The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It

The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It

by Sean Trende

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The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It by Sean Trende

In today's fraught political climate, one thing is indisputable: the dream of the emerging Democratic majority is dead. How did the Democrats, who seemed unstoppable only two short years ago, lose their momentum so quickly, and what does it mean for the future of our two-party system? Here, RealClearPolitics senior analyst Sean Trende explores the underlying weaknesses of the Democratic promise of recent years, and shows how unlikely a new era of liberal values always was as demonstrated by the current backlash against unions and other Democratic pillars. Persuasively arguing that both Republicans and Democrats are failing to connect with the real values of the American people - and that long-held theories of cyclical political "realignments" are baseless - Trende shows how elusive a true and lasting majority is in today's climate, how Democrats can make up for the ground they've lost, and how Republicans can regain power and credibility. Trende's surprising insights include:

The South didn't shift toward the Republicans because of racism, but because of economics.

Barack Obama's 2008 win wasn't grounded in a new, transformative coalition, but in a narrower version of Bill Clinton's coalition.

The Latino vote is not a given for the Democrats; as they move up the economic ladder, they will start voting Republican.

Even before the recent fights about the public sector, Democratic strongholds like unions were no longer relevant political entities.

With important critiques of the possible Republican presidential nominations in 2012, this is a timely, inspiring look at the next era of American politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137000118
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/03/2012
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sean Trende is the senior elections analyst for and has one of the top track records in the industry for correctly predicting the outcome of elections. His work is regularly cited by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum, including Rush Limbaugh, David Brooks, Michael Barone, and Nate Silver. He is a regular guest on Fox News and makes regular radio appearances on NPR's "All Things Considered," CNN Radio, and FoxNews Radio. He lives in Midlothian, Virginia.

Sean Trende is the senior elections analyst for and has one of the top track records in the industry for correctly predicting the outcome of elections. He is the author of The Lost Majority. His work is regularly cited by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum, including Rush Limbaugh, David Brooks, Michael Barone, and Nate Silver. He is a regular guest on Fox News and makes regular radio appearances on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” CNN Radio, and FoxNews Radio. He lives in Midlothian, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

The Lost Majority

Why the Future of Government is Up for Grabs â" and Who Will Take It

By Sean Trende

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Sean Trende
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-00011-8




The "solid south" — Long the fetich [sic] of one section of the country and the bugaboo of the other — has at last been shattered to such a degree that all the king's horses and men of the nursery rhyme could not put it together again, and with its destruction there vanishes from the field of American politics the long and bitter struggle over the slavery question.

Burr J. Ramage, 1896


As Franklin Delano Roosevelt prepared to deliver his Second Inaugural Address in January 1937, he was surely aware of the historic nature of the occasion. The Twentieth Amendment, ratified in 1933, had moved up the date of his inauguration by two months, so the mere fact that he was delivering the address in January was novel. But as he read the famous words off the rain-spattered pages — "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished" — the deeper significance of the event must have dawned on him. He was, after all, the first Democrat in over one hundred years to win back-to-back popular vote majorities. In fact, he had just received 60.8 percent of the popular vote, the largest total received by any president up to that point. His Electoral College win eclipsed even that of James Monroe in 1820, when the opposition had effectively conceded the election to the Democratic-Republicans.

Roosevelt had won an unprecedented victory with an unprecedented coalition. Yet this coalition — which would shatter in less than two years — was several decades in the making and came to be in the 1930s mainly as a result of choices made by the Republicans during the 1920s. As FDR was keenly aware, the Democratic Party had historically been little more than an awkward group of sectional interests. One prominent historian aptly describes the arrangement this way: "In the early nineteenth century, northern Democrats and southern Democrats had made a pragmatic deal, joining forces in a marriage of convenience and mutual empowerment, not a marriage of love." Northern Democrats received the party's nominations for the presidency, but they agreed not to interfere with Southern institutions, particularly slavery and, later, Jim Crow. Southern Democrats then provided the major electoral muscle for the Democrats. The big-city machines — increasingly dominated by Irish and other immigrant voters as the nineteenth century rolled on — provided just enough votes to keep a handful of Northern states competitive, receiving patronage in return when the Democrats controlled the presidency. H. L. Mencken aptly called the pre–New Deal Democrats "two gangs of natural enemies in a precarious state of symbiosis."

