Yglesias comes to the conclusion that American politics is trapped in a “demographically driven seesaw”:
The presidential and non-presidential electorates look too different for either political party to optimize for both of them. Democrats have built a coalition that’s optimized for presidential years, while the GOP has one that’s optimized for off-years. And so we’re set for a lot of big swings back and forth every two years.
Douthat reminds everyone that “all of this is, in part, a political choice on the part of the people responsible for shepherding our two political coalitions”:
Clintonism and Bushism were both attempts, even if not always successful, to build or maintain coalitions that weren’t locked into boom-bust cycles, and that included a kind of internal diversity that could be sustained across presidential and non-presidential elections. (As, on a more limited scale, was Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy in the non-seesaw year of 2006.) There are solid-enough structural reasons why that internal diversity has faded since — the aging-out of New Deal seniors has made older voters more reliably conservative, their Iraq-related disillusionment with Bush and their changing patterns of social life have made younger voters more reliably liberal, the growth of the Hispanic vote has changed incentives for both parties, the presidency of Barack Obama has furthered racial polarization in unfortunately-predictable ways.
But it’s also faded because elites in both parties have been happy to see it fade — because a lot of liberal elites don’t want to make the kind of compromises that would keep their party a little more viable in midterms with, say, some of the white Southerners or Midwesterners who voted for Bill Clinton, and because a lot of conservative elites would rather lose presidential elections while talking about the 47 percent and upper-bracket tax cuts than win them while making the kind of shifts on economic issues that might win more presidential-cycle votes from the downscale or disaffected. (And of course there are still other organizing options, libertarian and socialist and so on, that are even further afield from what party elites prefer.) And those choices, while understandable and in some sense structurally-driven themselves, are still choices, which other choices could alter or undo.