Rethinking America

US: Demography Is Not Political Destiny

Are Republicans really doomed electorally because of the demographic changes underway in the United States?

Credit: Orhan Cam Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Contrary to the Democrats’ great hopes, non-white majorities may pose little challenge to the Republican Party any time in the 21st century.
  • Under the US political system, urban non-white voters -- like urban white ones -- will have less and less electoral clout. Meanwhile, rural non-white voters are becoming more populist.
  • The US electoral college underrepresents large states. It weighs voters in Wyoming 3.6 times more heavily than those in California.
  • The finer points of US democracy: The US Senate offers proportional representation mostly related to the number of cows.
  • The demographic threat to Republicans from the shift to a majority minority political culture in the US looks more incremental than existential.

Almost everyone who tries to explain why Republicans in the United States are so unreservedly and unashamedly tied to Donald Trump starts with one fact: The U.S. Census Bureau projects that a majority of Americans will be nonwhite by 2042 or 2044.

(Perhaps that unwelcome news is why the Trump Administration is trying to defund the organization).

This minority status is probably a core reason why religious conservatives in the United States proclaim that they are “overjoyed” by President Trump, despite his very dubious and un-Christian personal morals.

They see Trump as their best bet to turn around a cultural war they think they are losing.

And indeed, U.S. political commentators have described the demographic profile of future voters as an existential threat to the Republican Party.

Flight 93: Making political hay from a white minority

Republicans have been selling voters protection from a nonwhite majority at least since Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. As the success of Trump’s racist appeals shows, the message resonates. Plenty of Republican voters fear a loss of privilege.

Republican political operatives transform that generalized fear into earth-shattering cultural totems. Every election after Obama is deemed another Flight 93 — the hijacked flight brought down by passengers in September 2001.

Take the ex-academic, now NSC staffer’s Michael Anton’s call to arms. It begins: “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” That phraseology is now a staple of right-wing websites.

Exploit fear, whether justified or not

This kind of thinking, simultaneously fatalistic and energetic, transforms Donald Trump into a human wall – the man trying to stem the fallout from a fading white majority to protect not just its culture and privileges but itself.

A fear can be easy to exploit politically, even when it has a weak basis in reality. That’s especially true when demographics lend an aura of certainty to political predictions that are anything but. When it comes to political outcomes, demography is not destiny.

The salient point here is this: The evidence and/or often-made assumption that Democrats are heading for being a structural majority party in the United States because of the rise of the minorities stands on a shaky footing.

Non-white majorities may pose little challenge to the Republican Party any time in this, the 21st century.

The two core reasons are these: Under the prevailing, hard-to-change U.S. political system, urban non-white voters — like urban white ones — will have less and less electoral clout. Meanwhile, rural non-white voters are on trend to become more populist.

The U.S. political structure discriminates against cities and big states

Urban voters lack clout for a wide variety of reasons. They lack clout in presidential elections because the electoral college underrepresents large states. The electoral college weighs voters in Wyoming, for example, 3.6 times more heavily than those in California.

It is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. Senate offers proportional representation mostly related to the number of cows. That is why six U.S. Senators from just three states (New York, Texas and California) represent the same number of people as the 62 Senators from the 31 smallest U.S. states, according to a New York Times analysis in 2013.

And even beyond the scourge of the gerrymandering (= politically motivated redrawing) of electoral districts, geographically sensible maps of congressional districts lean Republican. Why? Because it’s hard to distribute urban voters across more than a few districts.

The case of California

California already shows how and why minority voters cannot be taken for granted by the Democrats. As for rural nonwhite voters, take a detour off Interstate 5 in California’s Central Valley.

What you learn is that place can matter as much politically as does race. It’s not just the pro-Trump billboards and painted signs — it’s the ones in Spanish.

CNN reported in December that 32% of nonwhite Californians support Trump. And even though no group of employers suffers more from Trump’s immigration restrictions, the level of Trump support feels more like 100% among California’s 7,000 Hispanic farm operators.

Political parties must earn support from ethnic minorities

In fact, polls register a steady rise in Hispanic support for Republicans from 20% in 2012 to 29% in 2016. Jamelle Bouie, until recently Slate’s chief political correspondent and now a columnist for the New York Times, argues this just shows that ethnicity is fluid.

What this means politically is that, when it’s unclear who will consider themselves a minority, Democrats presume minority support as a given at their peril.

With urban non-white votes weighing ever less heavily in federal elections, rural non-white voters are reverting to mean rural political views. Even Hispanic voter support for Republicans is gradually approaching Trump’s core favorability ratings.

These rural Hispanic voters exhibit the classic “inside-the-tent” affinity that has sometimes characterized previous generations of immigrants positioning themselves against yet more arrivals from their countries of origin.

Conclusion

What this evidence suggests is that the demographic threat to Republicans looks more incremental than existential.

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About David Apgar

David Apgar is the author of the book "Risk Intelligence: Learning to Manage What We Don’t Know."

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