The paradoxes of demographic doom

We often hear that the Republicans are demographically doomed, and that seems to be true on its own level. Yet I think people draw the wrong conclusion from this fact, which is similar to an easy misinterpretation of Marx’s claim that the rate of profit tends to decline. As Zizek points out, this doesn’t mean that the rate of profit will automatically decline — instead, the need to constantly fight against this tendency is what produces the famous innovation and dynamism of capitalism. Similarly, the inevitable decline of the Republicans’ demographic base is what prompts them to make the super-aggressive power plays that we’ve seen (weaponization of the fillibuster, voter suppression laws — even the recent disturbing trend of callous remarks about rape could be viewed as a violent counterattack in the “culture wars”).

I have no doubt that if every election were clean and had high turnout, the Democrats would basically always hold power at the federal level — and moreso over time, given demographic shifts. Certainly it’s this dynamic that produces the Democrats’ principled advocation of a “level playing field.” Here’s the thing, though: in the last analysis, political parties exist solely and exclusively to seek political power. Given that this is the case, why would we expect the Republicans to quietly accept their inevitable eclipse? Why wouldn’t they try to rig the rules in their favor?

And of course the obverse is true in the case of the Democrats’ inevitable demographic victory: it is precisely what makes them so radically ineffective, so prone to compromise and give up. Just as the tendency toward defeat makes the Republicans more powerful and dangerous, so too does the tendency toward automatic victory in the long run lead to defeat or, at best, heartbreaking mediocrity in the short run. (Relying on the inevitable growth of the political power of minorities, for instance, leads to Republican attempts to suppress that power preemptively — and Democrats are partly hamstrung in their attempts to push back because advocating too one-sidedly for “their” voters doesn’t fit with the framework of pure procedural fairness that their long-term demographic advantage has led them to put forward.)

In short, it’s possible to imagine Republicans effectively holding the upper hand forever through desperate last-ditch gambits, while Democrats smugly wait for all eternity for them to overreach and discredit themselves.

3 thoughts on “The paradoxes of demographic doom

  1. I think that’s all really well said, and yet, like Zeno’s turtle, it seems to me like the lonely hour of the GOP’s last chance (see *may* finally upon us. If Obama is a middling Democrat for four years, he gets one or two Supreme Court justices, enough to potentially reset that institution for the long term; if a Democrat rides the “recovery” to victory in 2016 it starts to look like Scalia won’t be able to wait until another Republican, just from a purely actuarial perspective. And by 2020 or so,Texas should look like a swing state, and that dooms a white-male-majority rightist coalition forever on the presidential level.

    It’s the only reason I see to vote Obama, frankly. We all know that every election is the most important election of all time, but this one does have the potential to reset the center-point of American democracy (if Obama wins) or allow the current, panicked composition of the GOP to throw up so many “last-ditch gambits” that any sort of effective government action become impossible for decades. The last election had this potential, too, because of the crisis, but Obama blew it; but this inflection point will happen even if he remains as totally passive and ineffectual as he’s been, simply as a result of long-term trends.

    So we vote Democrat just this once more, basically. Stop me if you’ve heard it.

  2. Because Adam browbeat me into it on Twitter: this is a good insight, but. The parties are aware of the demographics, obviously, but I’m not sure it sinks in on the gut level it would have to in order for this thesis to be correct. The Republicans I’m familiar with are much more committed to ideological preservation of the tribe, somehow imagining that they can bring back the good old days. The Democrats seem to be going through some sort of generational change, with aging, cautious technocrats being replaced with more adventurous, more partisan, younger types. The greater danger than the standoff described above, it seems to me, is that we’ll wind up with a situation like California’s on the national scene, where conservatives are thoroughly outnumbered, but have just enough people clustered just tightly enough, to really foul things up for the majority.

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