Voters in Houston yesterday rejected a city ordinance that would have allowed perverts to molest little girls in public bathrooms with impunity. At least that’s what your grandmother’s Facebook post said. You are skeptical of Nana’s consistently batty claims, but you didn’t even know there was an election happening and you didn’t vote.
Yesterday’s results all over the country demonstrated the strange demographic trap tightening around the Republican Party. We are growing ever more dependent on aging white voters motivated primarily by fear of white cultural decline. Their uniquely paranoid interests and committed voting habits have temporarily boosted Republican power in many low-turnout state and local races while simultaneously locking the party out of the White House for the foreseeable future.
One statistic defines better than any other the shape of Republicans’ demographic trap. Voters over 65 are almost 20 times more likely to vote in local elections than younger voters. This creates a strange oscillation in election results. Turnout across ages and demographics converges in Presidential Election years as publicity and interest drive engagement. Meanwhile your grandmother, with her terror of that Muslim Fascist Communist Obama, is waiting at the polls when the doors open the following February and June and September and so on.
This has created a strange and unusually dangerous dynamic, best seen in the radically different results in and out of Presidential election years. We are settling into a pattern, likely to continue for a few more cycles, in which Democrats win crushing victories every four years while Republicans celebrate a faux “resurgence” in the meantime. With each passing year, the Democratic Presidential advantage grows wider while the Republicans’ off-year bump weakens.
Political parties go where their supporters take them. A massive influx of Southern conservatives worried about the end of segregation fled the Democratic Party in the last quarter of the 20th century, filling up a previously empty Republican grassroots infrastructure there. Their influence has tipped the balance of power inside the party nationally, suffocating Northern and urban commercial interests that defined the organization from its origins. That electorate dominates Southern politics and their influence has shifted local power, for a while, in rural stretches of the North and West. And they are dying off.
This is not only true of the oldest cohort. The Southern Republican base in the next age cohort down is experiencing unusually high mortality rates. Younger voters are increasingly urban, ethnically diverse, socially liberal, and irreligious. They are growing more hostile to a GOP that fiercely rejects their voice and their values at every turn. Yet the impact of this trend is muffled for the time being by patterns of turnout in off-year elections like the ones held yesterday.
Declining impact of the off-year bump has probably already doomed the brief Republican resurgence in Pennsylvania and Maine. By 2018, demographics will probably cost the party control in Wisconsin, Virginia and North Carolina. If this dynamic continues without a major Republican change of direction, the critical 2020 elections, likely to determine Congressional maps for a decade, should finish off the party in Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.
As this demographic trend plays out we are approaching an inflection point beyond which the voting behavior of our oldest cohort is likely to shift. A large portion of today’s most active cohort was born before 1950, but they are dying off very quickly. As more and more of our oldest cohort consists of people who came of age after the end of Jim Crow and the rise of women’s’ rights, their attachment to the politics of bigotry is fading. Sometime over the next few elections we are likely to experience a sudden and otherwise unexplained failure of dogwhistle politics among our oldest voters.
Despite consistent warnings from analysts like Whit Ayres, Republicans are as blind to this trend as they are to climate change, evolution, or gun deaths. A thick blanket of ideology and a carefully constructed media bubble protects them from the mounting cognitive dissonance. Losses in high turnout years are explained by loony fantasies about election fraud or the 47%. Meanwhile, the placement of most state and local elections in off-years creates a comforting, if temporary narrative of success.
Needless to say, nothing is stopping Republicans from escaping from this trap. Nothing, that is, except for Republicans. One of the consequences of a strategy focused on demographic concentration is a critical absence of variety. Ask anyone who understands evolution and they will explain the impact of declining diversity on survival. With fewer and fewer dissenting voices available the party has little capacity to change course, regardless of outcomes.
By some means, the Republican Party must find a new pool of support. Ironically, the party’s own concentration on an aging, rural, white electorate has created a large number of alienated voters who often vote Democratic while holding their noses. Someone needs to reach them. For now, no one inside the party seems to know how.
In the meantime, the GOP is counting on your sweet Nana to turn out to vote and stop Communists from turning schoolchildren gay. Her delusional fears will block any reasonably sane efforts to adapt American politics and government to new demands. More importantly for Republicans, our comfortable dependence on her fear will stymie efforts to build an environment in which business and capitalism can continue to thrive in a new century, setting up the potential for decades of liberal dominance to come.