Three Paradoxes of American Politics

Part 1: Getting the Blues

The Republicans’ loss in November’s election has set off a particularly bitter re-evaluation of the party’s message and priorities. It is not simply that Republicans lost an election, but that they lost an election they ought to have won, given the poor performance of the economy, the continued unpopularity of ObamaCare, the grassroots groundswell of the Tea Party movement, and the huge Republican wave in the 2010 congressional election.

Republicans went from being confident that the American people were on their side, to discovering that they were not.

We can blame Mitt Romney for this loss, and he turned out to be an unappealing candidate with a poorly run campaign. After all, President Obama was the first president in the modern era to win re-election with fewer votes than his initial victory. This implies that Obama did lose public support from 2008 to 2012, and that a better candidate might have beaten him.

But the 2012 election result did tell us something about the strength of public support for the left and its agenda. Or rather, it confirmed a pattern we’ve been seeing for more than a decade: the Republican Party continues to be rejected by several large and growing demographic groups.

The left has seized on this to proclaim a new “permanent majority” for Democrats. This is almost certainly a foolish proclamation. I can attest to that foolishness, because I once got carried away by the 2004 election and declared that the big trends were moving in the Republicans’ favor. It’s not so much that the facts I cited were wrong or that the trends weren’t real. You can certainly see those trends re-asserting themselves today in the House of Representative and on the state level, where Republicans are doing very well. But new events and new trends emerged that turned voters against Republicans on the national level.

As Jay Cost points out, big political “realignments” and dominant long-term majorities are historically very rare. But they’re rare only because a party that is fading in the polls does something. Parties don’t stay permanently in the minority, because they work hard to figure out how to get a majority again. So what does the Republican Party need to do?

Actually, that’s not quite the right question. The Republican Party is only important to the extent that it represents the pro-free-market, small-government side of the political debate. While some of their recent nominees have been no great shakes from that perspective, their opponents have been the congressional Democratic leadership—Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and company—and Barack Obama, i.e., the party of big, bigger, and biggest government.

So more broadly, our question is: what do we need to do to improve the ideological and electoral climate for a small-government agenda?

We can only answer this question if we face up to the demographic trends that are working against us.

It is easy to reassure ourselves by looking at the red-vs.-blue county-by-county map that we’ve seen after each of the past four presidential elections.


The big cities and the coasts are islands of blue within a sea of red representing rural, small-town, and suburban counties that voted for Republicans. This is reassuring because it seems to confirm our sense that small-government types are the real majority representing the real America, while leftism is just an aberration of the decadent big cities.

There’s a lot of truth to this idea, mind you, but you won’t find it quite so reassuring if you look at this version of that graph, in which the red and blue counties have been weighted by population.


Most of the country is red, to be sure, but it is a very pale tint of red representing sparsely populated areas. And while the “blue” areas are geographically small, they are a very dark tint of blue, representing dense population centers.

If you judged only by the traditional county-by-county map, you would never understand how Barack Obama won re-election. If you look at this new population-weighted map, you can much more easily understand how evenly balanced the country is, and you can see the Democrats’ recent electoral advantage.

Moreover, even the “traditional” county-by-county map, the sea of red with islands of blue, is not so traditional. This is what presidential elections have looked like since the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.


But it’s not what they used to look like.

Here, for example, you can find the county-by-county map for Reagan’s 1984 landslide re-election.


Notice that one of the counties Reagan carried was Manhattan County—not to mention New York’s other boroughs. The same thing is true for Nixon’s re-election in 1972, which sheds a different light on one of my favorite political stories. According to legend, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael complained that she didn’t know how Nixon could have won because “I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” The real version of the quote is slightly different (and arguably worse), but the story has survived as a standing example of the parochialism of the Upper West Side Manhattanite who is out of touch with the rest of the country. Yet if Kael thought she didn’t know anyone who voted for Nixon, she was almost certainly wrong: like Reagan, Nixon carried Manhattan.

All of this is to say that the cities are not inherently out of reach for the right. We have only been losing them for the past ten to fifteen years—and we need them back. As demographer Joel Kotkin argues, “President Obama won 69% of the big city vote, according to a New York Times exit poll analysis…. [I]f Republicans want to have any future in America, they can’t afford to cede any more constituencies as monolithic Democratic voting blocks.”

That applies to the other big demographic groups, such as young people and racial minorities. Republicans can still win elections without winning a majority of those groups, but they will be starting out every election in a demographic hole, trying to compensate by winning huge majorities among older rural white voters. Mitt Romney’s loss is a cautionary tale about the danger of this strategy. Romney lost the election in large part because too many right-leaning, blue-collar white voters in places like rural Ohio stayed home. The lesson is that if Republicans have to win enormous majorities among one demographic group, it gets easier and easier to fall short.

Moreover, relying on the old, the white, and the rural—and pitching the party’s election message to these groups—merely reinforces the left’s crude stereotypes about the right and further alienates these lost demographic groups.

The tragedy is that none of this is inevitable. In fact, contrary to the left’s smear of the right as racists, there are plenty of us who are deeply frustrated and heartsick that we have not had more success at promoting the free-market message to those who we believe have the most to gain from it.

From our perspective, the popularity of the Democratic Party and of leftist, big-government policies among these groups is far from inevitable. It is, in fact, unnatural. For various reasons, these groups have been convinced to reject the small-government message—but in actual fact they have big and important reasons for embracing it.

I can sum up the frustration of small-government activists, and the electoral challenge facing the Republican Party, in three paradoxes of contemporary American politics.

Paradox #1: Why do the young vote for dependency—when the essence of youth is a quest for independence?

Paradox #2: Why do racial and ethnic minorities, who ought to be seeking equality before the law, vote against the party that offers a universal ideology and in favor of the party that appeals to racial and ethnic divisions?

Paradox #3: Why do the great centers of wealth and commerce, the cities, vote for the party that is hostile to wealth, commerce, and money-making?

Remember that a paradox is an apparent contradiction. There are real and substantive answers that explain why young people, racial minorities, and city-dwellers aren’t voting Republican. But the element of contradiction remains, and I state these questions in paradoxical form to remind us that these groups ought to be on our side, that there are profound and compelling arguments we ought to be able to make to them.

If we’re going to figure out how to revive the electoral fortunes of the pro-free-market right, we’re going to have to get the blues. I don’t just mean getting depressed; I mean that we’re going to have to figure out how to win over the “blue” voters who currently support the Democrats. We need to understand why these groups of voters have turned to the left and figure out how we can convince them to embrace the values of small government and individual rights.

In the next installment of this series, I will start with the case of young voters.

The article will be continued in a future edition of The Tracinski Letter.


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One Response to Three Paradoxes of American Politics

  1. Gary Halbert March 4, 2013 at 1:11 PM #

    Thanks so much for explaining why I was irritated with the Oscars. You nailed it.

    Your Mar 2 column “Gtting the Blues” is also very thoughtful.