Predictions are hard, especially ones about the future, as Yogi Berra may or may not have warned. (Attribution is also hard, especially regarding things said in the past.) But predictions are also captivating, which is why people keep making them and taking them seriously. In an age of faith, the gift of prophecy was a sign of God’s favor. In an age of reason, it is a sign of analytical prowess. A secular Nostradamus gets the future right by understanding what’s going on now. Distinguishing between signal and noise, he identifies the key phenomena in the present that will prove decisive in shaping the future.

Consider Kevin Phillips, the then 28-year-old attorney who turned the research he had performed while working as an analyst for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign into the 1969 bestseller, The Emerging Republican Majority. The moment was not obviously auspicious, for either the book or the GOP. Nixon did win the presidency, but narrowly rather than decisively, as had seemed likely in the months before Election Day. And though Republicans made modest gains in that year’s congressional races, they remained in the minority, with 42 of the 100 Senate seats and 192 (44%) of 435 House of Representatives members, allowing the Democratic Party to control both chambers, just as it had done for 32 of the preceding 36 years.

Nonetheless, The Emerging Republican Majority argued that a Republican Party anchored in the Sun Belt—a term Phillips coined—and working-class neighborhoods in the Northeast and Midwest would displace the Democrats’ New Deal coalition, which had been rendered unsustainable by social tensions, especially racial ones. Though Phillips’s prediction was not vindicated immediately or completely, events in the remaining decades of the 20th century would prove him to have been more right than wrong. After Lyndon Johnson won 61.1% of the popular vote in 1964—the highest percentage by a presidential candidate since James Monroe ran unopposed for reelection in 1820—Republican nominees went on to win five of the next six contests. Most dramatically, in 1972, the first presidential election after Phillips’s book appeared, Nixon nearly reversed Johnson’s landslide, carrying 49 states while winning 60.7% of the popular vote against George McGovern. Voters’ allegiances in down-ballot elections also changed, albeit more slowly. The GOP gained a Senate majority in 1980, which it held for six years, and control of both houses of Congress in 1994, something it had not achieved in 40 years, making clear that the “Solid South” had turned solidly Republican. On the basis of The Emerging Republican Majority’s success, Phillips, who died last year at the age of 82, went on to a long career as a political commentator, during which he wrote 15 additional books.

In 2002, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira published The Emerging Democratic Majority. Judis is a journalist who has been affiliated with several publications over the past 50 years, including Socialist Review, The New Republic, and, most recently, the Talking Points Memo website. Teixeira, who received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison for a dissertation on voting turnout, has published studies on the electorate while working at several prominent Washington think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Center for American Progress and, since 2022, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The Emerging Democratic Majority argued that, in the 33 years since the publication of Phillips’s book, America had become a very different country—demographically, socially, and, as a result, politically. These trends seemed likely to continue, they argued, strengthening the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the GOP. Phillips, in 1969, had scoffed that the numbers of “research directors, associate professors, social workers, educational consultants, urbanologists, development planners, journalists, brotherhood executives, foundation staffers, communications specialists, culture vendors, pornography merchants, poverty theorists, and so forth” were too small for Democrats to sustain the electoral domination Franklin Roosevelt had established in the 1930s. According to Judis and Teixeira’s assessment of the electorate at the beginning of the 21st century, however, educated professionals had become so numerous and so favorably disposed to the Democratic Party that they formed a key component of a majority likely to be as durable, though not quite as large, as FDR’s New Deal coalition.

The Diploma Divide

Judis and Teixeira were among the first to describe a phenomenon that other analysts have more recently labeled “educational polarization” or the “diploma divide.” The Emerging Democratic Majority pointed out that trained professionals—such as architects, engineers, lawyers, physicians, and scientists—had strongly favored the GOP in the 1950s and ’60s. A chapter titled “George McGovern’s Revenge” recounted that Republican margins within this subset of the electorate began to diminish in 1972. By 1988 this group was much larger than it had been in the aftermath of World War II, punched above its weight electorally because of a high propensity to vote, and began to favor Democrats over the GOP. These trends continued up to the writing of The Emerging Democratic Majority, which predicted that they would continue.

And they did. According to the Census Bureau, only 6% of Americans at least 25 years old had a bachelor’s degree in 1950, a figure that increased to 16% in 1980 and 24% in 2000. More recent data, from the Pew Research Center, shows that 38% of Americans 25 or older had a four-year college degree in 2021. In 2012, people with at least a bachelor’s degree accounted for 29% of all voters, and favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 51% to 47%. By 2020 this cohort, which cast 41% of the ballots, split 55% to 43% for Joe Biden against Donald Trump.

