Early last summer, as the economy slowed and the winds of scandal swept through Washington and Wall Street, it looked like the Democrats might win big in November, despite the post-9/11 boost in the GOP's fortunes. But the two-month long debate over war with Iraq, initiated and orchestrated by the Bush administration, capped by Bush's barnstorming tour of key states right before the election, prevented this outcome.
The Democrats did well in some important gubernatorial contests -- Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona -- where talk of war had relatively little effect, but they did not claim the majority toward which they have been moving, by fits and starts, since 1996.
It won't be long, however. Before the decade is over, the Democrats are likely to complete this journey, and the country will move from a conservative Republican majority to a progressive Democratic one.
Particular elections depend on a host of contingencies -- from the quality of candidates to the money at their disposal to outside events that help one party much more than the other, as in the 2002 election -- but political trends are the product of deeper shifts within society and the economy. The old New Deal Democratic majority, which reigned from 1932 to 1968, was based in the industrial North and the segregated South.
The conservative Republican majority of the 1980s exploited the dissatisfaction with the civil rights movement and the 1960s counter-culture to win the white South and parts of the ethnic North. Those areas, combined with the Republicans' traditional base in the farms of the prairies and the boardrooms of the North, gave the party a majority that lasted until the early 1990s. Since then, however, a new Democratic majority -- different from either its New Deal ancestors or its conservative Republican rivals -- has been emerging.
This new Democratic majority is rooted in the growth of a post-industrial economy. The old industrial economy was based in cities and organized around assembly-line manufacturing, farming, and mining; the new post-industrial economy is based in large metropolitan areas -- or "ideopolises" -- that include cities and suburbs and are organized around the production of ideas and services. Many of these ideopolises are found in the North and far West -- like metropolitan Boston, Silicon Valley or the Seattle area -- but they can also be found in the North Carolina Research Triangle, the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of D.C., and the Tuscon and Phoenix areas in Arizona.
During the 1980s, many of the people in these areas voted for Republicans; but in the 1990s, they began to elect Democrats, and the Democratic party itself began to change to reflect the priorities of the people who live there. They include a growing number of professionals and technicians -- from computer programmers and financial analysts to teachers and nurses.
A quarter or so of the jobs in Austin, Raleigh-Durham, Boston or San Francisco are held by these kind of workers, many of whom are women who joined the workforce since the 1960s. Plentiful, too, are low-level service and information workers, including waiters, hospital orderlies, sales clerks, janitors and teachers' aides. Many of these jobs have been filled by Hispanics and African-Americans. Together, professionals, women, and minorities -- bolstered by blue-collar workers attracted to the Democrats' stands on economic issues -- have formed powerful coalitions that now dominate the politics of many of these ideopolises.
In 1984, for example, counties in ideopolis areas went by 55 to 44 percent for Reagan. But in 2000, Gore garnered 55 percent of the vote in these areas compared to 41 percent for Bush. And if left-wing candidate Ralph Nader's 3 percent is included, the total Democratic-leaning vote in America's ideopolises can be reckoned at close to 58 percent. Republicans' strength is now in the smaller low-tech and rural counties. Gore lost to George W. Bush in these counties by 53 to 44 percent. Indeed, if you compare 1980, the beginning of the Reagan era, to today, almost all of the pro-Democratic change in the country since then has been concentrated in America's ideopolis counties. The Democrats have become the party of the post-industrial future; the Republicans the party of the industrial and agricultural past.
Despite these trends, the 2002 election was a poor one for Democrats across the nation. The primary cause was national security, sparked by the Iraq debate, which mobilized Republicans, especially conservative whites in rural and exurban areas, and moved a number of close elections into the Republican column (though Democratic demobilization due to an anemic Democratic campaign and program was also clearly a factor).
Can the Republicans continue a politics that successfully mobilizes their constituencies and demobilizes the Democrats'? There are certainly scenarios under which national security could continue to crowd out other issues and perform this function for the Republicans, as it did in 2002.
But the more likely scenario is that the importance of national security will ebb and flow and that it will become more, not less, contested between the parties. In this case, the underlying trends described here are likely to come to the fore and continue to move the country toward a new Democratic majority. But -- and perhaps this is the chief lesson of the 2002 elections for the Democrats -- that majority will not happen automatically; imaginative political leadership, such as that displayed by Democrats in the 1990s, will still be necessary.
One leadership challenge is to develop a national security policy that is a plausible alternative to the Republicans. Another is to develop a domestic policy agenda that goes beyond prescription drugs and defending Social Security -- good, but tired, issues that did not capture voters' imaginations. There is no dearth of good ideas on the Democratic side in either of these areas, but they must be articulated if they are to reach voters -- both the swing voters they lost in this election and the base voters who found the Democratic program in 2002 uninspiring and stayed home.
But, if they can mobilize their base and compete vigorously for swing voters, the gathering impact of postindustrial change is clear. As it creates ideopolises and spreads them over ever-wider sections of the country, it should continue to weaken Republicans, even in formerly "safe" states, and strengthen Democrats. That's why conservative Republican dominance is coming to an end, and, indeed, why a new Democratic majority is at hand.
Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation and co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority.