Why Democrats Are So Confident

Republicans are trending against a growing cultural majority, while Democrats are in tune with it.

US First Lady Michelle Obama (L) and US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson (R) stand with newly sworn in US citizen Juan Cue Monroy, 20 born in Guatemala, during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives June 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. Fifty new citizens were sworn in during the event. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
July 2, 2014, 4 p.m.

It was a re­veal­ing con­ver­gence Monday when the five-mem­ber con­ser­vat­ive Su­preme Court ma­jor­ity de­livered the Hobby Lobby con­tra­cep­tion de­cision even as Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced that House Re­pub­lic­ans had of­fi­cially shelved im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

Both dis­putes re­af­firmed the GOP’s iden­tity as the cham­pi­on of the forces most res­ist­ant to the pro­found demo­graph­ic and cul­tur­al dy­nam­ics re­shap­ing Amer­ic­an life — and Demo­crats as the voice of those who most wel­come these changes.

And both clashes cap­tured a par­al­lel shift: While Re­pub­lic­ans took the of­fense on most cul­tur­al ar­gu­ments through the late 20th cen­tury, now Demo­crats from Obama on down are mostly press­ing these is­sues, con­fid­ent that they rep­res­ent an ex­pand­ing ma­jor­ity of pub­lic opin­ion.

Vet­er­an poll­ster Stan­ley B. Green­berg cap­tures this al­most un­pre­ced­en­ted Demo­crat­ic as­sur­ance when he de­clares flatly: “Re­pub­lic­ans are on the los­ing side of all of these trends.”

Bey­ond con­tra­cep­tion and im­mig­ra­tion, the parties are es­cal­at­ing their con­flicts over a broad suite of is­sues that di­vide the elect­or­ate along cul­tur­al lines, in­clud­ing gun con­trol, gay rights, abor­tion, and cli­mate change (which polit­ic­ally pivots on trust in sci­ence). Com­bined, these con­front­a­tions are stamp­ing the GOP as what I’ve called a “Co­ali­tion of Res­tor­a­tion” primar­ily rep­res­ent­ing older, white, re­li­giously de­vout, and non­urb­an voters who fear that hurt­ling change is un­der­min­ing tra­di­tion­al Amer­ic­an val­ues. Demo­crats in turn are cham­pi­on­ing a young­er, more urb­an­ized, di­verse, and sec­u­lar “Co­ali­tion of Trans­form­a­tion” that wel­comes the evol­u­tion in Amer­ica’s ra­cial com­pos­i­tion and cul­tur­al mores.

As Obama struggles through his second term, it’s clear one of his sig­nal legacies will be ce­ment­ing the Demo­crats’ con­nec­tion with that co­ali­tion’s cul­tur­al pri­or­it­ies. It’s easy to ima­gine Hil­lary Clin­ton or an­oth­er fu­ture Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee of­fer­ing more cent­rist fisc­al or for­eign policies than Obama. But on cul­tur­al is­sues Obama has led his party across a Ru­bicon.

Re­vers­ing their fre­quent am­bi­val­ence after the 1960s, Demo­crats are now fol­low­ing their pres­id­ent in­to an un­swerving em­brace of cul­tur­al and demo­graph­ic change. That shift re­ver­ber­ates through Obama’s de­fi­ant re­cent pledges to act uni­lat­er­ally if ne­ces­sary to en­sure equal work­place treat­ment of gays, pro­tect un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, con­front cli­mate change, and over­come the Hobby Lobby de­cision al­low­ing re­li­gious-based private com­pan­ies to ex­clude con­tra­cep­tion from their health in­sur­ance plans.

Some dis­agree­ment has per­sisted, but Demo­crats have uni­fied around this agenda far more than on sim­il­ar ques­tions earli­er. Even red-state Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors fa­cing reelec­tion, such as Arkan­sas’s Mark Pry­or and Alaska’s Mark Be­gich, quickly con­demned the Hobby Lobby de­cision. No Sen­ate Demo­crat last year voted against either im­mig­ra­tion re­form or le­gis­la­tion pro­hib­it­ing em­ploy­ers from dis­crim­in­at­ing against gay work­ers; only four dis­sen­ted on uni­ver­sal back­ground checks for gun pur­chases.

In mir­ror im­age, Re­pub­lic­ans are so­lid­i­fy­ing against these ideas. Not only red-state but also swing-state Re­pub­lic­ans uni­formly praised the Hobby Lobby de­cision. Though some GOP sen­at­ors sided with Obama, House Re­pub­lic­ans have blocked ac­tion with little dis­sent on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, work­place pro­tec­tions for gays, and uni­ver­sal back­ground checks. House and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans uni­formly de­cry Obama’s cli­mate ini­ti­at­ives.

The risk for Re­pub­lic­ans is that on each of these con­flicts, polls show Obama’s po­s­i­tion rep­res­ents ma­jor­ity opin­ion today — and that ma­jor­ity will likely grow be­cause the groups that gen­er­ally sup­port his views most are in­creas­ing as a share of voters.

A re­cent NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll, for in­stance, found that Amer­ic­ans backed the con­tra­cep­tion man­date by a 53-41 per­cent ma­jor­ity. But at least three-fifths of minor­it­ies, mil­len­ni­als, and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men — the grow­ing groups cent­ral to the mod­ern Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion — wel­comed the man­date.

Like­wise, in a Gal­lup Poll last fall, more than three-fifths of Amer­ic­ans sup­por­ted a ban on em­ploy­ers dis­crim­in­at­ing against gay work­ers, which Obama now plans to ad­dress through ex­ec­ut­ive or­der. But those num­bers soared past 70 per­cent among mil­len­ni­als and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men. And while just over half of all Amer­ic­ans sup­port gay mar­riage, that num­ber again reached around 70 per­cent with both groups, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search Cen­ter polling.

Those same two groups also ex­press the most con­cern about cli­mate change — and along with minor­it­ies dis­play pre­pon­der­ant sup­port for im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Con­versely, the older and blue-col­lar whites who now an­chor the GOP co­ali­tion typ­ic­ally ex­press the most op­pos­i­tion to ac­tion across all these fronts.

The biggest crack for Demo­crats in this align­ment is that His­pan­ics and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans (es­pe­cially older ones) take less-lib­er­al po­s­i­tions than up­scale whites on gay rights and abor­tion. But the GOP has failed to ex­ploit that open­ing be­cause its com­mit­ment to the views of its older white base on oth­er is­sues — such as im­mig­ra­tion, health re­form, and the so­cial safety net — has ali­en­ated those minor­ity com­munit­ies.

The res­ult is that amid pub­lic un­ease over Obama’s eco­nom­ic and for­eign policy re­cord, cul­tur­al af­fin­ity has be­come the Demo­crats’ most power­ful elect­or­al weapon. The party’s deep­en­ing em­brace of cul­tur­al lib­er­al­ism may make it tough­er for it to hold some red-state House and Sen­ate seats, but is im­prov­ing its po­s­i­tion with the cos­mo­pol­it­an states and grow­ing demo­graph­ic groups that key its pres­id­en­tial ma­jor­ity. In a year when so many oth­er clouds are gath­er­ing over them, that’s a trade most Demo­crats would prob­ably take in a heart­beat.

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