Fantasy Demographics

The Populist Explosion BY John B. Judis. Columbia Global Reports. . $13.

The cover of The Populist Explosion

Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense—a bomb under a table that the audience can see but the people sitting there cannot—more or less describes the feeling of reading Democratic political theory from the middle of 2015 until approximately 8 p.m. on the evening of last November 8. It’s not only that Democrats were hoping for a Clinton presidency; it was Delphic. A result came preordained. This certainty now constitutes one of the mysteries of the election: How, running such a compromised candidate, did the losers know they’d win?

There’s a hint in John B. Judis’s The Emerging Democratic Majority, a 2002 best seller that, in its insistence on the importance of demography over policy and the personality of an individual candidate, typifies a strain of mainline centrist strategy that ran from Bill Clinton’s candidacy through Al Gore’s campaign and into Hillary Clinton’s. From our present vantage, of course, the book appears to have taken its name from a creature every bit as mythical as the Jabberwock, and indeed Emerging‘s very existence is totally unacknowledged on the jacket of its author’s new book, The Populist Explosion. It’s as though it never happened.

Written while Judis was an editor at the New Republic, Emerging presents a vision of a country rearranging itself beneath the Democratic Party like a memory-foam
mattress. Within the decade, Judis and his coauthor Ray Texeira predicted, we’d see the flowering of years of demographic shifts toward cities, diversity, and the “idea” economy, all of which would privilege their party over its hidebound, landlocked rival. Individual candidates could scarcely screw it up, because the numbers were ticking into place.

“In the 2000 election,” Judis notes in a typical passage, “working-class Hispanics who belonged to unions supported Gore by 37 percent . . . those who did not supported Gore by just 17 percent.” A chart on page 109 presents “Democratic Margins in Five Largest-Growth Florida Counties, 1988–2000.” And though the decline of American industry might seem to threaten the party’s base in labor, Democrats can afford a few defections, because the emergence of “Ideopolises”—modern cities with “computer learning centers, ethnic and vegetarian restaurants, multimedia shopping malls, children’s museums, bookstore-coffee shops, and health clubs”—will give them enough progressive votes to make up the difference. The most intriguing question in the book remains tantalizingly unanswered: What the fuck is a multimedia shopping mall?

Listen to Judis describe “today’s Americans.” They want, he wrote, for “government to play an active and responsible role in American life. . . . They want to modernize and upgrade public education. . . . They do not want science held hostage to a religious or ideological agenda.” Sounds like a great country! Perhaps most encouragingly for the party, the diminution of the white majority will swell the rolls of Democratic voters. That’s an inviolable part of this argument. Black and brown voters will show the party their allegiance. And so will women.

Donna Brazile employed a version of the Judis thesis when she ran Al Gore’s campaign on the so-called four pillars strategy: “African Americans, labor, women and what I call other ethnic minorities.” Gore arranged his primary campaign in near-parodic pursuit of the pillars and the coastal cities. Here is the Washington Post on November 18, 1999:

In the 30 hours Vice President Gore spent in California last weekend, he high-fived with African American youngsters, bantered in Spanish with a Hispanic reporter, banged the ceremonial drum of Asian Pacific Islanders and ate quiche (broccoli and potato) with environmentalists.

It’s a wonder the quiche didn’t cinch it for him.

Of course Brazile was right to see the pillars as a winning tactic. A majority of women, people of color, and labor would stop being a coalition and would just be . . . the country. Only the male managerial class and wealthy whites would remain to vote Republican. But in fact, while Gore won people of color, he saw no net advantage among white women, who split their votes fifty-fifty, and he lost the white-male vote to Bush by a margin of five to three, which contributed to Bush’s electoral-college victory despite Gore’s winning the popular vote by five hundred thousand.

Ali Zifan/Wikicommons
Ali Zifan/Wikicommons

Slightly more than fifty million Americans voted for Bush in 2000. Eight years later, nearly seventy million voted for Obama. He won women, men, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, the young, the middle-aged, and (mostly) the working class. It was more or less what Judis had foreseen. But then something went wrong. While a Democrat held the White House, the party lost seats virtually everywhere else: the statehouses, the governors’ mansions, Congress (gerrymandering played its part here, and may do so more prominently after the 2020 census). In January of 2015, Judis published an article in the National Journal repudiating Emerging, but still clung to the notion that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. “None of this is to suggest that America is headed toward an era of Republican domination,” he wrote.

