Is Joe Biden the Future or the End of the Democratic Party?
For reasons familiar to any economist, American politics is a permanent duopoly in which neither party can gain a sustainable long-term advantage over the other, but that does not suggest or imply that neither party can collapse; it only implies that any collapsing party will soon be replaced. As we know, American parties come and go – not often, but not never either. The Federalists gave us several presidents, but they vanished; the Whigs the same; are the Democrats next?
Let’s begin by dismissing the most obvious objection: The Democratic Party is too old to disappear. If I told you that my one-hundred-year-old grandma hadn’t died in a century, and, therefore, she won’t die this year, would you believe me or marvel at my stupidity? Let’s face it: the death of the Democratic Party is overdue, so its age, if anything, works against it.
Now, let’s talk about the warning signs. If you were dying, would your base be shrinking geographically or growing? Well, do the Democrats rule – to the extent they rule – by relying on a handful of cities or are they geographically diversified? Is that trend accelerating or slowing down? Is their strength amongst Latinos growing or shrinking? How about Asians? How about African-Americans? Trying to find a group – any group – in which the Democrats are growing is pretty difficult; they win – to the extent they win – by squeezing more and more out of their diminishing base. It’s not like they’re doing better amongst African-American voters; instead, they’ve got to turn out more African-Americans to offset their declining margins, and that’s not a sustainable strategy over the long-term. To put it another way, 2020 was likely the best their current coalition could ever manage, and they scarcely won – the decline and rot hidden by a moment of victory, but unmistakable nonetheless.
Of course, polls and outcomes vary all the time; consequently, such evidence can’t prove anything one way or another, so why do I think this time is different?
Think about what the Federalists were designed to do: they were designed to share power between New England and Virginia at a time that elections were not open to all white male voters; once elections were open to all male voters, Federalists couldn’t hope to win. Sure, they managed one last hurrah, with John Quincy Adams, but they were doomed by a larger change that shattered their coalition and eliminated their potential for victory.
Or think about what the Whigs were designed to do: they were intended to unite anti-Jacksonian voters in the North, many of whom despised slavery, with anti-Jacksonian voters in the South, who wanted to protect slavery. Once Polk’s annexation of Mexico’s territories put slavery expansion on the national agenda, there was no way for the Whigs to hold their coalition together.
Let’s turn, then, to the Democrats. They are designed to unite voters who want to spend government’s largesse on themselves and their pet causes to voters who want to profit from the government largesse via the implied put-on financial assets that the Fed is able to offer via its enormous balance sheet. The problem is that policy of unlimited federal spending coupled to unlimited federal debts is no longer tenable. One can debate how it will end or precisely when it will end, but everyone agrees it’s over. The only question now is how to reverse and decrease government spending, which means some members of the Democratic coalition will be pushed out.
You can raise taxes on the rich, chasing rich people out as they no longer benefit from the Fed’s support of financial assets. Or you can cut spending, chasing those beneficiaries out of the party, but there’s no way to put the coalition back together. For every Democrat who loved Build Back Better, there’s some Democrat somewhere who hated it, which is why Democrats like Manchin and Sinema ultimately defeated it. There’s literally no potential coalition that could elect the Democrats; from now on, it’s just about how many they’ll former Democrats they’ll lose because they used to be able to run against Trump on the promise of unlimited spending, but now they can’t promise unlimited spending, and they simply don’t have the margin to surrender.
Like the Federalists and the Whigs before them, they no longer have any reason to exist. Occasionally, a business finds new life after its reason to exist ceases, but, mostly, they just disappear in the process economists call “creative destruction.” I suspect that’s what we’re seeing now – the creative destruction of the Republican Party’s opposition.
In short, I struggle to believe that the Democrats can find a new reason to exist after spending decades running on how to spend the limitless sums of government money that they believed they could spend. Are they going to abandon Social Security? Medicare? Obamacare? If they don’t cut, they’ll lose their sacred cows and, thus, their voters; if they do, they’ll lose their voters. If they raise taxes, they’ll lose their donors (and voters). There are no good options; their current business model simply doesn’t work.
But the most damning proof of their impending demise is their own conduct: do you think they elected Biden because they wanted to hamstring themselves? Maybe you think their focus on pronouns and other divisive social issues is a sign of strength? They’re trying to squeeze the last vote out of their declining base precisely because they know there’s no way to grow their base; their current strategies are simply the best of their bad options. Like any declining business, they’re doubling down, rather than pivoting, because that’s what people typically do when their businesses are dying. In theory, word processing manufacturers like Wang can start making computers, but they don’t; instead, they tend to “improve” their product even as its market is vanishing. How many typewriting or word processing manufacturers made the leap to computers? That’s how many politicians will survive – the real winners will join whatever comes next first; they won’t try to save this version of the Democrats.
One suspects that the coming disaster of 2024 will be the moment the Democratic Party’s death becomes apparent, but I think we’re already hearing the proverbial aria that signals the end. It’s simple economics: a party built to spend America’s unlimited wealth cannot survive the end of that delusion.