Postindustrial Hopes Deferred: Why the Democratic Majority Is Still Likely to Emerge

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Center for American Progress

June 1, 2003

Early during the summer of 2002, as the economy slowed and the winds of scandal swept through Washington and Wall Street, it looked as if the Democrats might win big in November, despite the post-September 11 boost in the GOP’s fortunes. But the two-month-long preelection debate over war with Iraq, initiated and orchestrated by the Bush administration, capped by Bush’s barnstorming tour of key states right before the election, ensured GOP success. The Democrats did well in some key gubernatorial contests—Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona—where talk of war had relatively little effect, but they did not claim the majority toward which they have been moving, by fits and starts, since 1996. Before this decade is over, however, the Democrats are likely to complete this journey, moving the country from a conservative Republican majority to a progressive Democratic one.

Particular elections depend on a host of contingencies, from the quality of candidates to the money at their disposal to outside events that help one party much more than the other, as in the 2002 election. But political trends are the product of deeper shifts within society and the economy. The old New Deal Democratic majority, which reigned from 1932 to 1968, was based in the industrial North and the segregated South. The conservative Republican majority of the 1980s exploited dissatisfaction with the civil rights movement and the 1960s counterculture to win the white South and parts of the ethnic North. Those areas, combined with the Republicans’ traditional base in the farms of the prairies and the boardrooms of the North, gave the party a majority that lasted until the early 1990s. Since then, however, a new Democratic majority—different from both its New Deal ancestors and its conservative Republican rivals—has been emerging.

The Spread of the Ideopolis

This new Democratic majority is rooted in the growth of a postindustrial economy. The old industrial economy was based in cities and organized around assembly-line manufacturing, farming, and mining; the new postindustrial economy is based in large metropolitan areas—or “ideopolises”—that include cities and suburbs and are organized around the production of ideas and services. Many ideopolises, such as metropolitan Boston, Silicon Valley, or the Seattle area, hug the North and far West, but others, like North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, and the Tucson and Phoenix areas in Arizona, dot the nation.

During the 1980s, many ideopolises voted Republican; in the 1990s they began to elect Democrats. And the Democratic party itself began to change to reflect the priorities of these people, including growing numbers of professionals and technicians, from computer programmers and financial analysts to teachers and nurses.

A quarter or so of the jobs in Austin, Raleigh-Durham, Boston, or San Francisco are held by workers like these, many of whom are women who have joined the workforce since the 1960s. Plentiful, too, are low-level service and information workers, including waiters, hospital orderlies, sales clerks, janitors, and teachers’ aides, many of whom are Hispanics and African-Americans. Together, professionals, women, and minorities, bolstered by blue-collar workers attracted to the Democrats’ stands on economic issues, have formed powerful coalitions that now dominate the politics of many ideopolises.

This politics emphasizes tolerance and openness. It is defined more by the professionals, many of whom were deeply shaped by the social movements of the 1960s, than by any other group. They worry about clean air and water, and when the market fails to provide these environmental goods, they call on government. They favor civil rights and liberties and good government. They disdain the intolerance and fundamentalism of the religious right. But they are also leery of the old Democratic politics of “big government” and large-scale social engineering.

Republicans can and do argue that not all of America is like Silicon Valley or Boston’s Route 128. But during the past four decades America has become more like these areas—and less like the Mississippi Delta or the Texas Panhandle. A careful study of these postindustrial metropolitan areas indicates the varied ways they have developed. Some, like Silicon Valley or Colorado’s Boulder area, boast large manufacturing facilities, but the manufacturing, whether of pharmaceuticals or of semiconductors, involves applying complex ideas to physical objects. Other postindustrial metro areas like New York and Los Angeles specialize in producing entertainment, media, fashion, design, and advertising or in providing databases, legal counsel, and other business services. Most include major universities that funnel ideas and people into the hard or soft technology industries. Route 128 feeds off Harvard and MIT. Silicon Valley is closely linked to Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. Dane County’s biomedical research is tied to the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

How Do Ideopolises Vote?