Two additional points about educational polarization. First, it is a global rather than a uniquely American phenomenon. A 2022 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics assessed 21 modern democracies, including most nations in western Europe as well as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. In all of them, it found, political parties on the left had fared poorly among the relatively small number of well-educated voters in the 1950s and ’60s but became dominant within that subset of the electorate in the 21st century, by which time college graduates had come to account for a larger share of the total vote.

Secondly, the diploma divide is bidirectional: while voters with a college degree are moving to the left politically, those without one are moving right. This, too, is happening beyond America. Education level was, for example, the best predictor of how the British voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum, with the more highly educated voting to Remain in the European Economic Union, and those with fewer years of school voting to Leave. The American pollster David Shor, who works with Democratic candidates and groups, said in a 2020 interview with New York magazine that one of Jeremy Corbyn’s goals as leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party from 2015 to 2020 was to reclaim its standing among workers without a college degree. Yet by the time Labour lost two general elections under Corbyn’s leadership, the party was even more dependent on the highly educated and enjoyed less support from those without a degree than it had before his tenure. The diploma divide is now so predictive of voting results that political scientists and election analysts routinely define “working-class voters” as those without college degrees, rather than by some more obvious economic measure like income, union membership, or being paid an hourly wage rather than a salary.

The reasons for educational polarization are disputed, and far from clear. Part of the story appears to be that the moral outlook of college-educated professionals emphasizes the universal, while that of the working class is fundamentally communal, stressing particulars. A 2022 New York magazine article by Eric Levitz described it as the difference between those who are disposed to spread “altruism and trust thinner across a wider sphere of humanity” and those who “feel stronger obligations…to their own kin and neighbors and their religious, ethnic, and racial groups.” Self-selection is certainly part of the equation: those who go away to college to prepare for careers that often require at least one relocation to distant cities full of strangers are apt to be wired differently to begin with than those who eschew such paths in order to remain close to the people they grew up with.

Whatever the exact causes of the diploma divide, the political effect is to make difficult, divisive moral and cultural questions the subjects of more political debates, and the basis on which growing numbers of voters decide which candidates and parties to support. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How was the title of Harold Lasswell’s classic political science text, written in 1936. Such distributional questions, though fraught, lend themselves to differences that can be split. And in eras more prosperous than the Great Depression, distributional conflicts are even easier to settle because they are less likely to be zero-sum questions. By contrast, disputes over questions of respect, decency, and identity (personal and national) are harder to resolve. The universal viewpoint favored by the college-educated and the particular disposition more common to the working class lead to differences that cannot be split over issues like abortion, gender identity, immigration, gun control, and vigorous law enforcement that has a disparate impact on racial minorities. As such issues came to dominate and define the political landscape, the college educated in America have become increasingly likely to vote for Democrats, and those without a four-year degree have become the base of the Republican Party.

The Coalition of the Ascendant

Another element of the new democratic majority, predicted Judis and Teixeira, was that the “gender gap” would become a Republican liability. Neither Phillips nor any other political analyst in 1969 predicted that women would become the majority of college students (and, within the past decade, the majority of college graduates), pursue careers in unprecedented numbers, marry later in their lives (if they married at all), have fewer children (if they had any), outsource more childrearing to daycare centers and nannies, and become increasingly inclined, as a group, to the Democratic Party.

In 2023 Teixeira, along with AEI colleagues, showed that unmarried women had become the crucial Democratic voting bloc. In the 2022 midterm elections Republican House candidates won 50% of the vote in the 435 congressional districts, compared to the Democratic candidates’ 47%. Were it not for unmarried women, who made up 23% of the 2022 electorate and gave 68% of their votes to Democrats, that election would have been a wipeout instead of a cliffhanger. All other voters were, to varying degrees, pro-Republican. Married men favored Republican House candidates by 59% to 39%, slightly more than the 56% to 42% margin of married women. (Married voters accounted for 60% of the 2022 electorate.) Unmarried men, 16% of all voters that year, favored the GOP narrowly, 52% to 45%.

A third trend that Phillips could not have factored into his analysis was that immigration would grow much faster than had been anticipated when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed several restrictions implemented in the 1920s. The foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population in 1970 was 4.7%, a historical low. By 2022, according to the Census Bureau, it had nearly tripled to 13.9%, the highest proportion since 14.7% in 1910, near the end of the Ellis Island immigration wave. Many of the post-1965 immigrants became American citizens and registered voters. Even before naturalization they had children who, under the reigning interpretation of the 14th Amendment, were also citizens upon being born here, and therefore eligible to register and vote when they turned 18. With white voters steadily dwindling as a proportion of the electorate, and Asian and Hispanic voters being nearly as reliably Democratic as black voters had been since 1964, the party’s future seemed promising.

