Demography Is Not Destiny
It might be true that the GOP’s appeal will remain limited to whites. But it might also be true that the definition of “white” will change. A response to William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck from the left.
By 2050, the U.S. population is expected to increase by 117 million people, and the vast majority of that increase—82 percent—will be immigrants or the children of immigrants. By all accounts, the United States will be a “majority-minority” country, with white Americans as a large plurality, supplanted by a Latino, African-American, and Asian-American majority.
It’s something to keep in mind as we watch the present-day Republican Party crash on the rocks of a failed fight against the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health-care reform law that will deliver a large share of its benefits to minorities and others who just a few decades ago were a small share of the American electorate. Indeed, this fight—a last-ditch effort against the signature legislation of an ascendant coalition—is emblematic of the trends explained by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck in their recent Democracy essay [“The New Politics of Evasion,” Issue #30]. The GOP’s rearguard action against the ACA highlights the demographic problems that come with the Republicans’ alienation from Latinos, Asian Americans, and young working-class whites, and underscores the party’s failure to grapple with the income inequality, stagnation, and middle-class retrenchment that define this economic era.
Galston and Kamarck’s analysis of the GOP’s challenging future is preceded by a re-evaluation of their landmark 1989 essay on the prospects for Democrats in the wake of Michael Dukakis’s devastating defeat. In that essay, they diagnosed a broken party alienated from the American mainstream and they rallied a generation of reformers, their allies in elected office, and eventually their standard-bearer in the White House. The Democratic Party of today, the one that prevailed in three of the last four national elections (2006, 2008, and 2012) and won a majority of the popular vote in two consecutive presidential contests (and at least a plurality in five of the last six), is a far cry from the one that nominated Dukakis. It’s now a broad, national party that wins public support on most core issues of American governance.
But in looking at the future of the party—and its impressive demographic advantage—there is a note of inevitability in Galston and Kamarck’s recent essay that is unwarranted. In their re-exploration of the “Myth of Mobilization”—the idea, tackled in their 1989 essay, that Dukakis could have won with higher minority turnout—they argue, “What was myth in 1981…has become reality in 2012. The nonwhite vote as a share of the electorate has expanded significantly, primarily because of disproportionately large increases among mixed-race voters, Asians, and Hispanics.”
We saw the consequences of this in the 2012 election, where “Republicans found themselves on the wrong side of a demographic tidal wave.” Given the long-term trends—growing Latino immigration and intermarriage between whites and other minority groups—Galston and Kamarck argue that it will only get worse for Republicans: “By the middle of this century…whites will no longer constitute a majority of our population. In such circumstances, a nearly all-white party, which is what Republicans have become, would have no chance of obtaining an electoral majority.” [emphasis added]
Galston and Kamarck are quick to acknowledge the other forces at work: namely, a GOP economic agenda that has little to offer the majority of Americans, who don’t feel they benefit from deregulation, spending cuts, and upper-income tax cuts. They write that most Americans see “the GOP as a party that favors the rich and opposes every effort to make them shoulder a larger share of the revenue burden.” What’s more, the Republican Party is out of touch with a growing majority of voters on same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and environmentalism.
But that said, their essay seems to overstate the demographic case against the GOP. Yes, for the short term, demographics pose a huge hurdle to the Republican Party’s national aspirations. If the 2016 election looks anything like the ones in 2008 and 2012, the Democratic candidate will win overwhelming majorities of Latino, Asian-American, and mixed-race voters, with near-unanimous support from African Americans. And if the nominee is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there’s a fair chance the party can improve its margin among white women, who—in recent years—have made a small move away from the Republican Party.
But if we look ahead 40 years, there’s a decent chance this Democratic majority never materializes. Ethnic identity is fluid—it shifts and changes with the circumstances of society. Right now, we think of Latinos and Asian Americans as separate from the white mainstream. But there’s no guarantee that will be true in the future. Indeed, if it isn’t, we could have a politics that looks similar to the one we have now.
