Demographics & the Future of American Conservatism

Matt Yglesias thinks American democracy as we currently know it is going to fall apart*:

Some day — not tomorrow, not next year, but probably sometime before runaway climate change forces us to seek a new life in outer-space colonies — there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else.

I am rather more sanguine about the long term prospects of American democracy and some of the doomsday scenarios Yglesias proposes don’t strike me as things we really ought to waste a lot of time worrying about. That our system of government is not optimized to deal with the simultaneous deaths of the president and vice president is something I can live with.**

Jon Chait followed a day later with the (sort of discursively necessary, by the rules of Internet blogging) counterclaim that, “There’s a Chance American Democracy Is Not Doomed“, because while Yglesias presents American political gridlock as systemically inevitable given the government’s institutional design, it may in fact simply be the result of “the unique power” of the right wing in American politics. And aside from the superficially hilarious predictability of somebody “on the left” (obviously the left is not monolithic – just look at Chait’s wonderful piece on political correctness from January) attributing government’s problems to the fact that “the right” is politically powerful (I mean, obviously government would work seamlessly if your opponents were not, in fact, your opponents), there is actually something here to consider. Two things, really.

Here’s Chait again (and I apologize for plonking down such a large block of text – it just seemed more efficient than the alternatives):

Perhaps Republicans and Democrats cannot compromise over the shape of the state because the GOP’s reigning public philosophy makes legislative compromise impossible. After all, the shape of our presidential system is not the only thing that separates the U.S. from other industrialized democracies. The other major difference is that the United States is the only advanced democracy whose major conservative party rejects the principle of universal health care, has leading figures influenced by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and opposes even the tiniest revenue increases on principle…What Yglesias describes as polarization between the parties could also be thought of as the conservative movement’s gradual rise to unchallenged power within the Republican Party…The good news, from the standpoint of both liberals and anybody concerned for the long-term stability of American government, is that the conservative movement’s control over the Republican Party is probably not sustainable. American conservatism’s power is deeply rooted to white American racial identity. That identity formed a plausible national majority for much of America’s history, but its time is rapidly slipping into the past. The steady growth of racial minorities is projected to continue for decades. Eventually Republicans will adjust to the new demography, which means they will have to abandon conservatism as we know it, which has only appealed to white voters in the context of racial polarization.

First, the idea that support for universal healthcare is a litmus test for – well, for what exactly? A willingness to govern? – is unhelpful. There is a strong argument to make, and one to which I am partial, in favor of government-funded disaster insurance combined with more or less what we had before Obamacare. Obviously this is not what Republicans are proposing to replace Obamacare with but somebody who did shouldn’t automatically land in the “committed to un-governance” bucket.

Second, and more substantively, Chait’s suggestion that demographic shifts in the American population will make unviable the continued ideological appeal of “conservatism as we know it” seems to contain an embedded assumption that doesn’t survive closer scrutiny. To say that American conservatism’s power is deeply rooted to white American racial identity seems true, but that doesn’t mean that as demographics make America less white the Republican Party will become less conservative. I confess I have not read Ayn Rand, but is there any reason to think her philosophy is inherently unappealing to people who today qualify as racial minorities in the United States? Why won’t these future majority-minority-whatever citizens embrace the ideology of anti-government as fervently as today’s heavily-white Tea Partiers?

Fair enough if the rejoinder here is that the anti-government ideological message of the conservative movement as currently promulgated is not designed to appeal to people who, as a group, have been historically marginalized. And if the people promulgating it also happen to traffic in thinly (or not so thinly) veiled racism then it’s easy to see how any ideological relevance the message might have would be trumped by a desire to avoid, you know, hanging out with racists. But if there’s no necessary link between the white racial identity Chait sees animating many current practitioners of American conservatism and the ideological content of it that makes bipartisan governance near impossible, then there’s no reason to think somebody doing Rand Paul sorts of things might not eventually succeed. Hell, you can tell a story that doesn’t seem horribly far fetched wherein the next generation of majority-minority citizens also become strident Randians (of the Ayn type) because the majority-minority status shields them from perceiving deep systemic biases that must be remedied by the state while at the same time family narratives of immigrant success in America valorize self-reliance. For what it’s worth, the same guy who theorized an “emerging democratic majority” in 2002 has just published something suggesting, “…2014 was not an isolated event but rather the latest manifestation of a resurgent Republican coalition.”

As it happens, I will shed no tears if the cataclysm-loving conservatives on the American right go the way of the dodo. I’m just not sure demographics will do enough to make it happen.

*Not to make predictions a mini-theme around these parts, but this strikes me as exactly the kind of bombastic, eye-catching claim analysts can make and not suffer for getting wrong. The claimant gets to look very serious and concerned with all kinds of important things, and anyway even Rome eventually fell. If you’re wrong, well who doesn’t like upside surprises?
**The larger point, that Congress is dysfunctional, is surely true, though at this point, alas, a bit unremarkable by itself