The Republican Party was different. Before 1860, strategists believed that a party needed both a vibrant Northern and Southern wing to win the presidency. But as slavery came to dominate the political debate in the 1850s, that was no longer possible. The Whig Party collapsed because its Northern and Southern constituencies could not agree on the issue, and the Republican Party arose in its place. It was the party of the North, founded on an audacious gamble that it was possible to win the presidency while writing off an entire section of the country. The Republicans were competitive in the South in the decades immediately following the Civil War, but the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and the final disenfranchisement of African Americans toward the end of the nineteenth century drove the Southern Republican to near extinction.

Republicans responded by reconsolidating their power in the North. In 1896, the Democrats nominated former Nebraska representative William Jennings Bryan, whose campaign terrified sometimes-Democratic Northern industrialists. When Bryan famously swore that he would not be crucified on a cross of gold, he was essentially insisting that the government create inflation by abandoning the gold standard, which would help farmers who had increasingly had difficulty paying their debts due to the gradual deflation of the 1880s and 1890s. Inflation makes debts worth less, which would certainly have helped farmers in the South and West. But it threatened to wipe out the Northeasterners who owned that debt. Industrialists promised their white working-class employees of layoffs should Bryan win and spent roughly the equivalent of $1 billion (in today's money) on William McKinley's campaign. All this, on top of Bryan's evangelistic rhetoric, turned white working-class Catholics from a 25 to 30 percent Republican group into a 40 to 45 percent Republican group, enabling McKinley to become the first Republican ever to carry Manhattan. Northern Democrats were still more commonplace than Southern Republicans, but they had definitely become the minority party. The Democratic congressional caucus became, in one historian's memorable words, a "hopelessly outnumbered confederate alumni society."

These developments brought about one very odd consequence: both parties maintained what would today be considered conservative and liberal wings. Conservative Republicans and Democrats alike promoted the interests of businesses in their states. The liberal wing of the Republican Party called themselves "Progressives." Progressives tended to oppose international alliances and foreign wars, supported regulation of businesses, and pushed to break the back of what they saw as control of government by corrupt big-city (usually Democratic) machines and moneyed interests.

Republican Progressivism came in several varieties. In eastern cities, it tended to be elitist and concerned with regulating industrial capitalism. In the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, it was sometimes nearly socialist; North Dakota's state-owned bank and grain silos were established under Progressive Republican governments. On the West Coast, Progressives were reformist, pushing through good-government measures like the initiative and referendum.

"Liberal" Democrats, on the other hand, tended to be populists. Populism grew out of the Greenbacker and Populist movements of the 1880s and 1890s. It was angry (its leaders had nicknames like James "Cyclone" Davis and Davis "Bloody Bridles" Waite), anti-industrial, and agrarian. It concentrated its fire on railroads, corporations, and, above all else, Wall Street. Populists toyed with backing both parties before finally becoming subsumed within the Democratic Party in 1896. Obviously, the philosophy expounded by Southern Populist tenant farmers and that of New England patrician Progressives had important differences in tone, reasoning, and motive, but they nevertheless espoused programs that were similar, although not identical. This bipartisan center-left vote became the swing vote in the country, moving between two parties that would both be considered center-right today.

Things had gotten bad for the Democrats in 1896, but the darkest days for the party came after Woodrow Wilson's disastrous second term. Progressive Republicans, especially those in the Mountain West, had generally supported Wilson in 1916 over the relatively pro-business Charles Evans Hughes, but the United States' entry into World War I in early 1917 severed that support. The war also enraged the major Northern ethnic groups, who had swung back toward the Democrats in the 1910s: the Germans loathed the decision to go to war with Germany, while the Irish balked at fighting alongside Great Britain. The peace was no less damaging than the war. The League of Nations was perhaps even more anathema to Progressives than the entry into World War I. German Americans were angered further by the punitive measures taken against Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, while the Irish were outraged by the treaty's failure to address the question of Irish independence. Italian Americans, Polish Americans, Czech Americans, and just about every other ethnic group bore some grievance against the state boundaries set by the treaty.