In the beginning, there was the Anglo-American majority. The descendants of English subjects, these men and women belonged to a shared culture rooted in the British Isles. Then came German immigrants, who then assimilated into the colonial way of life. Over time, other waves of immigrants would join this “mainstream” and carve a place for themselves. None of this was automatic, and in the case of the Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans, it was preceded by a long period of discrimination and prejudice. At the turn of the century, in fact, Italians and Irish were stigmatized groups that could not be brought into the mainstream. They were seen as nearly as separate—as irreducibly different—as African Americans were.
But compared to their black compatriots, they had a significant advantage: fair skin. With time, mobility, and distance, they could assimilate and become indistinguishable from the Anglo majority. And so they did. As they rose out of working-class professions and joined a burgeoning middle class, they and other immigrants became white. By the middle of the twentieth century, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Americans weren’t as distinct a class as they were at its turn; the shared experience of the Great Depression and sacrifice of the Second World War bound them to the mainstream.
What’s key to remember is that this evolution corresponded with a political shift. For almost a century, the Democratic Party was identified with the interests of European immigrants. Irish and Italians formed the foundation of the Democratic machines of the North and Midwest, and were the backbone of the coalition that swept Franklin Roosevelt and his New Dealers into office, then Harry Truman, and later, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Assimilation, however, brought closer identification with the mainstream. And as the Democratic Party moved to embrace the rights of minorities, there was a shift. Formerly stalwart Irish and Italian Democrats, dismayed and resentful of the focus on African-American grievances, shifted to the Republican Party. By the 1980s, the descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants—now “white” in the eyes of most Americans—were the defectors that delivered Reagan a victory in 1980 and a landslide in 1984.
Here’s where things get muddy for those who believe in the destiny of demography. In the decades to come, a similar path might emerge for today’s immigrants, and Latinos in particular, a product of the declining significance of racial differences. Interracial relationships are more common than they’ve ever been; in 2010, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of all new marriages were intermarriages. What’s more, the large majority of these marriages occurred among whites, Latinos, and Asian Americans: 41 percent were between white and Latino partners, while 15 percent were between white and Asian partners.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this. Whites are the mainstream of American life, with tremendous representation in every area of our society. Through intermarriage, Latinos and Asian Americans are becoming similarly mainstreamed. Indeed, in politics, business, and culture, it’s not hard to find examples of “minorities” who are indistinguishable from whites. For all intents and purposes, Texas Senator Ted Cruz—the freshman lawmaker who helped drive the GOP into confrontation with President Obama—is understood as white, despite his heritage. More important, his children will also be understood as white.
While there are limits to the comparison between the Latinos and Asian Americans of today with their Irish and Italian predecessors—Latinos and Asian Americans span a wide range of nationalities—the basic point stands. These are two upwardly mobile groups that are rapidly assimilating with the white mainstream. If the pattern of the past holds, the future won’t be majority-minority; it will be a white majority, where Spanish last names are common. And if that’s the case, there’s a chance that the GOP ends up getting a new crop of voters over the next two decades: Latinos and Asian Americans who have assimilated, become “white,” and thus more conservative in their political preferences. As simply a function of time, the Republican Party will see a changing of the guard, and with it, a shift in its areas of focus. The civil libertarianism of Senator Rand Paul and the family-focused economic priorities of Utah Senator Mike Lee provide a good idea of where the GOP might go in ten years.
If the Republican Party can abandon its procedural radicalism—which, if recent polls are any indication, has taken a real toll on its brand—who is to say that this new mainstream won’t find common cause with this future GOP? At the least, we can’t say that the Republican Party is clearly doomed. A lot can change, and history suggests that the emerging Democratic majority is less likely than it looks.
But much depends on what the GOP does in the coming years. The Republican Party could alienate immigrants so much that Democratic identification becomes a matter of group interest. Like African Americans, Latino and Asian-American communities could come to understand conservative ideology—and not just the GOP—as a threat to their future advancement. In other words, perception of anti-immigrant animosity could linger for generations, as the descendants of assimilated Latinos and Asians continue to support Democrats out of group loyalty. In which case, the United States would become California writ large: a place where Latinos and Asians have turned decisively against the Republican Party, leaving it isolated from the levers of power—a rump faction in a more liberal America.
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