Edsall Responds to ‘E&P’ Editor’s Critique

By: E&P Staff

Thomas B. Edsall has responded to a critique of his Saturday op-ed in The New York Times — see E&P Editor Greg Mitchell’s “Pressing Issues” in the Columns section on this site. Edsall, the former Washington Post reporter, is writing guest columns for the Times this month and is the author of the current book, “Building Red America.”


I appreciate your interest in and commitment to understanding this year?s election — a commitment I share. All of us who write about politics are focused on the future of the two parties.

From my perspective, this election should be understood within the framework of the past 40 years of GOP hegemony and the dissolution of the New Deal coalition — a Democratic coalition which is remembered now as liberal, but which would not have existed without the large presence within it of Southern segregationists. That coalition fell apart in the mid-sixties, in response to northern Democratic support for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 — and many subsequent regulatory and administrative decisions putting the weight of the federal government behind equal rights for African Americans, ethnic minorities, women etc.

Republicans have been ascendant in American politics — the data there are clear — since the mid sixties, with the transformation of the South into a GOP stronghold. Things change. The reformulation of a center-left coalition which may be emerging this year has been four decades in the making — I don?t think it is irrational to see this new success as potentially fragile. The Democrats won the presidency in 1976, to see it slip away in 1980. They won the Senate in 1986 and lost it in 1990. Clinton won the White House in 1992 (with 42% of the vote in a 3-way race), only to see the House and Senate swing to the GOP in 1994, where they stayed for the next 12 years. In addition, the Republicans won the presidency in 2000 and 2004.

The win this November was a substantial gain for the Democrats, but not an iron-clad irreversible victory, if you look at the numbers.

My 1992 book, “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics” laid out a complex case and attempted to provide information for those interested in resurrecting a left or progressive politics. It may have also been useful to the right. Many people from the liberal side of the spectrum have credited that book with providing insights into the structural challenges of building a biracial, multiethnic center-left coalition, something Clinton cobbled together for a time — and something essential to long-term Democratic ambition.

“Building Red America” was written in good faith that a deeper understanding of GOP strategy and tactics, and of predictable Democratic vulnerabilities, would be intellectually and politically useful. We may not agree on how vulnerable the Democrats will be, over a long periods of time, what path the party and its supporters will have the most success in following, and how ?dominant? citizens scattered across the country can skew things to their own benefit — especially if no one is looking.

Tom Edsall


Related E&P column:

Despite Election Results, Edsall Still Sees ‘Red’

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