Then Donald Trump won the White House, and Judis went into hiding to protect his honor.

Sorry—what I meant was, he’s just published a book explaining the current global political climate in its entirety. The Populist Explosion, released a month before the election, attempts to unify into a single narrative the rise of hard-right and -left movements in the US and Europe during the years since the 2008 crisis. Populism, Judis writes, is a “political logic” that, in America, emerged onto the scene in the 1890s and has tended to reassert itself in periods of economic instability, when strong messages about the “people” versus “elites” most resonate.

The broadness of this definition allows Bernie Sanders, who whatever his faults was no bigot, to occupy the same political lineage as George Wallace, who famously complained that a more racist rival had “out-niggered him” in his bid for the Alabama governor’s mansion. (Judis has a gotta-hear-both-sides attitude toward Wallace, writing that his “call for segregation forever was clearly racist, but he was right about the pitfalls of busing children of different races from one urban neighborhood to another.”) Can any meaningful political category contain these two men, along with Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan and a dozen others? In practice, the term designates ideas that fall outside a major-party platform: If you support the Affordable Care Act, you’re a Democrat. If you support single-payer, you’re a populist.

Unlike the coalition men who dominated the Clinton era, the “populists” here are strange, engaging characters. There’s People’s Party leader Ignatius Donnelly, who lamented that “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up the colossal fortunes of a few” and believed the Irish had come from Atlantis; Ross Perot, the billionaire son of a cotton broker, whose presidential bid went off the rails when he claimed, but couldn’t prove, that the Black Panthers had colluded with the Viet Cong to break into his house and assassinate him; Marine Le Pen, whose house was blown up when she was eight in a failed bid to kill her Nazi-sympathizing father but whose family then almost immediately inherited a fortune and a mansion from a stranger; and Mogens Glistrup, the tax lawyer who founded the Danish Progress Party on a platform of abolishing the income tax and went on to spend three years in prison for a tax-evasion scheme (after he got out, he won election back to parliament).

Trump will be the first American president who could belong on this list, and partly because he does belong on it, Judis fails to imagine him belonging to another list as well: that of the forty-four men who have served as president of the United States. “Trump’s longer-term influence,” Judis concludes, “may also be limited by his having been, like Long, Wallace, and Perot, the singularly charismatic messenger for his populism.” It “seems likely” that Trump will be “soundly defeated,” he informs us.

To write sentences like these, one needs to have a mental picture of the country based on the fantasy demographics of Emerging. In the days and months leading up to November 8, 2016, the media had just such a picture of the country in mind and printed the most stunningly naïve statements in tones of cool knowingness. The New Yorker on October 31 told its readers that “on November 8th, barring some astonishment, the people of the United States will, after two hundred and forty years, send a woman to the White House.” A few days later, in the New York Times, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, averred that the Clinton campaign’s mastery of demographic targeting all but assured her victory. Former Obama adviser David Plouffe told an interviewer that while he could imagine Trump getting within a few points in Pennsylvania, he could not see him taking it. “Trump has to pull off a miracle in the electoral college,” he said.

But the Obama era, which so many of these observers were right to consider remarkable, did not evidence quite what they hoped it did. It didn’t show us the US becoming a tolerant paradise of multimedia shopping malls. It showed us a politician of extraordinary, and extraordinarily personal, ability being recognized by his country and elevated. A once-in-a-generation phenomenon who was a living, breathing reminder that the personality of the individual, just as much as party and identity, if not more, drives all American politics—that’s who Obama was. He wasn’t what you get when a few more percentage points of unionized Florida whites tip Democrat.

After the election, many of the same outlets who failed to fathom Trump’s candidacy began predicting a sense of “betrayal” among his voters. Surely, once they realize they’ve been tricked, they’ll rise up and strip him of his office. But many of these voters already know the risk they’ve run: It is precisely to run that risk that they’ve installed an unpredictable man. In his obliteration of consensual constraints—his swearing, boasting, not releasing his tax returns—they see the possibility of others being lifted too. Things that were not possible before may become possible. That this may all end in farcical tragedy does not escape them, but only compounds the sense of excitement: Where there is great uncertainty perhaps there can be great change. And anyway Trump makes them laugh; he gets it. They like him, and they hated her.

Jesse Barron is a writer living in New York.