It is “fair to assume,” The Emerging Democratic Majority calculated, “that if Democrats can consistently take professionals by about 10 percent, working women by about 20 percent, keep 75 percent of the minority vote, and get close to an even split of white working-class voters, they will have achieved a new Democratic majority.” When Barack Obama met or surpassed these benchmarks, his victories in 2008 and 2012 were widely interpreted as vindicating Judis and Teixeira’s thesis, proving that the Democratic Party would dominate American politics for decades to come. The “coalition of the ascendant” was The Atlantic senior editor Ronald Brownstein’s term for the “millennials, minorities, and socially liberal whites (especially college-educated and single women)” who, he wrote in 2015, were “growing within the electorate” and thereby “boosting Democrats.”

What Went Wrong?

In 2023, however, two books appeared arguing forcefully that The Emerging Democratic Majority turned out to have been more wrong than right. One of them, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, was written by…John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Contrary to what they had projected in 2002, the authors concluded the subsequent two decades showed that the “majority we predicted had not emerged.” Instead, American politics was “stuck in a teeter-totter between the parties.” (In the 68 years between 1900 and 1968, the same political party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for a total of 54 years, which meant there was divided government for only 14 years, 21% of the time. In the 56 years between 1968 and 2024, there has been divided government for 40 years, 71% of the time.) Given the fact that nothing resembling the New Deal coalition’s hegemony has emerged since 2002, Judis and Teixeira are forced to ask in their latest book, “Where did we and where did the Democrats go wrong?”

Their answer is that The Emerging Democratic Majority would have been more accurate if it had been less popular. Human beings are powerfully disposed to accept congenial accounts of reality and reject distressing ones. The message that thinkers and doers who favor the Democratic Party took away from the 2002 book, which they read enthusiastically rather than closely, was quite different from the one its authors tried to impart. Above all, the need to remain competitive with white working-class voters was brushed aside. In its place, many Democrats embraced a sanguine but distorted interpretation of the demographic trends Judis and Teixeira had analyzed: the coalition of the ascendant was ascending so rapidly that Democrats could count on becoming the majority party without even competing for white working-class voters.

This welcome news meant that the key to Democratic victories would be mobilizing the party’s base: non-white voters and white liberals with at least a college degree. Judis and Teixeira quote the advice given in September 2016 by the director of the donor group Democracy Alliance:

There is one sure path to a progressive victory in the 2016 election, and that is to excite, mobilize, and turn out at the polls the communities of what have [sic] been called the “new American majority”—African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders and other communities of color, young people and women, as well as progressive white voters.

Concentrating on this coalition would obviate the need to make substantive or rhetorical concessions—such as Bill Clinton’s triangulation or his 1992 Sister Souljah moment, when he picked a fight with Jesse Jackson and the Democratic Party’s most progressive elements—in the hopes of appealing to swing voters. Indeed, trying to placate working-class whites would be counterproductive, strategists now believed, as the votes gained by modulating what Democrats said and how they said it would be more than offset by votes lost as the most loyal Democratic voters grew disenchanted rather than energized. In June 2016 journalist Peter Birkenhead wrote a Daily Beast article titled “Democrats: The White Working Class Isn’t Voting for You, So Stop Pandering to Them.” “The voters you romanticize are not persuadable, and they haven’t been for a very long time,” he admonished. “The Democrats don’t need them, they shouldn’t want them and they should once and for all stop coddling them.”

Despite Obama’s two victories, Democrats suffered severe losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, leading Judis and Teixeira to say ruefully in Where Have All the Democrats Gone? that “the Democrats’ dominance lasted only two years” after Obama took office. Hopes that these setbacks would be reversed in a high-turnout presidential election were dashed in 2016 when, according to the authors, the leading cause for Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was “the shift of white working-class voters into the Republican column, including many who had voted for Obama.” Judis and Teixeira had calculated in 2002 that, with the party’s other demographic advantages, Democrats would be in a good position to win presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial elections if they held onto at least 40% of the white working-class vote. Leaving third-party votes aside, this meant that Democrats were likely to prevail if the GOP margin of victory with this group was 20 percentage points or less but would find victory increasingly difficult to secure as the Republican margin of victory among working-class white voters grew beyond 20 points. In Obama’s 2008 victory over John McCain, for example, the GOP advantage among these voters was 13 percentage points.

