Will Ideology or Pragmatism Rule American Politics?


Now that the dust from the midterm elections has settled, America remains just as divided as before on what type of governing approach it favors. As the LA Times’ Gregory Rodriguez, points out, if the United States “was a cartoon character, it would be a cheerful fellow with his head in the clouds and his feet planted squarely on the ground.”

To win the support of the public, America’s next governing consensus must encompass the nation’s highest ideals, while presenting realistic solutions to today’s challenges. In the short run, the ideological orientation of each party’s congressional representation will push both parties toward their ideological poles. Flush with victory, top House Republicans and strategists said, they saw “little distinction between incumbent members and those who would be joining them as freshman…both benefited from the Tea Party activism that helped them trounce Democrats” and said that “the support deserved to be rewarded”. Congressional Democrats, especially in the U.S. House of Representatives, are also more ideologically uniform than previously. Virtually all of the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (75 of 79) were reelected in 2010, as were a clear majority (40 of 68) of the centrist New Democrats. By contrast, a majority of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition (29 of 54) were either defeated or saw their open seats won by Republicans. Together, these changes meant that, for the first time since these organizations were formed in the 1990s, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was larger than the Blue Dogs and New Democrats combined.

The magnitude of the Republican victory was impressive, but constituted more of a continuation of the type of partisan political volatility the country experiences during periods of great generational change than a massive shift of America to the GOP and conservatism. A Pew survey taken just before the election indicated that the distribution of party identification within the electorate was little different in 2010 (49% Democratic to 39% Republican) than it was in either 2008 (51% to 36%) or 2006 (47% to 38%), two years in which Democrats won sweeping victories at the polls.

Nor did Election Day exit polls show a clear endorsement of GOP positions on key issues. Only half of the voters (48%) called for repeal of the Democratic healthcare reform law. About the same number (47%) wanted the law left as is or even expanded. Only four in ten voters (39%) favored extending the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans, including those with incomes greater than $250,000. By contrast, a majority endorsed either the Obama administration’s position of extending the tax cuts to only those with incomes below that level (37%), or the even more liberal position of letting the tax cuts expire for everyone (15%).

Moreover, exit polls indicated that although the Democrats lost some ground among almost all demographics, the composition of the two party’s coalitions remained largely unchanged. The votes of Millennials (57% Democratic to 40% Republican), African-Americans (90% to 9%), and Hispanics (64% to 34%) were only slightly altered from what they had been in 2006 and 2008. The Northeast (53% to 45%), the West (49% to 48%), and the nation’s cities (56% to 41%) provided a firewall that helped the Democrats to retain control of the Senate.

The GOP did strengthen its position within its core constituencies, winning solidly among men (56% Republican to 42% Democratic), as well as in the South, in rural areas, and among senior citizens, all of which voted Republican by about 1.5:1 margins. The Republicans were also able to split the women’s vote which they had lost in previous elections, primarily due to massive support from female senior citizens who voted 57% to 41% in favor of the GOP, even as younger women retained their Democratic allegiance. Geographically, Republican gains came predominantly in the Great Lakes watershed where the GOP won at least 25 new House seats, or about 40 percent of their pickups.

The Republicans also made major gains in America’s suburbs, where the greatest number of Americans of all ethnicities and generations, including Democratic-leaning Millennials, African-Americans, and Hispanics, now live. Obama narrowly won the suburbs, 50% to 48%. In 2010, the GOP carried them even more decisively, 55% to 42%. Democratic losses in the suburbs were particularly great among white voters who had not completed college and were among those who had been most hurt by the Great Recession. The party able to win over suburban voters with a message that is both ideologically and pragmatically appealing will gain the strategic high ground in the battle over the nation’s political direction in 2012 and beyond.

One of the reasons for this shift in the makeup of the 2010 electorate was a drop in the contribution from Millennials. Turnout among those 18 to 29 years of age was comparable to previous midterm elections: 21 percent of all Millennials eligible to vote did so, about the same percentage as in 2002 but less than the 24 percent turnout in the 2006 midterm elections. Those Millennials that did vote preferred Democratic candidates in almost all contested elections and approved of Barack Obama’s handling of his job as president by a 60% to 40% margin. In contrast to all other generations, Millennials remain overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal in their political orientation.

If the 2008 election was a victory for young Millennials, the 2010 midterms represented a triumph for senior citizens. A big part of the increase in votes for Republican candidates was inspired by the Tea Party movement’s older supporters. A solid plurality (40%) of 2010 voters claimed to be Tea Party supporters and nearly nine in ten (87%) of them voted for Republican house candidates. The GOP’s clear emphasis on ideological themes, built around concerns about the nature and scope of government, inspired its frightened and frustrated base to turn out in record numbers to prevent what it perceived to be a dangerous drift toward liberal hegemony.

In the end, however, most of those who voted in 2010 had little good to say about either party. Almost identical majorities among those who voted had an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Reflecting the opinions of some of their Tea Party supporters, even one-fourth of Republican voters expressed a negative perception of the GOP

So, in spite of the internal structural forces impelling both the Democrats and Republicans toward ideological uniformity, the new ruling party will be the one that most effectively integrates their party’s ideology with the country’s demands for solutions that work. That party will need to appeal both to those who embrace the ideals of individual freedom but also understand the need for a pragmatic program of collective action, integrating national purpose with individual choice. Shaped by some of the most profound demographic changes in American history, the key to future success for both the Democrats and Republicans will lie in synthesizing these two strands of America’s political DNA. The party that most effectively accomplishes that goal will be the dominant political force in the Millennial Era for the next four decades.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.

Photo by hjl