Wednesday, July 22, 2009

MORE PREDICTIONS OF SUCCESS, MODIFIED FOR NEW REALITIES. Joel Kotkin has an essay about the failure of the blue states and the prospect therefore of red states surging to bring Republicans back to power. To the surprising extent that it relies on long-term data -- that "red-state strongholds such as the Dakotas, Idaho, Texas, Utah, and North Carolina, dominated the list of fastest-growing regions recently compiled for Forbes," versus the "decades-long meltdown" of blue states -- one might ask why this historic growth did not elect John McCain and a Republican Congress in 2008. Kotkin briefly mentions "the failure that stuck to Republicans in the wake of the Bush presidency," but with becoming reticence doesn't say anything more about it, except to predict the same thing happening to Democrats, presumably for the same reasons.

The future is unwritten and anything can happen, but if you're going to mine demographics for electoral gold you might take a moment to consider why they failed you in the last test. Part of the reason, which Kotkin misses, is that the red state growth of which he speaks has not been limited to villages and hamlets, but largely occurred in and around cities, some of which grew less red in consequence. One of the fastest-growing urban areas in the U.S. in recent years is Raleigh-Cary, North Carolina in Wake County. Wake went mildly for Bush in 2004, but strongly for Obama in 2008 -- enough to turn the state.

Kotkin shares the tendency of many political demographers toward wishful thinking. Back in 2004 some of them thought the GOP could get a lift by splitting Texas into five states. A look at the map showed that some of those new states would be Democratic, and while the Republicans might have gotten a few new senators out of the scheme, they would have given up some electoral college votes in the process. It was schtick, but pleasing to the sort of people meant to be pleased by it. As I said, anything can happen, but these games, while encouraging to the Outs at any given moment, tend to have less impact than the state of the nation when the actual polls open.

There Kotkin has a better chance, as the economy may well suck in 2010 and 2012. But on that head he relies on standard Republican class-war rhetoric about "media pundits and cafĂ© society": that Democrats favor a "creative class" solution (which is somehow also supposed to fatten the "public-sector unions" -- maybe he thinks the Freelancers Union and the Writers Guild are public-sector), which in his view cannot work, and that if the economy does recover, one of his sources tells him, "People will compare and move to the places that are affordable and don’t have the fundamental tough tax and regulatory structures." You have to wonder why they wouldn't have done that already -- especially since Kotkin keeps telling us that they have. But he is prepared for that: "a generation of out-migration may be slowing down temporarily due to the recession," he says -- an odd note of discouragement against his many claims of ever-burgeoning red-state vitality.

Part of the problem has to do with the purpose of exercises such as Kotkin's, which is not so much to lay groundwork for a genuine Republican resurgence as to predict one so that Republicans will feel better about themselves. Just before the last election, Kotkin was going on about the "new localism," in which the recession would make "individuals and corporations look not to the global stage but closer to home, concentrating and congregating on the Main Streets where we choose to live -- in the suburbs, in urban neighborhoods or in small towns." As part of this pitch was the reliance on extended family -- "This clustering of families, after decades of dispersion, will spur more localism" -- you might easily have gotten the impression Kotkin was expecting citizens to cling to their traditional homes. Now that politics demands a different interpretation, he posits us as atomized seekers after financial opportunity, ready to blow off Mom and Pop for the sunny vistas of Scottsdale, Arizona.

Prediction is a mug's game under the best of circumstances, but if you keep dishing out visions while working a slide rule, there's always a chance that fortune will provide circumstances that make you look good. But that's not the same thing as having a good argument.

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