In 2016, however, the margin was 31 points, which negated the fact that Hillary Clinton gained six percentage points among white voters with a college degree relative to Barack Obama’s performance in 2012. White working-class voters were a disproportionately large portion of the electorate in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, “blue-wall” states that Trump won in 2016. This was also the case in Iowa and Ohio, two of the three states (besides Florida) that Obama won in 2008 and 2012, but which Trump then carried in 2016 and 2020. Where Have All the Democrats Gone? reports that Obama fought Mitt Romney to a draw among Iowa’s white working-class voters in 2012, but that Clinton lost them by 23 points to Trump in 2016. In Ohio, Obama carried the state in 2012 by climbing just above the 40% target, losing these voters to Romney by a margin of 16 points. Four years later, Clinton lost them by 32 percentage points, and the state overall by 51.7% to 43.6%.

Shadow Party Arrogance

The message of Where Have All the Democrats Gone? is that a Democratic majority is not inevitable, but neither is it impossible. Achieving it will require that Democrats disenthrall themselves from the comforting illusion that their demographic advantages allow them to neglect or offend significant portions of the electorate without suffering defeats in winnable elections. Judis and Teixeira are not coy. The Democrats’ “main problem,” they say, is “cultural insularity and arrogance.” For the Democratic Party to become more competitive, the Democratic “shadow party,” as they call it, will have to become either shrewder or weaker. They define shadow parties as “the activist groups, think tanks, foundations, publications and websites, and big donors and prestigious intellectuals who are not part of official party organizations, but who influence and are identified with one or the other of the parties.” For the Democrats, that would include organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, such media outlets as The New York Times and MSNBC, the Ford and Open Society foundations, and think tanks like the Center for American Progress.

Judis and Teixeira are pleased that the Democrats today show less “deference to free markets and free trade” than they did under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. This change has allowed the party to pursue what Teixeira, in a recent Substack essay, called an “abundance agenda,” designed to alleviate the economic insecurity of workers who live where factories have closed and opportunities have vanished. Where Have All the Democrats Gone? devotes most of a chapter on the Biden Administration to endorsing its policies on spending, trade, and labor unions.

The chapter concludes, however, with a warning that Democrats’ “identification with cultural radicalism” will reduce the political benefits of even a successful abundance agenda. The second half of Where Have All the Democrats Gone? focuses on how the Democratic shadow party’s extremism on race, immigration, gender, and global warming diminishes the party’s prospects and increases its vulnerabilities. Whether the self-indulgent proposals and rhetoric emphasize dismantling systemic racism, de facto open borders, mainstreaming transsexuality, or “fanatical hostility to fossil fuels,” the effect is to “strengthen voters’ view of Democratic politics as the expression of a cultural elite that is out of touch with the sentiments and morals of most of the country.”

The problem, Judis and Teixeira contend, is serious and worsening. Not only is the shadow party’s radicalism making it hard for the Democratic Party to win back the white working class, but also it has begun to erode the party’s advantage with minority voters. Some numbers inside Joe Biden’s 2020 victory were ominous, they warn, not random and insignificant fluctuations: Biden’s margin of victory over Trump among non-white voters was 11 percentage points smaller than Hillary Clinton’s had been in 2016. This total included a six-point decline among black voters and an 18-point reduction of the Democrats’ margin with Hispanic voters, which Where Have All the Democrats Gone? says was remarkable and concentrated among working-class Hispanics.

Ruy Teixeira has elaborated these warnings in a series of Substack essays, of which “The Democratic Coalition Is Falling Apart,” posted in December 2023, is representative. It discusses polling data that showed Biden getting about 75% of the black vote in a race against Donald Trump, compared to the 90% he received in 2020, trailing Trump among Hispanic voters in battleground states, and falling short of 40% of the working-class vote among all racial groups in the states likely to decide this year’s election. Progressives, Teixeira laments—the people who run every shadow party institution—are the ones “most hysterical about the threat posed by Trump and Trumpism,” but also those most adamantly opposed to the compromises on cultural issues that offer the likeliest ways to defeat Trump in 2024.