As November 1920 approached, things only seemed to get worse. Postwar inflation reached almost 15 percent in 1919, and unemployment hit double digits. An influenza outbreak claimed the lives of over a half-million Americans. Labor unrest and strikes swept the country. Radicals began a string of terrorist bomb attacks; Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer barely escaped death when his brownstone in Washington, DC, was destroyed by a bomb. Numerous other officials were wounded or killed, and over 30 bombs were intercepted en route to various destinations. In perhaps the most dramatic attack, anarchists sent a horse-drawn wagon loaded with sash weights and dynamite into Wall Street at lunchtime. The ensuing explosion killed 38 people, seriously wounded 143, and vaporized the horse.

The Democrats had sailed into a perfect storm. The result was a disaster that makes the recent elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010 look like modest affairs. The Republican ticket of Ohio senator Warren G. Harding and Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge swamped the Democrats, who were led by Ohio governor James Cox and 38-year-old Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Harding won by what is still the largest popular vote margin in American history — 26.2 points. He carried Michigan by 50 points, Illinois by 42 points, Massachusetts by 41 points, and both New York and Pennsylvania by 38 points.

If 1896 had weakened the Democrats' coalition, 1920 sliced it open from stem to stern. Outside the South, Democrats won only 35 of 330 House seats and lost every non-Southern Senate seat up for election that year. In the state legislatures, Democrats won only 911 of 6,262 seats nationwide. They were shut out of the Maine and Nebraska state senates and sent nary a soul to the entire Michigan legislature. White ethnics swung hard against the Democrats. Harding carried all but one district in Irish Boston and became only the second Republican to carry Manhattan. He did so by a spectacular 59 percent to 29 percent margin, carrying heavily German, Italian, and, amazingly, Irish precincts.

Even the South looked a touch shaky for the Democrats. Harding carried Tennessee, the first Southern state to vote Republican since the end of Reconstruction. The Democrats lost three House seats in Tennessee, while the German-Catholic hill country of central Texas sent Republican Harry Wurzbach to the House. House Democrats had close calls across the South, and had Republicans not left one-third of the Southern House seats uncontested, they might have fared even better.

Harding went to bed on election night with his mistress, Nan Britton. Democrats went to bed wondering whether their party was still viable. But even in these extreme circumstances, no Whig-like extinction occurred. By tearing up the electoral map and weakening the sectional divisions between the parties, the election of 1920 actually made the New Deal possible. The breadth of the Republican coalition made it unwieldy; the Republican pursuit of a "coalition of everyone" ended up alienating key Republican constituencies throughout the 1920s. The next time Franklin Roosevelt strode across the national stage, he would lead a Democratic coalition that was broader, deeper, and stronger than any other the country had seen.


The Democrats didn't just lose the next two presidential elections — they lost them by landslides. Political scientists tend to lump the Republican wins from 1896 to 1908 together with the elections from 1920 through 1928. But the wins could not be more different. The most obvious difference is size: only Teddy Roosevelt's 19-point drubbing of the hapless Alton Parker in 1904 approached the margins from 1920 to 1928. More important, the Republican presidents in the 1920s were mildly to staunchly conservative, a sharp contrast from the more progressive candidates who generally stood in the early part of the twentieth century.

Even lumping together the three elections from 1920 to 1928 is difficult to justify. The 1924 and 1928 Republicans actually relied upon substantially different coalitions. These differences were critical and (at least in retrospect) provided glimmers of hope for the Democrats. Progressive Republicans, so crucial to Democratic wins in 1912 and 1916, had swallowed the Harding nomination in 1920 because he was considered mildly progressive. But in 1924, they could not swallow Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was as stingy with the public fisc as he was with his verbiage — a woman once told him that she had bet her husband that she could get Coolidge to say more than three words; Coolidge quipped, "You lose." He slashed income taxes, refused to increase spending, and famously declared that "[t]he business of America is business." Horrified Progressive Republicans bolted and formed their own party, just as they had in 1912. Their nominee, Wisconsin senator Robert LaFollette, Sr., won only 17 percent of the vote. But his run highlighted the tenuous relationship between the Progressives and the increasingly conservative Republican Party.

The breakdown in the relationship between conservatives and Progressives was especially pronounced in the Mountain West. Progressives in the Northeast and on the West Coast had tentatively rejoined the Republican Party after Teddy Roosevelt's failed run as a Progressive candidate in 1912 mainly because their only alternative was to find common cause with the reactionary urban machines that dominated the Northern wing of the Democratic Party. But there were few cities, let alone machines, in the Mountain West and on the Great Plains. Progressives there actually found that they frequently had more in common with their Populist counterparts in the Democratic Party than with the mine owners and businessmen who commanded the local Republican parties. Progressive Republicans in the Mountain West backed Wilson in 1916. Even after they turned on Wilson during World War I, they kept pulling the lever for Democrats for Congress, Senate, and governorships.

