In 1896, the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan looked back to an agrarian America and to Jefferson's and Jackson's "yeoman farmer", leaving it to Republicans William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the Carl Rove of his era, to appeal to an emerging urban America. The result was GOP dominance of U.S. politics for the next forty years.
The Democrats got it right in 1932. That year, spurred by the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt built a coalition based on the economic egalitarianism of the GI Generation, many of whom were blue-collar workers and the children and grandchildren of the last great wave of European immigrants to the United States.
But as late as 1968, many Democrats still wanted to rely on the New Deal coalition even as a young idealist generation, Baby Boomers, attempted to get the party to focus on a different set of concerns including civil rights, women's rights, and opposition to the Vietnam war. The resulting divisions presented an opportunity that the Republicans have exploited ever since.
Now, forty years later, American politics is undergoing another period of political and generational change just as it did in 1896, 1932, and 1968. If the Democratic Party has the courage to embrace a new generation of young voters and the group-oriented values it favors, it can once again recapture the political advantage for the next four decades.
Unfortunately, most of the advice the party is getting on what constitutes a winning coalition in 2008, is being provided by pundits and candidates who seem locked in the politics and divisions of the past. Some tell the party to focus on the "white working class," or "hardworking white people." On the other hand, a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that the focus should be on "senior citizens," virtually all of whom vote and who, together, comprise about 20-percent of the electorate. But these approaches to coalition building neither recognize the major demographic changes continuing to take place in America nor the factors that lead to political makeovers or realignments.
Throughout history, realignments have been produced by the political coming-of-age of a large, dynamic generation and its use of a new communication technology that mobilizes the opinions and votes of that generation. Today's realignment stems from the emergence of the Millennial Generation (Americans born 1982-2003) and its use of Internet based social networking technologies.
The Millennial Generation is the largest in American history. There are over 90 million Millennials, about four in ten of whom are of voting age, making them just as powerful a force in the 2008 election as the much more frequently touted senior citizen cohort.
The Millennial Generation is also the most diverse in our history. Four in ten are non-white and about 20-percent are the children of at least one immigrant parent. Reflecting their gender-neutral behavior, a majority of college undergraduates are women, for the first time in U.S. history. Solid majorities of Millennials are tolerant on social and racial issues, favorable to governmental intervention and egalitarian policies in the economy, and an activist, but multilateral, approach in foreign affairs. With few exceptions, Millennials have overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in this year's presidential primaries and caucuses.
At the same time, changes in America's economy and the composition of its population serve to continue the half-century long trend, noted recently by Alan Abramowitz in the Rasmussen Report, of the diminishing contribution of "white working class voters" to the American workforce overall and to the Democratic electorate specifically:
"In the 1950s, manual workers made up 47 percent of the white electorate in the United States while sales and clerical workers made up 21 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 32 percent. By the first decade of the 21st century, however, manual workers made up only 24 percent of the white electorate, while sales and clerical workers made up 33 percent and professional and managerial workers made up 43 percent. Since the 1960s, however, Democratic identification among both white manual workers and white sales and clerical workers has declined sharply while Democratic identification among white professional and managerial workers has risen. Today, white professional and managerial workers are actually more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than either white manual workers or white clerical and sales workers."
As Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel wrote recently, the Democratic Party is rapidly becoming a party of "gentry liberals", minorities and youth with little resemblance to the working class-based party coalition assembled by FDR almost eighty years ago.
This shift in America's economic dynamics and demographics, coupled with the generational and technological changes the country is experiencing, produces an historic opportunity for the Democratic Party in 2008. In a March 2008 Pew Survey, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a greater than 2:1 margin. Millennials are the first generation in more than forty years in which a larger number say they are liberal rather than conservative. In contrast to older generations that are sharply divided by sex and race in their ideology and party identification Millennials are united in their political leanings, a fact that serves to enhance the potential decisiveness of this powerful new generation.
All of this gives the Democrats a clear leg-up in the Millennial makeover that's under way. Whether the Democratic Party takes advantage of this historical opportunity largely depends on the choices it makes in building its electoral coalition. Will it look backward, as it did to its detriment in 1896, or forward, as it did in 1932, to its benefit? The consequences of that choice will shape the fate of the party and the nation, not just in 2008, but also for the coming four decades.