As we approach the change from a Republican to a Democratic administration, I have been thinking about the differences in the basic character of our two historic parties -- the oldest and third oldest free political parties in the world (number two, at least by my count, is the British Conservative Party).
Democrats are now hoping that their party can achieve something like permanent majority status. They can take heart that their presidential candidate won by a wider margin and their party has larger congressional majorities than the Republicans had when they entertained similar hopes four years ago. But there is reason for caution, and not just because the Republicans fell so far short. And the reason lies in the difference in the basic character of the parties.
The Republican Party throughout our history has been a party whose core constituency has been those who are considered, by themselves and by others, to be typical Americans. In the 19th century, that meant white Northern Protestants. Today, it means white married Christians. Yet such people, however typical, have never made up a majority in our culturally and regionally diverse nation.
The Republican core constituency tends to be cohesive and coherent (though sometimes, like now, quarrelsome). But it has almost never been by itself enough to win. As some Democrats like to remind you, Republicans have lost the popular vote for president in four of the last five elections.
The Democratic Party throughout our history has been the party whose core constituencies have been those who are considered, by themselves and by others, to be something other than typical Americans. In the 19th century, that meant white Southerners and big city Catholics. Today, it means blacks and singles and seculars and those with postgraduate degrees. Such people, while atypical, potentially make up a majority. But they often do not have a lot in common -- and when they have differences over highly visible political issues, they are hard to hold together.
As some Republicans like to remind you, Democrats have lost seven of the 11 presidential elections since their landslide victory in 1964.
Partisan enthusiasts look forward to their side achieving lasting majority status. Others might take counsel from the political scientist David Mayhew, who casts doubt on whether permanent or long-lasting majorities are possible. When you look closely at the supposedly permanent partisan majorities of the past, they fade from view.