We've been hearing a lot of talk lately suggesting the Democratic Party is in deep, deep trouble. Oh, sure, they've held the White House for two terms and have a decent shot for one or two more, and they could take the Senate back next year, but below that, they're at record lows in their control of Congress, governors' offices, and state legislatures. Worse, says Matt Yglesias and John Cassidy, is that Democrats have no plan to take such control back. Lee Drutman thinks there's a feedback loop of economic inequality that will keep Republicans in power for many years. Phil Klinkner has countered that this is basically what always happens when one party controls the White House for a while; the out party makes big gains in other offices. There's nothing wrong with the Democratic Party, he says, that can't be fixed by losing the White House.
So just how bad is the situation for Democrats right now? Are they in a hole they can't hope to get out of?
I should first note that arguments that one party is doomed forever tend to be premature. Republicans were widely thought to be an endangered species after the 2008 election; they came roaring back two years later. Democrats were thoroughly humiliated in 2004 when they couldn't beat a president prosecuting an unpopular war of his own choosing; two years later they took both chambers of Congress. Democrats even bounced back within a few election cycles of the Civil War, when they were (rightly) accused of trying to destroy the nation to protect slavery, and Republicans won back the presidency just a few years after Watergate. Doom tends to be pretty ephemeral in politics.
This year could be the moment that Democrats became doomed to minority status for generations. It could also be right near the end of the period of Republican hegemony in state legislatures.
It might help to compare the current Republican advantage with one the Democrats had a few decades back. Let's focus on state legislatures. Currently, Democrats control just 11 state legislatures. Republicans have 30, and eight are split between the parties. (Nebraska is non-partisan, although a majority of its members are registered Republicans.) That's obviously a big Republican advantage.
Compare that with 1982, when Democrats actually controlled 34 state legislatures, Republicans held a mere 10, and five were split. Democrats also held the House at that time with a large majority. Indeed, one might have made the same assertions about the Republicans at that time that some have been making about Democrats today; they were comfortably in control of the White House but had no real strategy for other offices.
It's also important to keep in mind how party allegiances have changed over the past few decades. In 1982, the legislature of every state in the South (the former Confederacy) was under Democratic control. Today, all of those legislatures are solidly Republican. The shift of the South from Democratic to Republican is well known but not always fully appreciated. If we omit the South, the state legislature breakdown in 1982 was 23 Democratic, 10 Republican, and five split. The breakdown today is 11 Democratic, 19 Republican, and eight split. That's obviously still a significant shift in party fortunes, but it doesn't look nearly so dramatic.
The reason it's important to consider the South in this context is because Yglesias and others are criticizing the Democrats for not having a strategy to win back states and districts. But the re-alignment of the South from the Democratic to the Republican party is one of the most important and powerful shifts in American political history. It's the source of our current partisan polarization, and it's extremely durable. Blaming Democrats for not controlling more southern states today is like blaming Dwight Eisenhower for not doing better in the South in 1952. As a Republican in that era, the South was largely off-limits to him. Today, southern states are largely off-limits to Democrats, and no amount of spending or strategizing is about to change that.
OK, let's go back to 1982 for the moment. This was a high-water mark for Democratic control of state legislatures. Analysts of the time could certainly be excused for thinking that Republicans were well and truly doomed, and were likely to only control the White House from there on. But we know with the benefit of hindsight that that's when power started slipping away from Democrats. Republicans began making inroads in state politics and chipping away at Democratic House majorities, and a decade later Republicans had control of the Congress.
This year could be the moment that Democrats became doomed to minority status for generations. It could also be right near the end of the period of Republican hegemony in state legislatures. It's hard to know for sure. But just keep in mind there are few worse bets in American politics than that one party has figured out the key to an enduring majority.
What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.