40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation
By James Carville
Simon and Schuster
New York, New York: 2009
"American presidential politics is generally not a back-and-forth enterprise. There are eras in which one party dominates. Today, a Democratic majority is emerging, and it's my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that his majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next forty years."
It's already too late to hold back the people who've rushed to the comment section without reading even this far in to the essay to declare that predicting the future is stupid, that nobody should predict that we'll win because then Democrats will get lazy or something, and to say they dislike James Carville. It's too bad if that happens, because it's a worthwhile discussion to have.
Carville has been a wildly successful political operative; he managed a decisive Democratic win over an incumbent Republican president, several statewide races and, since 1992, has been probably the most successful international political consultant, playing key roles in the victories of Tony Blair, Ehud Barak and several others. His crusade against DNC chair Howard Dean was petty, misguided and unproductive. But he's still a supremely talented operative and observer of American politics.
Carville's success in electing center-left candidates in the US and across the globe gives him a rare practitioner's perspective on what's become a major discussion among political observers; namely, are the Republicans screwed, and are the Democrats embarking upon a period of dominance. American politics has tended to operate on roughly 40 year cycles, especially since the late 19th century. Over the last decade or so there's been reason to think that Democrats were on the verge of partisan realignment favoring Democrats. Looking at these trends, in November 2007 I began to discuss (here, here, here and here ) the parallels between the election of 1932 and what we could see in the approaching election of 2008. The victory of Barack Obama and expansion of our Congressional majorities, and the reception so far of the electorate to the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress, give further support to the belief that Democrats could dominate the political and policy agenda of the next several decades, control Congress and win the majority of presidential elections until mid-century or so.
Carville should have valuable contributions to this discussion. Unfortunately, 40 More Years doesn't offer much to one looking for sound historical, political and demographic evidence and arguments for whether and why the country may be undergoing a political realignment away from the transitional period since Nixon's 1968 victory that hastened the end of the New Deal order that dominated American politics since 1932. Nevertheless, anyone looking for excellent arguments for why voters should choose Democrats should read what is an engaging and very effective polemic.
Part of Carville's shtick, which has made him the most famous and recognized political operative since Pat Buchanan, is his rapid-fire, associative, sometimes even frenetic verbal style. 40 More Years is written in that voice, which makes it a quick and entertaining read. However, it's a weakness for a book that suggests it will deliver an extended argument; indeed, a lot of the book has a "oh, another thing I just thought of have to throw in" feel.
As much as an extended argument that Carville has is summed up at the beginning of the first chapter:
The Republicans got spanked in 2008, and they're going to keep getting spanked.
The explanation is simple:
• They've destroyed the myth of conservative competence.
• They're corrupt.
• They've lost the culture war.
That argument really isn't wrong, it's just that it's incomplete. Carville sees an opening provided by the Republican meltdown. While he doesn't discuss it, that opening was provided by the narrow but decisive Republican victories in 2002 and 2004, which for the first time since the early 1950's gave them complete control of the executive and legislative branches, and thus exposed them as solely responsible for whatever went wrong. And what went wrong during that four year period was a shallow and jobless recovery from a recession, the beginnings of the collapse of the housing market, Republicans overplaying their hands and pursuing horribly unpopular positions on Social Security privatization and interfering in the end-of-life decisions for Terri Schaivo, and exposing their gross incompetence in dealing with hurricane Katrina and the civil war, ethnic cleansing and general chaos in Iraq that peaked just prior to the Democrats' victories in the 2006 election.
What's missing, however, is that these trends have been brewing since the early 90's. Carville mentions Kevin Phillips' (surprisingly out-of-print) The Emerging Republican Majority, but he doesn't mention John Judis and Ruy Teixeira's 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, who predicted a Democratic realignment not because of Republican incompetence but more because of long-term trends creating a Democratic majority:
Today's Democrats are the party of the transition from urban industrialization to a new postindustrial metropolitan order in which men and women play equal roles and in which white America is supplanted by multiracial, multiethnic America. This transition is occurring in the three critical realms of work, values and geography.
Professionals and highly educated workers are growing in numbers and prominence, and they are voting Democratic. Work is important to Americans, but so are pleasure and personal satisfaction, and Democrats have favored more family-friendly policies of the types found in the social welfare states like Canada and Europe and a embrace of cultural tolerance and diversity. Democrats have championed social libertarianism in people's personal lives, which is in tune with the changes in society and a stark contrast to the censorious intolerance of the Republicans, who initially benefitted from a backlash to the civil rights and feminist movements. And the rural share of the national vote, which leans conservative, is declining, and population growth is heavily concentrated in centers dominated by what Richard Florida has defined as the creative class.
Carville doesn't touch on much of this, other than some cursory comments on the youth vote. He also barely discusses the financial backing of Democrats; typically, realignments coincide with shifts of significant--and ascendant--sectors of industry allying themselves with the rising party. Carville mentions that Democrats raised a ton of money in 2008, but doesn't really examine it deeply. He mentions Daily Kos and other blogs, but again, his examination is cursory and not particularly enlightening, and other than raving about Media Matters for America, he doesn't really talk about the corrective role that progressive media has been playing with the traditional media.