A Multiracial Mainstream Majority

Party of the People, the second book from 2023 on the prospects for America’s two major parties, is by Patrick Ruffini, a pollster who has worked for the Republican National Committee and GOP candidates, including President George W. Bush. His book examines the same facts as Where Have All the Democrats Gone? and agrees with Judis and Teixeira’s key conclusions. Given his partisan orientation, Ruffini’s assessment of the situation is hopeful whereas Judis and Teixeira’s is cautionary. The book’s subtitle—Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP—is a bit more enthusiastic than the careful analysis in its pages. Ruffini, seemingly determined to prevent the overly optimistic interpretations that led readers of The Emerging Democratic Majority astray, leaves the impression that Republicans could, with luck and skill, turn the raw elements of changing demographics and attitudes into a long-term advantage. Party of the People does not encourage the belief that any such outcome is foreordained.

Ruffini shows his work to an unusual extent. White voters without a college degree accounted for 42.9% of the electorate in 2020, he says, and gave 62% of their votes to Donald Trump against Joe Biden. Using projections from Echelon Insights, the consulting firm Ruffini cofounded, Party of the People predicts that such voters will constitute only 35.3% of the electorate in 2036. The main reason for this decline is that Americans born before 1950, a cohort less likely than younger ones to have completed college, will nearly all be deceased by 2036 and, outside Chicago, ineligible to vote.

The fact that the GOP’s best voting bloc will be nearly one-fifth smaller in 2036 than it was in 2020 does not sound like the start of an argument for the party’s promising future. This is especially true considering that Trump lost in 2020 despite his popularity with working-class whites. It is also true, however, that: a) Trump did better than seemed likely throughout the 2020 campaign; and b) despite Biden winning the popular vote by 5.5%, 51.3% to 46.8%, Trump nearly secured a second Electoral College victory. The geographic distribution of Democratic votes remains very inefficient for prevailing in the state-by-state, winner-take-all Electoral College. And the vote allocation in Biden’s victory, Ruffini notes, was even more inefficient than in Clinton’s defeat. California, for example, accounted for 5.10 million, 72%, of Biden’s national margin of 7.06 million over Trump. Getting 63.5% of the popular vote in California did not earn Biden any extra Electoral College credit beyond the 55 electoral votes he would have secured with a more modest victory. Ruffini calculates that a shift from Biden to Trump of roughly 475,300 votes, 0.3% of the national total, would have reduced Biden’s margin of victory to 4.9%, 51% to 47.1%, leaving Biden 6.11 million votes ahead of Trump in the national totals. But that shift, prorated among the 50 states, would also have been enough to secure Trump the narrowest of Electoral College victories.

To arrive at the conclusion that the GOP will be competitive, perhaps even more competitive, in 2036 and beyond, Ruffini finds encouragement in other numbers. For one, white voters with college degrees, who accounted for 28.5% of the electorate in 2020 and gave Trump 45% of their votes, will constitute just 29% of the electorate in 2036. Republicans’ challenges with this portion of the electorate will, at least, not become a bigger problem than now. As Ruffini reads the data, the share of young people completing college has stopped rising, and the number of young people eligible to start college is set to decline. College administrators, especially ones at small institutions with modest financial reserves, are already dreading the “enrollment cliff” that looms in 2026, when the sharp decline in birth rates after the 2008 financial crisis leads to a much smaller number of college applicants.

White voters overall will decline from 71.4% of the electorate in 2020 to 64.3% in 2036, Ruffini says. Correspondingly, non-white voters will increase from 28.6% in 2020 to 35.6% in 2036. In 2020 Trump lost despite getting 55% of the votes cast by whites, with and without college degrees. (He won in 2016 with 61% of the total white vote. Mitt Romney lost with 59% of the white vote in 2012, when whites accounted for 72% of the electorate.) Ruffini calculates that the 2036 nominee will have to improve on the 2020 figure, at least a little, to make victory feasible. He presents four scenarios in which the Republican wins by securing between 56% and 61% of the white vote. In each, the 2036 nominee surpasses Trump’s 62% of the white working-class vote, to at least 68% and perhaps as high as 71%. The 2036 nominee also needs to get about the same share of the white, college-educated vote as Trump’s 45%. None of Ruffini’s formulas for a 2036 Republican victory has a figure below 40%, two require equaling Trump’s 45%, and one calls for a slight increase to 48%.

With whites being a smaller portion of the electorate in 2036, the GOP’s options are either to get more votes from non-whites or get even bigger majorities from white voters. Ruffini calculates that if the 2036 Republican nominee does only slightly better with whites than Trump did in 2020, 56% as opposed to 55%, the most realistic path to victory calls for the Republican to get: 50% of the Hispanic vote, as opposed to 36% in 2020; 45% of the vote from Asians and other minority group members, compared to Trump’s 39%; and 24% from blacks, which is three times the 2020 figure and would be the best the GOP has done with black voters since Richard Nixon received 32% in 1960. Even if the 2036 nominee equals Trump’s achievement in 2016 by getting 61% of the white vote, victory will still require, according to Ruffini’s figures, 42% of the Hispanic vote, 40% of the vote from Asians and other minorities, and 15% of the black vote.

