton‘s. As early as the Democratic primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton, it was evident that Mr. Obama’s ties to working-class whites were much more tenuous. Mr. Obama’s left flank also threatened to push moderate suburbanites out of the big tent. In 2008, Mr. Obama was able to compensate by putting up bigger numbers than Mr. Clinton among the young and minorities. He also held the suburbanites, who still viewed him as a centrist. By 2010, those advantages had eroded.

“The Lost Majority” doesn’t limit itself to discussing Mr. Obama’s midterm travails. Drawing on the long history of 20th-century American politics, Mr. Trende rebuts the very idea that permanent partisan majorities are even possible. The coalitions assembled to win elections tend to fracture when they come into contact with real-world events.

Perhaps more controversially, Mr. Trende rejects the popular political-science view that partisan realignments happen at all, at least in any meaningful sense. He argues persuasively that so-called realigning elections often fail to stand up to serious scrutiny, noting that the recent volatility of American politics is actually not that far outside the historical norm.

After all, there was a reaction against Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats in 1938. Republicans made gains in the 1966 midterm elections just two years after the country went all the way with Lyndon B. Johnson by an overwhelming margin. Two years after Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide, Republicans lost control of the Senate. The United States is not by nature a one-party country, despite past Democratic or Republican winning streaks.

If Mr. Trende’s book has a flaw, it is that it fails to live up to the promise of its subtitle. We don’t find out who will triumph in November and beyond. But even this is something of an asset: No such predictions would be compatible with an honest look at the data or Mr. Trende’s thesis that permanent majorities are impossible. “The Lost Majority” puts the spinners’ grandiose claims in perspective.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.

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