Like the partisan warrior he is, Carville focuses heavily on Republican failures and Democratic hagiography. Fox News lies, Sarah Palin is an extremist simpleton, Hillary Clinton is great, Bill Clinton was a good president, the Republicans stole the 2000 election in Florida, and again and again, the Bush administration helped bring about the post-Katrina disaster in Carville's beloved New Orleans.
Carville does not, however discuss the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the ugly reaction the Bush administration helped engineer for their rank political gain in 2002 and 2004. Again, it was Judis who, in a 2007 article about empirical psychological studies on terrorism and the American electorate, described the political effects of those attacks, and why they helped stall the Democratic realignment:
In the months after September 11, most Americans were caught up in the same reaction to the tragedy--and that included adulation for Bush, even among many Democrats. But over the next few years, faced with two elections, Bush had to maintain his popularity; and he did so by constantly reviving memories of that dark day. As the 2002 election approached, voters turned their attention to the recession, as well as Enron and other scandals--all to the Democrats' favor. At that point, Bush, who had stood aside in the November 2001 gubernatorial elections that Democrats won, sought to base the 2002 election on terrorism. Bush and Karl Rove used the full arsenal of scare tactics to evoke fears of another September 11. The result was that the electorate became sharply polarized between conservatives and liberals and between Republicans and Democrats, while those caught in the middle tended to side with the Republicans--exactly as the psychologists' experiments might have predicted.
Conservatives and conservative-leaning swing-voters were susceptible to appeals based on fear, and these appeals took people's attention away fom the long-term advantages held by Democrats. (The timidity of the Democratic response to Bush's fearmongering also appears to have suppressed Democratic voting enthusiasm, especially in 2002.) But as the war, Katrina, Social Security and Terri Schaivo overpowered terrorism as a concern for voters—and frankly, four years worth of older people (who were especially susceptible to the terror and anti-gay messages) dying and young liberal voters entering the electorate, by 2006 the realignment predicted by Judis and Teixeira in 2002 resumed, and appears to have accelerated in 2008.
Carville doesn't discuss the long-term trends, but he does focus more attention than I've previously seen on a memo written after the 2000 election by Bush pollster Mathew Dowd. For Carville, that memo—we only know of its existence because of reporting, as nobody outside the Bush inner circle has read it—is the seed of the Republican demise. It was in that memo that Dowd pushed the conclusion that, contrary to how they campaign in 2000, the Bush administration could safely ignore appealing to the center of the electorate, because, he argued, almost nobody is persuadable, so the goal should be ginning up Republican base turnout. And to do that, the administration governed in a manner almost entirely geared toward pleasing the extreme of the GOP base.
Had it not been for 9-11 and the Bush fearmongering, Republicans probably would have taken a bath in the 2002 and 2004 elections. The perverse result of their staving off Dem advances in those two elections was their perfidy and incompetence were allowed to achieve new depths, and the resulting collapse in 2006 and 2008 probably seem to people more tied to the Republican collapse. In reality, what would probably have been happening more incrementally over the previous elections was, like water held back by a damn, a more devastating torrent when it finally broke loose in 2006 and 2008. Thus, Dowd's memo shouldn't be given disproportionate influence for the seeming Democratic realignment, but it can be given credit for the intensity of the swing toward Democrats in the last two elections.
Much of 40 More Years is dedicated to arguing that Democrats are right and Republicans are wrong. (An earlier Carville book is even titled We're Right, They're Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives) However, being right isn't necessarily correlated with winning elections. You win elections typically because whether you're right or wrong, your candidates and party are trusted, and they're usually trusted because voters think your candidates and party share their values and agree with them on what they want from government.
Carville even acknowledges elsewhere in the book that this is the case when he declares that there have only been two "Big Ideas" since LBJ's Great Society—supply-side economics and neoconservative—and "they were new, bold, easy to explain, and profoundly stupid." Carville, building on Roosevelt's New Deal and Truman's Fair Deal, offers up the slogan the Real Deal. But he admits that he doesn't have the elements that will make up the core of the next Big Idea. That's now largely in the hands of the Obama administration, and their success—and the alternating cooperation and productive prodding they need from the Democratic Congress—will determine whether Democrats can solidify their emerging majority.
Despite being weak on long-term analysis, Carville's book is, however, an excellent polemic. It contains numerous worthwhile insights, such as his claim that in a parliamentary system a leader who responded like Bush did to Katrina would probably have been immediately voted out of power. There's a good section called Res Judicata on how to shut down Republican attempts to argue on settled subjects, mostly matters that the Republicans have tried to remove from the realm of science and empirical study and replace with matters of faith. And anyone who wants to talk about why Democrats do a far better job of providing economic growth that spreads throughout the population. Much of the raw data comes from Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (reviewed here by SusanG), but Carville, like any good consultant, does a great job of framing the arguments. It should be required reading for every ad maker, press operative and Democratic candidate.
There's no correct answer to the question to whether we're in the beginning of an age of Democratic party dominance; it's too early to know. There are better arguments than the one provided by James Carville in 40 More Years. But following his advice on how to talk to voters and shut down stupid crap from Republicans could help Democrats lock in that realignment.