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Can There Be An Enduring Systematic Advantage in American Politics?

    Continuing his series on American population and demographics, Ted Bromund blogs on the advantages that conservatives may have. 

    In my last blog, I noted that the Republicans will in the 2012 election build on a systemic advantage: states that lean Democratic are losing population, and states that lean Republican are gaining it. As a result, while Democrats running locally are often very secure, Democrats on the national level must win new states to make up for the electoral votes (tied by census to population, but not based directly on it) that their safe states have lost.

    President Obama’s election in 2008 is evidence that this is eminently achievable. In recent years, Colorado, New Mexico and New Hampshire have become increasingly winnable for Democratic candidates. But there are also states that have moved the other way – Texas, most importantly – and it is obviously not good, from the Democratic point of view, to start each election campaign a few electoral votes behind where they were last time.

    The shifts of population that cause states to gain and lose electoral votes raise a couple of underlying questions. First, can one side or the other in American politics benefit from an enduring systematic advantage that stems in some way from American demography? The Republicans, for example, benefit from an American geographic mobility that helps Republican states such as Texas and hurts Democratic states such as New York.

    The Democrats, for their part, hope that the increasing size of the non-white population of the U.S. will help them. This is plausible in the abstract, but complicated in reality, partly because increases in the Hispanic population don’t always translate into more Hispanic voters, partly because there are lots of minorities in the U.S. and not all of them are reliably Democratic today and forever, and partly because as the relative size of the African-American population shrinks, Democrats need to make gains elsewhere just to stay level.

    At the most basic level, conservatives – who are not necessarily Republicans – have another advantage: they have more kids. Demographer Phillip Longman noted in 2006 that in Europe as in the U.S., “the people least likely to have children are those most likely to hold progressive views of the world.” They are also less likely to attend church, and less likely to get married. The result is striking, but not surprising: states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004 had an average fertility rate 11 percent higher than the states that voted for John Kerry. Of course, parents are a tendency, not a destiny. But it seems apt that one of the leading candidates for the 2012 Republican nomination, former Massachusetts Governor. Mitt Romney, is a Mormon with five children.

    Yet the advantage that conservatives have on fertility may be balanced – or over-matched – by the fact that the childless members of the ‘Me’ generation (many of them white) love their government benefits. They can be expected to be breathlessly devoted to liberals who promise to defend and expand those benefits, which will be paid for by the kids they never had (almost half of whom will be minorities).

    Both financially and politically, that will in the end be a self-limiting strategy, partly because it is unaffordable, and partly because the debt-burdened kids – as they always do – will sooner or later form the voting majority, and may in any case not be enthusiastic about sending their money to well-off Anglo-Saxon retirees. But for a time, the Boomer dynamic gives a powerful edge to America’s progressives.

    The quest for an enduring systematic, demographic advantage in American politics is doomed to failure. The evidence of the past 200 years is that, while one party or another can enjoy a temporary advantage, the nation is too large, too diverse and too mobile for either side to win in an enduring way. In other words, in American politics, there are permanent battles, but no permanent victories through demography. If one side does have an enduring advantage, it lies not in demography, but in the steady expansion of the bureaucratic and administrative state, which inherently favors the left and which threatens to make the normal governing activity of Congress steadily more irrelevant.

    Still, Congress is in charge, if it wants to be, and elections – and temporary advantages – do matter. And the rise and fall of America’s states, like the problem of the unsustainability of a benefits system that transfers money from poor young people to rich old ones, raises the second underlying question. As America embarks on its first national election after the 2010 census, is the success of America’s redder, more conservative states a matter of luck, or does it have something to do with better policies?

      Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching center dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.

      Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching center dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.

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