Ruffini’s examination of the electoral data tells him that these big GOP gains among non-white voters are decidedly plausible. Many people hailed Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the beginning of a “post-racial America.” Ruffini also sees it taking shape—not in one big, dramatic event, but in millions of small ones happening throughout society. “The white majority isn’t being replaced,” he writes. Rather, “it is being blended into a new multiracial mainstream majority.” Neighborhoods and workplaces are becoming more integrated, marriages among people of different ethnicities and races are increasing, and more children are being born who are neither white nor non-white, as those terms have been understood.

Americans who live differently have started to vote differently. As recently as 2016, Ruffini observes, black, Hispanic, and Asian voters who identified as conservatives were about as likely to vote Democratic as black, Hispanic, and Asian voters in general. In 2020, however, their voting patterns were much more in line with those of white conservatives than with those of people who happened to look like they did. Working-class voters of all races and ethnicities, Ruffini argues, are becoming more conservative even though not many are in any doctrinal sense conservatives. The Republican Party under Donald Trump, featuring the vigorous expression of nationalist and populist attitudes without yet delineating a coherent governing philosophy, has proven to be more attractive to such voters than were previous iterations of the GOP.

Who Hates Who

The glass-half-full interpretation of Ruffini’s argument is that it just might work. He is not alone in seeing that the Republican Party could come out ahead as the electorate becomes more polarized on educational lines and less polarized on racial and ethnic ones. In an interview with Politico after the 2020 election, Democratic analyst David Shor said, “The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of.” Even concerning black voters, Democrats’ most loyal constituency, Shor thought change was at least as plausible as continuity: “How sustainable is it to get 95 percent of the vote within a racial or ethnic group for long periods of time? And I think the answer is that it probably isn’t.”

The glass-half-empty interpretation is that the working-class coalition had better work, since there’s no imaginable Plan B. In an e-mail to me, Ruffini estimated that if the Republican nominee in 2036 matches but does not surpass Trump’s 2020 performance with non-whites, winning election will require getting at least 63% of white voters. According to an AEI study of exit polls from 1972 to 2020, the only elections when a Republican presidential nominee did that well with white voters were the 49-state landslide victories of Richard Nixon in 1972 (67%) and Ronald Reagan in 1984 (64%). More daunting still, these two victories took place before the diploma divide had turned middle-class and affluent suburbs from Republican to Democratic strongholds. Ruffini points out that Winnetka, one of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs, gave Mitt Romney a twelve-point margin over Barack Obama in 2012 (leaving third-party votes aside, that works out to 56% to 44%) but eight years later gave Joe Biden a 36-point margin against Donald Trump in 2020 (68% to 32%). According to the 2020 census, Winnetka’s population of 12,700 was 89% white and less than 1% black. The median household income is over $250,000. Ninety percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree; 50% have a graduate or professional degree.

Clearly, if the next Republican majority is to emerge, the GOP must limit its losing margins with white college-educated voters. Too many Democrats, out of spite and arrogance, convinced themselves that they would pay no penalty for disregarding or even disparaging white voters without a college degree. The result, according to Judis and Teixeira, was that the Democratic Party has struggled to remain competitive over the past two decades, years when it should have been dominant. If a nationalist, populist GOP makes the same mistake with college-educated white voters, writing them off as country-club Republicans or Republicans in Name Only, then it risks squandering the opportunities that Ruffini sees ahead in the next two decades. I asked him about the 2036 numbers if Republicans equal but do not surpass their 2020 performance with every group except working-class whites, including college-educated whites. His estimate was that to prevail in that circumstance the GOP would need 75% or even 80% of the votes cast by whites without a college degree. Doing so is highly unlikely.

Perhaps the problem is as simple as moving on from Donald Trump, who is almost certain not to be the 2036 Republican presidential nominee. Suburban voters, writes Ruffini, are decidedly unreceptive to Trump’s “populist loudmouth” persona. As I observed in these pages after the 2020 election (“‘You’re Fired!,’” Winter 2020/21), this reaction is especially pronounced among suburban women otherwise amenable to the Republican message. Many of them voted for Joe Biden four years ago out of revulsion against what they described as Trump’s “bullying” and “insult comedy.” Party of the People says that Glenn Youngkin was elected Virginia’s governor in 2021 after running a campaign that should be emulated by other Republicans. With a persona closer to Mitt Romney than Donald Trump, Youngkin won back many of the suburban voters Trump had lost in 2020, but also sustained or even expanded the gains Trump had made among rural white voters without college degrees.

