Darrell West, former political science professor at Brown University, moved to the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington a few years back. But he never quite left Rhode Island behind.
He remains a go-to guy for local political reporters and pops up from time to time on the Ocean State lecture circuit. His next appearance is scheduled for January 5 at 2 pm at the Newport Art Museum, where he'll discuss the post-election political landscape and the challenges facing President Obama in his second term. Call the museum at 848-8200 for tickets — $10 for museum members, $15 for non-members, and $6 for students.
The Phoenix caught up with West for a Q&A, by phone, in advance of his talk. The interview is edited and condensed.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT AMERICAN POLITICS THAT WE DIDN'T KNOW THE DAY BEFORE THE ELECTION? We know that American politics is changing pretty substantially. The demographic changes were the most compelling: the growth of the Latino vote, the strong role that women are playing, and the activism of young people. Those are all major changes that are going to continue and become even stronger in the future.
THERE'S AN ARGUMENT TO BE MADE THAT THE OVERWHELMING MINORITY VOTE AND STRONG YOUTH VOTE FOR DEMOCRATS COULD BE ATTRIBUTED, IN PART, TO THE UNIQUE CANDIDACY OF BARACK OBAMA. Some of these changes are linked to Barack Obama, but some of them are much bigger than he is. Republicans have turned off a lot of voters by their extremism on the budget, immigration, and gun issues. And as long as the party continues to take a very strong stance on those issues, they're going to have problems appealing to women, minorities, and young people.
EVERYONE SAYS REPUBLICANS NEED TO RESET AFTER THIS ELECTION. IS THERE ANY SIGN THAT THE PARTY, AS CURRENTLY CONSTITUTED, IS CAPABLE OF THAT? There are some Republicans who have already spoken out about the need for the party to make changes. Jeb Bush has spoken about the need for the party to support immigration reform. There are some Republicans who have spoken out about the need to regulate high-[capacity] assault weapons. So there's some hope that some Republicans are getting the message.
THIS WAS A PRETTY STRONG YEAR FOR DEMOCRATS, AND YET REPUBLICANS HELD ONTO THE HOUSE. WAS THAT JUST ABOUT GERRYMANDERED DISTRICTS OR WAS THERE SOMETHING ELSE IN PLAY AS WELL? The fact that Republicans held the House is almost entirely attributed to gerrymandering. If you add up all the votes that Democratic candidates got in the House, Democrats actually got more votes than Republicans.
DOES THAT GERRYMANDERING, AND THE CONSERVATIVE DISTRICTS IT HAS CREATED, MAKE A REPUBLICAN TRANSFORMATION ALL THE MORE DIFFICULT? It does make it more difficult. There are Republicans representing very conservative districts who have no incentive to compromise. But there are other Republicans who want to make a name for themselves nationally — run for the Senate, run for governor, or maybe one day run for president. They have to worry about the national situation, and not just what exists in their particular Congressional district.
I GUESS THE PROBLEM IS, YOU'RE NEVER GOING TO HAVE ENOUGH POLITICIANS WITH LEGITIMATE NATIONAL ASPIRATIONS TO COUNTER THE DOZENS AND DOZENS OF BACKBENCHERS. OR DOES EVERY HOUSE MEMBER THINK HE'S GOING TO BE A SENATOR SOME DAY? [Laughs] Well, fortunately, there aren't very many limits on ambition.
ANY OTHER SIGNIFICANT TRENDS FROM THIS PAST ELECTION YOU'LL BE DISCUSSING IN NEWPORT? The other big change is in political communications. I mean, 2012 was our first truly digital election, where the Internet and social media played a strong role. Obama spent about 10 percent of his advertising budget on digital ads. That number will rise even more in the future. I think we will see major changes in the way people run their campaigns.