America The Liberal?

This column was written by John B. Judis.
Even before the final results, showing a Democratic sweep, were in, Washington's pundits were declaring that nothing had really changed politically in the country. In a cover story labeled "America the Conservative," Newsweek editor Jon Meacham warned that, "[s]hould Obama win, he will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal." Meacham's judgment was echoed by Peter Wehner, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "America remains, in the main, a center-right nation," Wehner wrote in the Washington Post.

These guys--and the others who are counseling Barack Obama and the Democrats to "go slow"--couldn't be more wrong. They are looking at Obama's election through the prism of Jimmy Carter's win in 1976 and Bill Clinton's victory in 1992. Both Carter and Clinton did misjudge the mood of the country. They tried unsuccessfully to govern a country from the center-left that was moving to the right (in Carter's case) or that was only just beginning to move leftward (in Clinton's case), and were rebuked by the voters. But Obama is taking office under dramatically different circumstances. His election is the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the '90s, was held in abeyance by September 11, and had resumed in the 2006 election.

This realignment is predicated on a change in political demography and geography. Groups that had been disproportionately Republican have become disproportionately Democratic; and red states like Virginia have become blue. But underlying these changes has been a shift in the nation's "fundamentals"--in the structure of society and industry, and in the way Americans think of family, job, and government. The country is definitely no longer "America the conservative." And with the Republican Party and big business identified with a potentially disastrous downturn, it could become over the next four years "America the liberal." That's what makes this election fundamentally different from 1976 or 1992. Unlike Carter and Clinton, Obama will be taking office with the wind at his back rather than in his face.

Realignments are not scientifically predictable events like lunar eclipses, but they have occurred with some regularity over last two hundred years--in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1980. Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called the realignment "America's surrogate for revolution." It is how a rigid two-party system has adjusted when the ground has shifted that has sustained the dominant party.

If you look at the two most recent realignments, they can be seen as the political superstructure's belated acknowledgement of tectonic changes that had been occurring in the country's economic base. In the case of the New Deal, it was the rise of an urban industrial order in the North; in the case of Reagan conservatism, it was the shift of industry and population from the North to the lower-wage, non-unionized suburban Sunbelt stretching from Virginia down to Florida and across to Texas and southern California. The voters in these states--many of them white evangelicals--became the foot soldiers of Reagan conservatism.

If you look at the new Democratic realignment, it reflects the shift that began decades ago toward a post-industrial economy centered in large urban-suburban metropolitan areas devoted primarily to the production of ideas and services rather than material goods. (In The Emerging Democratic Majority, Ruy Teixeira and I called these "ideopolises.") And if you look at the main groups that constitute the new Democratic majority, the states and cities where they live correspond almost exactly to those parts of the country that have been making this transition to a post-industrial economy.

The three main groups in the new Democratic majority are professionals (college-educated workers who produce ideas and services), minorities (including African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans), and women (particularly working, single, and college-educated women). These groups, which overlap in membership, are also the key components of the new post-industrial economy.

As late as the 1950s, professionals were the most Republican of voting blocs, but they were also a relatively small group--about seven percent of the labor force. The professionals, who are the brains, so to speak, of the new post-industrial economy, are now over 17 percent of the labor force, and are a quarter or more of the electorate in many northern and western states. They range from nurses and teachers to television producers, software programmers, and engineers. They began voting Democratic in 1988, and have continued to do so ever since.

Ruy Teixeira and I calculated from census data that, from 1988 to 2000, professionals voted for the Democratic presidential candidate by 52 to 40 percent. But the exit polls don't include professionals as a category. The best approximation is a somewhat smaller (and maybe even slightly more conservative) group--people with advanced degrees. And the results in 2008 show Obama winning these voters by a whopping 58 to 40 percent. He even won college graduates as a whole 53 to 45 percent. This may be the first time ever that a Democrat has accomplished this. In 1996, for instance, Clinton failed to carry college graduates against Bob Dole.

Most minorities--with the exception of Cubans, Chinese-Americans, and Vietnamese-Americans--have voted Democratic since the 1930s. But with the shift of the economy and the liberalization of immigration laws, the number of Latinos and Asian Americans has expanded. Some of the new immigrants are professionals, but others form the working class of the post-industrial economy. They are orderlies, childcare workers, janitors, and fast food cooks and servers. As late as 1972, minorities as a whole made less than ten percent of the electorate. In this election, non-white voters made up 26 percent of the electorate. Blacks, of course, went overwhelmingly for Obama, but he won Hispanics by 66 to 31 percent and Asians--who as a group used to split their vote between Democrats and Republicans--by 62 to 35 percent.

Women, too, were once disproportionately Republican--in 1960, Richard Nixon won the women's vote. But their voting patterns began to change as they entered the labor force. In 1950, only a third of women worked; today, 60 percent of women work, making up 46 percent of the total labor force. Over 90 percent of women work in white-collar jobs; and 24.1 percent work as professionals--compared to 16.8 percent of men. In 1980, women began disproportionately backing Democrats, and the trend has continued. This year, Obama enjoyed a 14-point lead among women voters--56 to 42 percent--and only a two-point lead among men. He carried working women by 61 to 38 percent.