Demography May Not Be Destiny. But Economics Likely Is.

As a plot twist, the concept of reversing roles, or undergoing major and unexpected transformations, is hardly new. Tom Hanks’s breakthrough role was in Big, the 1988 film in which he played a little boy who wished he could be an adult, only to wake up the next day in the body of a grown man (the role won Hanks an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor). The same theme was used in 13 Going on 30 with Jennifer Garner as the teenage girl who made the leap in age. Then of course there was the 2003 movie Freaky Friday, in which Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan played a mother and daughter with a difficult relationship who one day find themselves having traded bodies and lives.

The transformation taking place in the Republican Party these days is only slightly less dramatic, but far more consequential. The GOP is well along in a shift from being an upscale, mostly suburban-oriented party that always did better among those with college and even graduate degrees, to one now made up more of downscale whites, living in rural and small-town America, as well as in smaller cities. Former National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Davis describes the change in his party as going from country club to just country, while conservative historian George Nash jokes that the GOP has gone from the dinner party to the tea party.

Based on data compiled by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey and his Metropolitan Policy Program team, Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman calculates that of the 100 counties with the highest percentages of college graduates, Joe Biden won 87 last year, while Donald Trump won 94 of the 100 with the lowest percentages of college graduates, losing only the ones where racial minorities were in the majority.

Frey’s Brookings colleagues Mark Muro, Eli Byerly Duke, Yang You, and Robert Maxim released a report just days after last November’s election (with data updated in February), showing that while Trump carried 2,564 counties to just 520 for Biden, the counties Biden won generated 71 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, to just 29 percent for the far more numerous Trump counties. That was up from four years earlier, when counties that backed Hillary Clinton represented 64 percent of GDP while those backing Trump accounted for 36 percent.

In terms of population growth, job creation, and new businesses started, the action is far more in the counties voting Democrat than in those backing Republicans. As Brookings’s analysis observed: “To start with, the 2020s sharpened economic divide forecasts, gridlock in Congress, and between the White House and Senate on the most important issues of economic policy. The problem—as we have witnessed over the past decade and are likely to continue seeing—is not only that Democrats and Republicans disagree on issues of culture, identity, and power, but that they represent radically different swaths of the economy.”

The report continued: “Democrats represent voters who overwhelmingly reside in the nation’s diverse economic centers, and thus tend to prioritize housing affordability, an improved social safety net, transportation infrastructure, and racial justice. Jobs in blue America also disproportionately rely on national R&D investment, technology leadership, and services exports.” Closing the circle, the report said, “By contrast, Republicans represent an economic base situated in the nation’s struggling small towns and rural areas.”

Former senator and 1996 GOP presidential candidate Phil Gramm often said on the campaign trail that “able-bodied men and women” riding in the wagon should get out and pull instead, not-so-subtly implying that those riding in the wagon were Democrats, liberals, welfare cheats, and other free-riders, while Republicans, conservatives, and other hard-workers were driving economic growth, creating jobs, and picking up the tab for the governmental services.

This is not at all suggesting that those toiling on farms or in factories today are free-riders in the Gramm vernacular. Not hardly. But Republicans need to come to terms with the fact that their constituencies are no longer driving the economic engine. In terms of voting, they are doubling down on shrinking shares of the electorate, as Ronald Brownstein has written in The Atlantic and for CNN.

Whether Republicans fully appreciate their consequential positioning is not clear. Fighting culture wars and tying themselves so closely to Trump can certainly galvanize—but not expand—the base. Watching House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney’s imminent expulsion from the leadership ranks for her lack of fealty to Trump reminds me of the great line from legendary columnist Mark Shields: He would rather belong to a church seeking converts than one intent on driving out heretics.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on May 7, 2021.