A close look at 263 ideopolis counties that are part of these high-tech metro areas vividly illustrates the political impact of America’s rising ideopolises. These counties, which account for 44 percent of the nation’s vote, are among its most dynamic, fastest-growing areas. Between 1990 and 2000, the average ideopolis county grew 23 percent, while non-ideopolis counties—centered on less technically advanced cities like Greenville, South Carolina, or Muncie, Indiana, or in rural areas—grew an average of only 10 percent.

The Democrats have come to dominate these ideopolis counties. In 1984, for instance, the ideopolis counties went for Ronald Reagan by 55 percent to 44 percent. But in 2000, Al Gore garnered 55 percent of their votes as against 41 percent for George Bush. And if left-wing candidate Ralph Nader’s 3 percent share is included, the total Democratic-leaning vote in America’s ideopolises can be reckoned at close to 58 percent. Republicans’ strength is now in the smaller low-tech and rural counties, where Gore lost to Bush by 53 percent to 44 percent. Indeed, since 1980, the beginning of the Reagan era, almost all the pro-Democratic change in the country has been concentrated in America’s ideopolis counties. The Democrats have become the party of the postindustrial future; the Republicans, the party of the industrial and agricultural past.

So What Happened in 2002?

These trends notwithstanding, the 2002 election was a poor one for Democrats nationwide. The primary cause was national security, sparked by the Iraq debate, which mobilized Republicans, especially conservative whites in rural and exurban areas, and moved many close elections into the Republican column (though Democratic demobilization because of an anemic Democratic campaign and program was also clearly at work). The white vote was important: Republicans made little headway among key Democratic groups like Hispanics.

Indeed, Hispanic support for Democrats was rock solid. For example, in California, the one state where exit poll data are available, Democrat Gray Davis won the governor’s race with 65 percent of the Hispanic vote. Republican Bill Simon won 24 percent of the Hispanic vote—the same share won by Republican Dan Lundgren in California’s 1998 gubernatorial contest. In terms of the national vote for Congress, a Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner postelection poll found that Hispanics supported the Democrats in 2002 by 62 percent—again nearly identical with 1998 exit poll figures, which showed 63 percent Democratic support for Congress among Hispanics.

Political scientist James Gimpel of the University of Maryland confirms that Hispanic voting patterns held firm in the 2002 election. He finds that Hispanics in 10 states polled by Fox News (Texas, Florida, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota) supported Democrats over Republicans for the Senate by more than two to one (67 percent to 33 percent). Gimpel sees little evidence that Latinos, in general, are moving away from the Democratic party, despite all the talk about Hispanics as swing voters. He also finds, however, that poor turnout of Latinos did benefit the Republicans in 2002 and that Latino demobilization, if continued, would be a big plus for the GOP.

What’s Ahead?

Can the Republicans continue a politics that mobilizes their constituencies and demobilizes the Democrats’? Under certain scenarios, national security could continue to crowd out other issues and give Republicans the edge, as it did in 2002. But it is more likely that the importance of national security will ebb and flow and that it will become more, not less, contested between the parties. In this case, the underlying trends described here are likely to come to the fore and continue to move the country toward a new Democratic majority. But—and perhaps this is the chief lesson of the 2002 elections for the Democrats—that majority will not coalesce automatically. Imaginative political leadership, such as that displayed by Democrats in the 1990s, will be required.

One leadership challenge is to develop a national security policy that is a plausible alternative to that of the Republicans. Another is to offer voters a domestic policy agenda that goes beyond prescription drugs and defending Social Security—good but tired issues that did not capture voters’ imaginations. New ideas abound on the Democratic side on both national security and domestic policy, but they must be articulated if they are to reach voters—both the swing voters lost in 2002 and the base voters who found the 2002 Democratic program uninspiring and stayed home.

But if Democrats can mobilize their base and compete vigorously for swing voters, the gathering impact of postindustrial change is clear. The spread of ideopolises over ever-wider sections of the country should continue to weaken Republicans, even in formerly “safe” states, and strengthen Democrats. That’s why conservative Republican dominance is coming to an end and why a new Democratic majority is still likely by the decade’s end.