Friday, May 9, 2008

Democratic Convention Faces Historic Choice

As the results from North Carolina and Indiana began to come in on election night, and before the final results were known, two accomplished Democratic campaign operatives and astute political observers, Paul Begala and Donna Brazile, got into a heated argument on CNN about just what the Democratic Party’s general election coalition should be if the party is to compete effectively against John McCain. Begala, who is both a strong supporter of Senator Clinton and a fair-minded media commentator, argued that the Democratic Party could not afford another Democratic nominee, like Michael Dukakis, whose constituency consisted of “eggheads and African Americans.” Using that phrase to contrast Hillary’s support from “Hispanics and working class whites” Begala argued that Obama’s lack of support among more traditional Democratic constituencies would cost the Democratic Party victory in November. With more passion than she has dared to display on other primary nights, Brazile argued that no Democratic presidential nominee could hope to win without the support of African Americans and any attempt to exclude them, and by extension, her, from the Party would be the end of the Democratic Party as we know it. Both Begala and Brazile were right, and, at the same time, both were incredibly myopic about the changes in American politics that are about to occur in this year of a Millennial makeover or realignment.

Clearly, demography continues to be destiny for the Democratic Party. What’s different now is an entirely new demographic development that these two otherwise perceptive observers seemed to have completely missed. Despite some gains in Indiana and North Carolina among working class voters by Obama, the split pitting Barack Obama's support from African-Americans, and upscale, highly educated city dwellers and suburbanites against Hillary Clinton's base of white Baby Boomer women, residents of small towns and rural areas, and working class voters remained as deep as ever on Tuesday.

However, "African-Americans and eggheads" are not the sum total of Barack Obama’s coalition. Much of his electoral strength throughout the 2008 campaign has come from his more than two-to-one advantage among Millennial voters, those 26 and under. In Indiana, his margin in college towns—even in very Catholic South Bend, home of Notre Dame—helped offset some of his losses in the more rural areas of the state. Overall, in Indiana Obama carried young voters by a 62%-38% margin, while in North Carolina his edge among Millennials was an even more convincing 74% to 25%. Obama's strength within this generation extended across racial lines and included white Millennials, from whom he received solid majorities in both states. It is Obama’s ability to add this important, new, large portion of the electorate to the “eggheads and African Americans,” of which Begala was so dismissive, that has made Obama the presumptive Democratic nominee.

While it is not critical that Begala and Brazile acknowledge this new element of the Democratic Party’s coalition in the heat of a primary night debate, it is essential that the superdelegates who, at some point between June 4 and the August Democratic National Convention in August, will determine the party's 2008 presidential nominee understand the importance of this emerging new generation. The decision made by the superdelegates, only three of whom are Millennials, must embrace this new generation, recognize its enthusiastic support for the Democratic party, and acknowledge its importance to the party's future. The superdelegates must realize that the decision they are about to make will determine the fate of the Democratic Party, not just in 2008, but for decades to come.

America is on the verge of another of the electoral makeovers, or realignments, which have reshaped U.S. politics about every forty years throughout history, and the divisions within the Democratic party must be healed if it is to take advantage of this critical opportunity. All realignments are produced by the political coming-of-age of a new, large dynamic generation of voters and the communication technology it uses so well. The last realignment came from the rise of the ideological and sharply divided, television obsessed Baby Boomer generation in 1968. The result was an era of partisan gridlock, a constant debate about divisive social issues, and electoral domination by the Republican Party. The realignment before that, in 1932, resulted from the emergence of the cohesive, radio addicted, G.I. Generation and produced nearly four decades of governmental activism and Democratic election victories.

The realignment that's just ahead will stem from the rise of the Millennial Generation, Americans born 1982-2003, more than a third of whom will be eligible to vote in 2008. Millennials are the largest, most ethnically diverse, and least gender bound generation in U.S. history. Millennials currently identify as Democrats by a margin of nearly 2:1 and are the first generation in many decades to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives. Their opinions, on issues ranging from health care and the environment to economic inequality and the Iraq war, are compatible with positions normally associated with the Democratic Party.

But, even with all of these advantages, the Democrats could still lose both this year's election and the long-term loyalty of this new generation. Transitions between one political era and another, such as the one the country is now experiencing, are usually characterized by intergenerational conflict. In some previous transitions those conflicts have had dire consequences for the political parties and American society. The inability of the Democratic Party to accommodate sharp generational and sectional differences in the mid-19th century ultimately led to civil war. Less violently, the cultural wars of the Boomer generation, which dramatically spilled into the streets of Chicago in 1968, led to the political gridlock the country has experienced during the four decades that followed. At other times, however, the parties and society have been able to successfully integrate a new generation's perspective, leading to periods of growth and civic renewal. Halting the ravages of the Depression and victories in World War II and the Cold War are examples of such successful transitions.

This year it will be the task of the superdelegates to find an acceptable solution to the generational conflict embroiling the Democrats. That won't be easy, especially since many of those in that position of power are members of the older, “idealist” Baby Boom generation. Historically, the members of idealist generations have been unable and unwilling to compromise their strongly held beliefs. They will have to do so this year if the Democratic Party is to avoid disaster. At the same time, members of the rising Millennial Generation, like “civic” generations before them, will have to open up their "group” to those who disagree with them and find the kind of “win-win” solutions that they were taught to value. If both sides can find a way to reach across this generational divide and nominate a ticket that unites the party by focusing on the goals and welfare of the larger group, the Democratic Party will be able to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the arrival of the new generation. Failure to find that unifying presidential ticket will almost certainly result in the loss of the emerging generation, leaving the Democrats to wander in the political wilderness for at least another forty years.