Realignments take place because a dominant political coalition fails to adapt to or contain a growing social and political conflict.
John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira
The Emerging Democratic Majority
In certain Diluvian elephants that were the terminal members of dying collateral lines, the tusks reached enormous lengths, completely out of proportion to the skull and body, clearly exceeding by far the optimal size relationship. Furthermore, since in the mammoth these teeth curved sharply upward and in the the American Elephas columbi begin to spiral backward and inward, they could no longer serve their orginal purpose ... They had become a heavy burden, an impediment, for these animals.
Otto H. Schindewolf
Basic Questions in Paleontology
If you watched any of the Republican National Convention last week – that sea of milky faces, celebrating its own pasteurized homogeneity – you got a good, hard look at the party’s greatest strength: Its hammerlock on the political allegiances of a majority of white Americans. But I think you also saw the party’s greatest weakness: White America’s hammerlock on the party's future.
The time is fast approaching when the weakness will outweigh the strength. In fact it may have already arrived.
But even if it hasn’t (and we’ll soon find out) the party’s ecological prospects appear grim. Like a dinosaur contemplating a distant asteroid strike, or a Neanderthal glumly watching a family of Cro-Magnons move into the cave next door, the GOP is looking at the end of an era – its era, the Age of Sunbelt Conservatism. The party is now trapped by a force it doesn’t believe in: the process of evolution, which has left it overspecialized in the exploitation of racial fears and resentments, and overly dependent on the votes of a shrinking share of the American electorate.
When John McCain warned in his acceptance speech that "we have to catch up to history," he didn’t go nearly far enough. To remain politically competitive, the GOP will have to hustle to catch up with the future -- a future that will be less white, less European, less English-speaking and (if current economic trends continue) less middle class, but more culturally diverse and even more connected to the global economy – to the point where many of the corporate elites controlling the economy and the financial system may not even be American, much less white Americans.
But the GOP base has absolutely no intention of catching up with this new environment. It wants to run in exactly the opposite direction: back to an America where a white middle-class majority and a white upper-class ruling elite were both taken for granted. McCain may be running for president, but his party is auditioning for a part on the old Andy Griffith Show -- and seems to be under the impression it’s a modern reality show.
It’s not hard to understand why the party is finding demography to be the kind of change it can’t believe in. The GOP’s unofficial status as the National White People’s Party has served it very well these past five decades:
- The Democrats haven’t won a majority, or even a plurality, of the white vote since LBJ did it in 1964. Since then, the Republicans’ have posted a won-loss record in presidential contests of 7-3 (or 6-3-1, if like me you regard the 2000 election as essentially a tie).
- Over the last five presidential elections, the Democrats have averaged just 41% of the white vote, and just 44.6% of the white two-party vote – even with Ross Perot siphoning off quite a few gallons away from the GOP in 1992 and 1996. In the last election, Shrub won nearly as large a share (58.6%) of the white vote as his Daddy did in 1988 (59%).
- White power also helped the GOP rise from a 155-seat deficit in the House after the 1964 blowout to a 25-seat majority in 2004 – and only a 36-seat deficit now. Even in 2006, a bare majority of white voters continued to side with the party of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff.
But all bad things must come to an end, and the ability of the GOP to win national elections by racking up super majorities among white voters may have already reached its limits, and is headed into a decline that will accelerate over the next three decades.
I once said, despairingly, that what America needs is a new population. What I overlooked is the fact that these things do happen. They just take time.
And, in our case, not all that much time. That America is on its way to becoming a "majority minority" nation isn’t news, but just before the conventions the Census Bureau reminded us that the process is
Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050. By 2023, minorities will comprise more than half of all children.
This moved the pull date on white majority America up eight years from the last estimate, issued in 2004. Moving the clock forward: a projected increase in immigration (from 1.3 million new arrivals a year now to more than 2 million a year by mid-century) and higher birth rates among the non-white population, and immigrants in particular. To quote the New York Times quoting a demographic expert:
No other country has experienced such rapid racial and ethnic change," said Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a research organization in Washington.
White Flight (From Reality)
This is Lou Dobbs’s worst nightmare – an apocalyptic vision shared by most grassroots conservatives (although not, of course, by the corporate wing of the Republican Party, which looks at all those immigrants and sees an almost unlimited supply of cheap labor.)
The country, one suspects, will not only survive but benefit – as it has from every other s wave of immigration in its long history as a nation of immigrants. But Republicans probably are right to assume the worst – for them at least.
Assuming historic trends in partisan identification hold true in the future (a big assumption, but these things do seem to change rather slowly) the decline of the white majority just might produce the next big political realignment in this country – one that could make the Democratic Party the nation’s 21st century majority party (or more accurately, the minority majority party).
