"It’s going to take a crisis": Why Republicans have a stranglehold on U.S. politics

Celebrated prophet of the Obama coalition John Judis tells Salon how Republicans suddenly got the upper hand

Published February 11, 2015 7:55PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Jim Bourg/Jonathan Ernst/<a href=''>Orhan Cam</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Jim Bourg/Jonathan Ernst/Orhan Cam via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

When Barack Obama was first elected president of the United States, it was hard to predict what the coming years had in store. That's always the case to some degree, of course — that's the nature of the future. But even stipulating that predictions about the future are especially difficult, the final months of 2008 were especially tumultuous and uncertain. Through all the chaos, though, at least one thing seemed certain: the Republican Party, which had just gotten blown out for the second election in a row, was in deep, deep trouble.

Fast-forward about six years, and the picture is rather different. The economy appears to be stabilizing, and Barack Obama is by now a normal part of most Americans' lives. Most dramatically of all, the Republican Party has rebounded to an extent that would likely surprise even its most passionate supporters. True, they're still out of the White House, but in the years between 2009 and today, the party has made huge strides in essentially all other theaters of U.S. electoral politics and now commands a majority in Congress the likes of which it hasn't seen since the 1920s. Which raises two questions: 1. What gives? And 2. Is there any reason to think this, too, shall quickly pass?

To answer those questions and a few others, Salon recently called up John Judis, a senior writer at the National Journal and author of a new in-depth look at why the GOP's control over state governments and Congress may be here to stay. Besides his new piece and his explanations for why Republicans' fortunes have shifted so quickly, we also discussed his advice for the GOP in 2016, and why he believes that racism can't explain why so many white Americans have begun to look askance at the president. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

To begin, I wanted to ask you when you started to doubt the emerging Democratic majority theory you’d previously championed?

I’m glad you ask because it allows me to clarify something. Ruy [Teixeira] and I wrote that book in 2001 and what we described there was the beginnings of a coalition that would be capable of winning elections for the Democrats — professionals, single women, minorities, and so on — and the coalition we described did come into being; it was the bulwark of Obama's victory in 2008 and of all the congressional wins then, too.

What I was addressing in [the National Journal] piece was not so much our book but what I thought after the election in 2008, which was that Obama had this chance, given the economic crisis and the extent to which George W. Bush had been discredited, to create an enduring majority — not just what we had described, which was a kind of edge or an advantage for the Democrats for the next decade or so, but something that would be much deeper and more lasting...

Right, you wondered if Obama might not be experiencing something of a first-term FDR moment.

That clearly didn’t come to be and I could see ... that there was going to be high unemployment and it was very likely that the Democrats were going to get drubbed in 2010; and they did.

My second mistake was to blame the failure to achieve that majority entirely on Obama’s policy mistakes [and] his not adopting an approach that would keep the middle class and the white working class in his corner... For a year or two, I was cursing Obama; but now, in retrospect, I think that that was wrong, too.

How so?

I think that he did make mistakes ... but I think what I underestimated was the undertow — the degree to which there was this abiding distrust of government and spending and taxes [among voters] that Obama had a lot of difficulty overcoming and which eventually led to a resurgence of the Republican coalition.

The coalition [Republicans] have is again something that looks a lot like 1980: white working class, middle class, and the very wealthy. It’s a coalition that’s very capable of maintaining an edge in local and state elections. I think national elections are still a toss up ... But on a local and state level, they really do have an edge, and that’s a very important edge because it’s self-reinforcing.

What do you mean by "self-reinforcing"? Are you thinking of gerrymandering?

When you’re in power locally and in state, it gives you the chance to reapportion legislative and congressional districts to your advantage. You can screw around with voting restrictions, etc. That sets up a situation where in order to break the hold that Republicans have [on the state and local level] it’s going to take a crisis; a kind of situation that you had with George W. Bush, where you had a really unpopular war plus an economic crisis.

One of the distinctive elements of the piece is that instead of focusing as much on the white working class, which tends to get a lot of attention when it comes to Democrats' woes, you examine the white middle class. What do their politics look like?