It may not be that simple, however. Electoral politics is all about effecting net additions to your coalition, while avoiding net reductions. There are no free lunches, in economics or politics. To be able to add from one group of voters without risking losses from other groups is a rare luxury. The usual situation is that making some people happier ends up making others angrier. Even being a populist loudmouth has an upside. Among the theories Ruffini discusses for Trump’s surprising success with Hispanic voters in 2020 is that his “blunt language” played especially well with white and Hispanic working-class voters, who place a premium on direct, forthright speech. The fact that Florida governor Ron DeSantis got so little traction in his campaign for the 2024 Republican nomination argues that there is, at least with Trump 1.0 still available, little appetite among Republican voters for a Trump 2.0 who is less provocative and entertaining but more conversant with the details of formulating and implementing public policies.

The challenge of making additions that are bigger than the subtractions is common to all democracies, but more pronounced in America. Our first-past-the-post electoral structure guarantees a two-party system, since third parties have no realistic hope of wielding power. But America’s size, diversity, and endless socioeconomic churn also guarantee that each of the two major parties will amount to an awkward assortment. “The whole secret of politics,” Kevin Phillips told an interviewer in 1968, is “knowing who hates who.” Such knowledge makes clear which groups are impossible coalition partners. The corollary, knowing which groups can at least abide one another, is the basis on which the work of assembling a majority coalition can begin.

All Politics Is National

That work, hard under all circumstances, is especially difficult in the 21st century. “All politics is local,” said Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Democratic Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987 and last of the great New Deal politicians. Keeping politics local was essential to the sustained success of the ungainly New Deal coalition, since it meant that Southern segregationists and Northern urban progressives could coexist within the Democratic Party by pursuing different, often contradictory agendas in their respective localities.

In our age of social media and the hollowing out of regional journalistic outlets, politics has become national. As the Columbia Journalism Review reported in 2020, “The New York Times has more digital subscribers in Dallas-Fort Worth than the Dallas Morning News, more digital subscribers in Seattle than the Seattle Times, more digital subscribers in California than the LA Times or the San Francisco Chronicle.” The result, David Shor told Politico, is that “when people are voting on their local House candidate, they’re increasingly doing that on the basis of the news they read about the national Democratic Party.” Democratic candidates in competitive districts and states across the country can expect to be put on the defensive about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just as their Republican counterparts can expect to be put on the defensive about Marjorie Taylor Greene. Very few Democrats ran in 2020 on a promise to defund the police, for example, but the fact that the few who did remained members in good standing within the party meant that calls to defund the police became every Democratic candidate’s problem.

However advisable it may be for each of our two major parties to revise its mission statement to better comport with its most promising electoral coalition, that change won’t be easy and may not be possible. Each party stands for what it stands for due to powerful internal forces exerted over decades. There’s no rebranding switch that will painlessly yield a new identity.

Teixeira, for example, pleads with his fellow Democrats to embrace “liberal nationalism” since the party is presently “on the wrong side of something that’s quite popular: patriotism and love of country.” (He writes for a Substack newsletter titled The Liberal Patriot.) In a recent essay Teixeira quotes others who share his alarm about the party’s increasingly explicit anti-Americanism. “The most flamboyantly anti-American rhetoric of 60s radicals is now more or less conventional wisdom among many progressives,” wrote Brink Lindsey of the Niskanen Center. “America, the land of white supremacy and structural racism and patriarchy, the perpetrator of indigenous displacement and genocide, the world’s biggest polluter, and so on.” Lindsey cites a 2022 Gallup poll, which found that a bare majority of Democrats were either “extremely” (26%) or “very” (26%) proud to be American. The corresponding figures for Republicans were 58% and 26%. Similarly, the “general conceit among today’s progressives is that America was founded on racism, that it has never faced up to this fact, and that the most important task for combatting American racism is to force the nation to face up to that ‘history,’” as the liberal economist and journalist Noah Smith has written. “Even if it loses them elections, progressives seem prepared to go down fighting for the idea that America needs to educate its young people about its fundamentally White supremacist character.”