The critical point here is that minorities don’t have to become an outright majority to tip the political balance – in fact they already have. With a share of the white vote roughly equal to Mike Dukakis’s, John Kerry won 251 electoral votes to Dukakis’s 111, even though an unusually high number of Hispanic voters pulled the lever for the Republican candidate in 2004.
The change in EV outcomes was a function of several intersecting trends: the rise of the nonwhite vote, the regional pattern of that rise (which helped tip California, Illinois and Michigan into the Democratic column) but also a regional divide in the white vote, with white Southerners increasing their loyalty to the GOP while white Northeasterners defected to the Democrats.
The Not-So-Rosy Scenario
Looking at these trends, I started to wonder what the Census Bureau’s latest projections might tell us about the future. So I fired up Excel and fed it the most recent population estimates out to 2048 election, as well as some assumptions about voter participation and party preference by ethnic group, using the 2004 election as a baseline. (The 2004 turnout data was compiled by the Census Bureau; the party vote shares are taken from the 2004 exit poll, as reported by CNN.)
Of course, given how our screwed-up electoral college works (or doesn’t) it would be best to do this kind of analysis on a state-by-state basis, rather than at the national level. But the Census Bureau still hasn’t gotten around to updating its state-level demographic projections, and I don’t have the time to crunch all those numbers anyway. For a quick-and-dirty blog post, like this one, a look at the national popular vote seems good enough.
The short-term implications are not particularly encouraging – if, that is, you believe (as I do) that American politics these days is essentially tribal.
In fact, if the 2004 partisan preferences reported for the major ethnic groups (non-Hispanic white, black, Hispanic, Asian and other) hold this year, and participation rates for the different groups remain the same, my spreadsheet shows John McCain winning just under 52% of the two-party vote and Barack Obama receiving just 48.3%. This almost certainly would result in a solid GOP electoral victory.
However, there are reasons to believe the GOP share of the Hispanic vote was overstated in the 2004 exit poll. We also have the first black major party candidate in American history this year. So perhaps some adjustments are in order.
Assuming Hispanics vote Democratic in line with the average over the past five elections (68% of the two-party vote) and blacks vote for Obama in the 95%+ range suggested by current polls, the election essentially becomes a jump ball – with McCain winning 50.2% of the two-party vote and Obama 49.8%. (I should stress again: This assumes turnout rates are unchanged from 2004, which highlights the criticality of GOTV for Obama’s hopes this year.)
In Living Color
The longer-term picture, however, gets much more interesting. While non-Hispanic whites accounted for 70% of the voting-age population (and almost 80% of the voters) in the 2004 election, their share is set to decline steadily – to 65% of the voting-age population by 2016, 59% by 2028 and less than 54% by 2040 (as shown in the chart below).
Meanwhile, Hispanics will see their share of the voting-age population rise to almost 27%, while Asians will rise to 8%. The black share will increase slightly, to 12%, from 11.5% in 2004. "Other" (including Native Americans and I’m not sure who else) will actually see the fastest rate of growth, but from a very low base, and will equal just over 3% of the voting-age population by 2048.
Since non-Hispanic whites currently have much higher rates of voting participation than Hispanic and Asian voters (although not black voters) their share of the actual electorate will remain higher than their share of the voting population – making the very big assumption that registration and turnout rates among these groups remain fixed.
Still, using 2004 turnout and partisan preference as baselines, these population trends alone would give the Democrats more than 50% of the two-party vote by the 2036 election, and 51% by 2048. However, it is also possible to construct some extremely plausible scenarios in which the crossover to a Democratic majority is greatly accelerated:
Scenario 1 on the chart is simply a straight-line projection of 2004 turnout and partisan preferences applied to projected population growth – leading, as mentioned, to a Democratic majority by 2036.
However, if Hispanics were to return to something like their historic tilt towards the Democrats (say, 65% of the two-party vote) the result would be Scenario 2, with the crossover to a Democratic majority coming in 2024. By 2048, the Democratic share of the two-party vote would pass 52% -- roughly the average for the Republicans in their age of hegemony since the 1980 election.
One of the hallmarks of the Hispanic population, however, is relatively low rates of voter participation – just 28% of the Hispanic voting-age population in 2004, compared to 66% for non-Hispanic whites and 56% for blacks. This isn’t so much a function of low registration (about 58% of the Hispanic voting-age population is registered, vs. 69% for blacks and 75% for whites) as it is a function of citizenship. (This may also explain why Asians, the other US population group expected to see rapid growth, also have a relatively low voter participation rate, of about 30%)
If Hispanic citizenship rises – if only because a growing share of the population will be US-born – and if more eligible Hispanics are registered to vote, the political impact of the population growth would be greatly magnified. Scenario 3, then, plugs in an assumption that Hispanic voter participation rises by 2 percentage points in each of the next seven elections – until roughly half the gap between the Hispanic and black participation rates has been closed.