A lot of [the white middle class] is in the office economy. A lot of them are in the for-profit rather than the public sector. That group has historically been pretty Republican, but it started moving in the '90s toward the Democrats ... One of the things that’s happened since 2008 is that [the white middle class] really shifted sharply to the Republicans. It had a big role, those shifts, in some of the key races of 2014 — for example, the Senate races in both Colorado and Virginia, where the results really surprised people...

Or the Maryland gubernatorial race, which was also a big upset.

In my piece, I describe what happened in Maryland where the same thing occurred ... I interviewed people ... I didn't ask these voters leading questions; I didn’t ask, "Are you worried about taxes?" or something like that. I just said, Why did you change [from voting Democratic to voting Republican]? And it was interesting to me that the same things came up: taxes and overspending.

Larry Hogan, the Republican, was pro-life and had favored some kind of Second Amendment gun freedoms. But in the election itself he soft-pedaled those things and said, I’m not going to change the Maryland law [on abortion or guns] at all. The Democrat, Anthony Brown, tried to nail him on that, tried to base the campaign itself on guns and the war against women, and it didn’t work because these voters were mainly concerned with too many taxes and too much government spending. It was, again, this distrust of government.

Besides the obvious demographic factors, though, is there anything that distinguishes the white working class from the white middle class?

The other thing I’ll say about this group that’s different from the white working class is that there isn’t as much of a populist strain. There isn’t as much of an anti-Wall Street strain as you would find among the white working class. A lot of these voters said they liked Romney because he was a businessman and they thought he could run the economy well, for example. You wouldn’t find those kind of sentiments as much among white working-class voters...

Even though we’re talking in both cases about people who work for wages and salaries — who don’t own the means of production, who are dependent upon the companies — what you find more among middle-class than among working-class voters in an identification with the company, with business, and with the profit motive ... This is a growing part of the electorate. They also vote; they vote 10 percentage points more than the white working class.

How much of a role do you think the de facto leader of the party's being African-American has to do with these separate groups of white voters moving toward Republicans?

Obama lost a lot of votes between 2008 and 2012 from middle-class and white working-class voters, but he doesn’t lose them because all of a sudden those people realize, Oh my God, I elected a black guy to office! ... In evaluating the election and Obama overall, I don’t think you can attribute his unpopularity to being an African-American.

I think it had more to do with the kind of factors I was talking about and the unpopularity of Obamacare and the stimulus program and people thinking [Obama's policies] were not helping them and were helping other people. Now, you can say, 'Other people,' who is that? That’s going to be minorities. Yeah, it is. But if it wasn’t black people in America, maybe it would be Latinos or maybe it would be poor whites. It’s more of a sense that [the policies] weren't helping them. Again, I think that whole factor in choosing a president or in choosing a governor has been exaggerated.

You close in the article with a recommendation for the GOP, which is that they should seek a candidate in the pre-9/11 George W. Bush mold, someone who can be a "compassionate" conservative. So what's the flip side? What kind of candidate should Democrats seek? (Or, more realistically, what kind of campaign should Hillary Clinton run?)

I think that if the Republicans want to win, they need to nominate somebody who is not identified either with their Wall Street wing or with the religious right/Tea Party wing ... If they nominate somebody who can actually move to the center beginning in June or July of 2016, they’ll be in pretty good shape. If they nominate somebody who is going to be identified too much with their capitalist wing or with the religious right/Tea Party "dismantle the IRS and Social Security!" wing, then they’re going to be in trouble.

I think that Obama heard what the voters were worried about in the November election, and he’s focusing on this so-called middle-class tax cut, which is exactly what Bill Clinton campaigned on in 1992 and what Obama promised in 2008. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a solution to the country’s economic problem — I wasn’t in this article advocating what I think should be — but as a political appeal? Yes. That addresses both the middle classes I was talking about and the white working class. A campaign that’s ... anti-business would not win over the middle classes. Tax cuts, yes. An anti-corporate campaign, not necessarily. That might not work.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith

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African Americans America Barack Obama Democrats Interview Latinos Politics Race Republicans The Right