Transitions

We are in a period of dramatic transition, but we can’t see our destination and that makes the journey unsettling. For decades we have taken for granted the terms of political and social engagement. We could anticipate how political figures would behave, and we had a shared sense of political and policy boundaries. Not so today, when we don’t know where we’re going as a country and it feels like things can fall apart at any moment. Like in spring or fall, conditions at the end of this transitional season will look nothing like they did when the season began, and the weather in between can be tumultuous and unpredictable. Adding to the uncertainty is that we don’t know if we are experiencing an autumn that will end in darkness or a springtime that will lead to rejuvenation.

Transitions are unnerving because it is easier to recognize the disappearance of the old than visualize the emergence of the new. The Reagan coalition that defined our politics since 1980 is gone, with economic and foreign policy traditionalists drummed out of the Republican Party. Gone with it is the neoliberal policy consensus long embraced by elites in both parties, dramatically evidenced by Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong 2016 challenge to Hillary Clinton and the creeping influence of progressive ideas over the 2020 Democratic field, including over so-called moderate candidates. We see the transition most evidently in an enormous generational divide, where the ideas and preferences of those under forty deviate dramatically from their parents and grandparents, who spent most of their adult lives in the era that’s exiting. And we see it in the demographic gulf that overlays these generational differences and drives the transition, with a multicultural America holding more secular and progressive tendencies rising to replace the pale conservative homogeneity of the past.

This evidence of change, so abundant when we look back, doesn’t give us much to work with when we try to figure out where we’re heading. That’s because the events fueling our departure from the past are slow to emerge in real time. Consider that white voters constituted 88% of the electorate that replaced Jimmy Carter with Ronald Reagan in 1980. They were still 87% of the electorate twelve years later when Ross Perot’s independent run helped put Bill Clinton in the White House. But the proportion of white voters has been falling steadily ever since, by a few percentage points each cycle, reaching 70% in 2016. It will almost certainly fall into the high 60s this year, enough to profoundly challenge the politics of the Reagan era — but not yet enough to make the preferences of the emerging electorate decisive. The same is true of age differences. If only people forty or under were allowed to vote in 2016, Clinton would have won in a landslide. If their voting behaviors are reinforced rather than altered, six years from now this group will be fifty or under and their preferences will be decisive. The longterm change is profound but the effects we feel at points along the way are far more incremental.

This is why the 2020 primary season has been so troublesome for Democrats. The emerging electorate has developed in size and political strength to the point where it has an influential voice in intra-party decision-making. It is now reasonable for Democrats to ask whether their best path to victory rests with mobilizing this massive group of voters with a candidate that appeals to their interests and concerns. But it is equally reasonable for Democrats to ask whether their best path to victory rests with reassuring the more traditional sensibilities of a large pool of older white working class voters, especially when there are plenty of these voters in the states that were decisive in Donald Trump’s narrow Electoral College win.

The emerging electorate will eventually supplant the traditional electorate, but at the moment the two are evenly matched politically. In 2024, we will be talking about a rapidly changing Texas as the tossup tipping-point state — the state that will put Republicans out of business when it eventually goes blue — and the ramifications for our politics will be transformational. But this cycle, all eyes are on blue-to-purple Wisconsin and red-to-purple Arizona, as the debate rages over whether Sun Belt Democrats are arriving more rapidly than Rust Belt Democrats are disappearing. The answer to that question is — it’s close.

In this moment of transition, there is probably no greater transitional figure than Joe Biden. He is a creature of the late 20th Century, a child of “third way” politics that Democrats depended on to win elections when Republicans held the natural majority, and a generational Rorschach test.  Where older voters find him comforting and relatable, younger voters are more likely to find him unexciting and cringeworthy. Where older voters find his ideas non-threatening, younger voters are more likely to dismiss him as out of touch with the urgency of the times. This divide is not about age as much as it is about Biden’s politics and sensibilities. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren reliably register as the preferred candidates of Millennials and Generation Z. Young people do not have a problem voting for older candidates. They just prefer septuagenarians who call for revolution or big structural change, who speak boldly to concerns like climate change and social justice that many younger voters feel cannot wait. 

For his part, Biden seems to be aware of his transitional status. He demurred when asked at the last debate if he planned to serve two terms, and in the early days of his campaign he made a public display of courting Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia General Assembly who came within 50,000 votes of becoming Georgia governor in a 2018 election marked by rampant voter suppression. One way to bridge the gap between past and future is to put both on the ticket and have the guy at the top offer himself as an interim figure who will tread gently on a traumatized country while demography moves it further to the left, then pass the baton in four years. But Democrats are not united behind this direction. I’ve heard Democrats advocate for pairing Biden with an establishment Midwesterner to go all-in for Wisconsin on the assumption that while the ticket won’t excite progressive voters, the prospect of four more years of Trump will drive them to the polls to vote for the Democrat. Then there are Democrats who prefer to nominate Sanders or Warren and energize the base in an effort to boost turnout among the emerging electorate on the assumption that while the ticket may not have natural appeal to Rust Belt voters, the prospect of four more years of Trump will drive them to the polls to vote for the Democrat.

I do not believe that any of these are optimal ways to approach the situation. In an election that will hinge on turnout, it is risky to count on people showing up to vote against a candidate, even if they harbor strongly negative feelings about him. The wiser move for Democrats would be to start thinking about this transitional moment in inclusive terms. While it is foolish to think that any candidate can appeal across the chasm to the significant minority that wants to prevent the emerging electorate from holding power, a message that can unite the groups that Democrats need to win in November would address the shared suffering derived from decades of Reagan-era politics incurred by all ages and races, in metro areas and on farms, in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt. It would look to the future, even if that future is slow to emerge, to build a coalition broad enough to win the election now and claim the mandate necessary to take meaningful action afterwards.

New political eras bring with them new ways of speaking about and doing politics. Uncertainty will beget fear, but it can also provide the opportunity to shape the transition — if we are not too afraid to embrace it.