The problem, according to Teixeira, is that there appears to be no basis other than patriotism whereby Democrats can “mobilize Americans behind big projects,” since there are not nearly enough people enthused about “equity,” reparations, or the Green New Deal to win elections, wield power, and govern audaciously. Even if we stipulate this contention, the idea that America is deplorable, not admirable, has become so widely accepted within the Democratic Party that it is doubtful Teixeira can persuade the shadow party to speak in a patriotic idiom, or that the shadow party could then persuade voters of its sincerity. The logic of progressivism, after all, is to create a better future but also, albeit more implicitly, to obliterate a worse past. The zealots Brink Lindsey and Noah Smith reproach may have gone off-script, but there’s a stronger argument that they, with bold though artless candor, are making public beliefs that their predecessors spent decades concealing. The logic of The New York Times’s 1619 Project, according to the editor who produced it, is that chattel slavery is not just America’s original sin, but “the country’s very origin. Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional,” including “its endemic racial fears and hatreds” and “its astonishing penchant for violence.” Since its appearance in August 2019, the 1619 Project has been debunked by historians but rarely denounced by Democrats.

It won’t be any easier for the GOP to synthesize its old identity as the party of limited, constitutional government, standing athwart the forces of limitless, plenary government, with a new identity as the party of the working class. The prospect is not hopeless. Ruy Teixeira complains that it’s not just cultural radicalism or lack of patriotism that is squandering the political gains Democrats should realize from their abundance agenda. It is also the case that even though “it’s just too damn hard to build stuff in this country,” Democrats remain “more interested in spending money than changing this situation.”

Examples proliferate. The infrastructure bill President Biden signed in November 2021 set aside $7.5 billion to build 5,000 charging stations nationwide, an imperative if electric automobiles are to win consumer acceptance. Yet in March 2024 The Washington Post reported that only seven new charging stations in four states were complete and operational. In four other states, stations are under construction but not yet open. Twelve states have awarded contracts for construction that has not yet begun, while 17 states have yet to issue proposals for bids. A feckless public sector thwarts any realistic hope that the Democrats have of regaining ground with working-class voters. If the tangible benefits of electing Democrats are so doubtful, the cultural issues that have been driving working-class voters away from the Democratic Party for the past 60 years become even more salient. By the same token, the fiascos spawned by activist government present a clear political opening for Republicans: a big reason why government does so many things badly is that government…does so many things. A commitment to fashioning a less ambitious but more competent public sector, with a clear rather than jumbled division of labor between the states and federal government, might well resonate with voters.

Furthermore, Ruffini argues that the working-class worldview rejects a strict distinction between material and moral considerations. Work—providing, contributing, being counted on, taking responsibility—is not just a means to an economic end, but a necessary way to build and reveal character, and to fortify communities. Welfare, getting something for nothing, is dishonorable and corrupting. Party of the People tells a story of “strivers rising through the ranks of American society through their own hard work—not looking for a government handout or voting for the party of economic redistribution.” Such voters “want a springboard more than a safety net.”

Perhaps, but not all redistributions are politically equal. Where Have All the Democrats Gone? points out that within the past decade the red states of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota approved voter referenda to raise the minimum wage. Four other states that Trump carried twice—Idaho, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah—joined Nebraska and South Dakota in voting to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. “Democrats would have an advantage,” Judis and Teixeira write, “if you were to hold an election that simply pitted Democratic against Republican economics.”

This is not a bold claim. One of the rare passages in Party of the People where Ruffini does not speak plainly comes when he tries to characterize the fiscal policy of a working-class Republican Party. The “decamping of affluent elites,” he says, should lead the GOP to “reevaluate some of its old policy commitments, particularly on tax cuts for the wealthiest.” Furthermore, “Social Security and Medicare should not be first on the list for spending cuts.” But it is hard to see how, as a matter of electoral strategy, a populist Republican Party can make Social Security and Medicare cuts the second, third, or 99th item on its list, either. In “The American Appetite for Government,” a 2024 report based on opinion surveys, the think tank American Compass reports that 81% of Republican voters call Social Security “one of our nation’s greatest achievements.” Only 7% say Social Security and Medicare should be scaled back, compared to 57% who say the programs should be expanded.

It is easy, then, to see why each party’s rebranding is imperative but hard to see how either effort succeeds. Both Democrats and Republicans can draw consolation from the knowledge that it will not be necessary to perform the work perfectly, or perhaps even competently. It should suffice to secure the inside track to electoral dominance by becoming the political party that does the second-worst job of revising its raison d’être in order to assemble the coalition that might most plausibly secure a durable majority. An old joke about two imperiled hunters ends with one telling the other, “But I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”