Democratic nominee John W. Davis ran behind Democratic congressional candidates in every region of the country in 1924, suggesting that most of the LaFollette voters were voting for Democrats in the congressional elections. After the 1924 elections, Coolidge did little to mollify the Progressives. He signed the Revenue Act of 1926, which Progressives castigated as a sop to the rich. He vetoed the McNary-Haugen farm bill, intended to assist farmers on the Great Plains, who were suffering the earliest symptoms of what was to become the Great Depression. From 1924 through 1928, Democrats saw a spike in their performance in the Mountain West in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races, while third-party movements gained strength on the Great Plains. With the right candidate and the right platform, the Democrats might have been able to nudge these voters into their fold at the presidential level as well, just as Wilson had in 1916. Given that Progressives had mounted third- party runs in two of the four elections from 1912 to 1924, there was even a chance that they could be brought permanently into the Democratic coalition. This possibility was fraught with significance, as Davis and LaFollette had combined for a majority of the vote in 26 states worth 235 electoral votes — almost enough votes to win.


The Republicans' nomination of Herbert Hoover in 1928 temporarily mollified the Progressives. At the time, Hoover was considered a Progressive; he had supported Teddy Roosevelt's bolt from the Republican fold in 1912 and had even been encouraged to run with Roosevelt as the Democrats' nominee in 1920. But if 1928 brought the Progressives back into the Republican fold, it revealed a much greater problem for the GOP.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, America received a massive influx of immigrants from around the world. From 1900 to 1925, a stunning 17.3 million immigrants arrived, almost as many as had come from 1840 to 1900 combined. By 1910, a majority of children in the nation's 37 largest cities had foreign-born fathers. These immigrants clustered in the nation's cities, remaking the demography of much of New England and the Midwest. Seventy-nine percent of Milwaukee was foreign born by 1910, as was 76 percent of Cleveland and 75 percent of Detroit. There were religious implications to this immigration as well: by the 1930s, Rhode Island was 60 percent Catholic, Massachusetts was 50 percent Catholic, and Connecticut was 49 percent Catholic.


Excerpted from The Lost Majority by Sean Trende. Copyright © 2012 Sean Trende. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 The Emerging Democratic Majority: 1920–1936,
2 Three Weddings and a Wake: Building the Eisenhower Coalition: 1938–1988,
3 The Rise of the Clinton Coalition: 1992–2006,
4 The Left Strikes Back! Democratic Presidential Politics in the 2000s,
5 Mr. Jackson Votes for Mr. Clay: The Election of 2008,
6 Storm Clouds: Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts,
7 Hurricane: The 2010 Midterms,
8 The GOP and the Latino Vote,
9 Suburbia vs. the White Working Class, and the Youth Vote,
10 It Wasn't Just the Economy, Stupid,
11 Beyond Realignment,
Conclusion 2012 and Beyond,

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The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs - and Who Will Take It 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There's an idea about the general state of the political parties in America that correlates with this book. Republicans see democrats and everyone else as liberal. Democrats see republicans and everyone else conservative. Everyone else sees both parties liken to children bickering over who gets to play with the toy next. (That last part is mine) Undoubtably, this book will be seen as taking a subjective stance by those who are subjective by nature. The reality of this book is the opposite. The author truly takes an objective stance; analyzing from the angles he perceives as relevant to politics moving forward. He leaves himself room for error and dismisses the notion that he must make predictions to properly analyze the history of politics in this country. The reader would do well to remember that only so much can be covered in such a short piece and should not expect every fact or theory to be presented in detail to his or her liking; be realistic. Be objective.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Looks like Sean needs to go back to the drawing board as November 7th 2012 affirmed the formidability of the ever-EXPANDING Democratic coalition. It seems a book full of wishful thinking and cherry-picked statistics simply wasn't enough to convince the American electorate that Sean's increasingly marginalized Grand Old Party had anything to offer the middle-class. I'm looking forward very eagerly to this prescient author's next book detailing President Mitt Romney's first term in office.