Assuming the same partisan loyalties as Scenario 2, this would move the crossover to a Democratic majority forward to the 2020 election (12 years from now) and give the Dems 53% of the two-party vote by 2048.
White Still Equals Might
So far, all these scenarios have assumed the Democratic share of the white vote remains pegged at what John Kerry was able to attract in 2004: a bit over 41%, down from Al Gore’s 44% . There is, however, no reason to take this for granted – for better or for worse. And since non-Hispanic whites will continue to be the electoral majority until at least 2048 (and a plurality thereafter) even a small shift in party preference could have a huge effect.
The optimistic case, I guess, would be based on the sky-high Democratic identification of younger white voters – white females in particular. If the research is right, and partisan loyalties are formed in young adulthood and don’t usually change much later in life, then the future trend is clear: The real problem with the GOP base may not be so much that it’s too white as that it (like its candidate) is too white and too old.
Scenario 4, then, plugs in an assumption of a rising Democratic share of the non-Hispanic white vote – not a big rise, just a return to Al Gore’s mark, phased in at one percentage point a year over the next three elections (including this one.) Under this scenario, the Dems have a solid majority of the two-party vote by 2012, and almost 54% by 2032, at which point Republican presidential victories would probably be as rare as hens’ teeth.
Time Keeps on Slipping
Now these are obviously just scenarios – what’s more, scenarios based on just two variables: ethnicity and party loyalty. But they at least highlight what the Republicans are going to be up against if they try to take their current white power strategy too much deeper into the 21st century.
Smart Republicans know this – thus the Rovian emphasis on wooing the Hispanic vote on cultural values, and John McCain’s initial support for comprehensive immigration reform (i.e. amnesty and eventual citizenship for lots of potential Hispanic voters.) But the GOP base simply wants no part of it – the Andy Griffith Show was good enough for their parents and grandparents, and it’s good enough for them, too – even if it is just a rerun on the TVLand Channel.
The real question is whether white America as a whole is ready to deal with it – particularly white American workers who are threatened, or at least feel threatened, by all that imported labor being brought on to the US market. For Democrats to capitalize on the demographic wave, they still have to hold to a reasonable share of the white electorate: something comfortably north of 40%, as we’ve seen.
Given that 40-41% looks like a solid floor on the Democratic white vote, this should be doable. But there are plenty of cases (like, say, the American South in the post-Civil Rights era) where voting patterns have become more polarized, not less, as the dominant group feels its hegemony under challenge.
Which is why I plugged Scenario 5 into my spreadsheet: This one assumes the Democratic share of the white vote actually declines one percentage point over the next four elections, to just 38% – even as all the other assumptions in Scenario 4 play out.
This wouldn’t reverse the tide – nothing can do that except a revolution in partisan loyalties. But it does slow it down considerably, with the Democrats not achieving a structural demographic majority until 2040, and then only a bare one.
A Darker Shade of Pale
I’m not sure what the moral of the story is here. That the Hispanic vote will eventually be the key to political control in 21st century America seems obvious – so much so that it’s probably already overestimated. It’s also fairly clear that the GOP will eventually be forced – kicking and screaming, if need be – to acknowledge that the country is changing in ways that cannot be stopped, only managed. Only the party faithful can still pretend otherwise, and only for little while longer.
But what impresses me most is the possibility that the balance of political power in this country actually could rest – at least for the next few decades – with that fraction of the non-Hispanic white population not currently locked into the GOP monochromatic coalition: white liberals, moderates and independents.
People like us, in other words (by which I mean the overwhelmingly white, middle-class audiences of the big progressive political blogs, such as this one). Even if most of these voters are not actually in that audience, they include many of our friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers. By reaching out to these people, maybe, just maybe, we can help nudge that non-Hispanic white Democratic vote up to the 43% or 44% share that would make it possible to break the back of the GOP machine.
On the other hand, people have told me that my entire argument is off base: Just because the country is becoming less white doesn’t mean it will become more Democratic, and just because it becomes more Democratic doesn’t meant it will become more progressive. We have plenty of proof of the latter proposition. But some say the former one has also been documented.
Look at California, one commenter recently suggested to me: The quintessential minority majority state, with a large bloc of progressive white voters – run by a Republican governor and just as dominated by the corporate elites as when that governor was Ronald Reagan.
But I don’t think that’s really true: Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t turning out to be quite the union-busting, corporation-pleasing governor I suspect he (and his backers) thought he would be – in part because the state’s political tilt won’t allow it. And while it may not be saying much, California has moved ahead of the country again on a number of progressive fronts, from alternative fuels to food safety to equal rights.
It may not be saying much, but after 30 years of conservative hegemony I guess I’ve finally learned to manage my expectations. If it’s going to be a choice between a country that looks and acts like California, or one that looks and acts like Idaho (or Alaska) I know which America I would like to live in -- and it doesn't have to include mooseburgers.