From its inception, the American experiment has been dogged by racial issues. Sadly, this was even truer this year. Eight years after electing the first African-American president, not only are race relations getting worse, according to surveys, but the electorate remains as ethnically divided as in any time of recent history.
Donald Trump has emerged in most media accounts as the candidate of Anglo voters, with a margin of 21 percentage points over Hillary Clinton among that segment of the electorate. Clinton’s embrace of “identity” politics may have played a role in turning off many of these white non-Hispanic voters, who might otherwise had voted Democratic.
Many Democrats maintain still, with some justification, that as demographics evolve over the next decade, the increasingly diverse electorate will reward their identification with racial minorities. The country, and the electorate, seem destined to become ever less white in the coming decades. Between 2000 and 2015, the nation’s population makeup became increasingly minority, from 31 percent to 38 percent. This trend will continue, with the country conceivably becoming 45 percent non-white by 2030 and 53 percent by 2050.
White Men Can’t Jump, But They Can Still Vote
It may well be that Democrats this year jumped the demographic gun. Even as the white population diminishes, it retains a dominant influence in elections. One reason: Whites tend to vote more. Most critical, the African-American share of the electorate, which reached record highs with Barack Obama atop the ticket, actually dropped by a percentage point in 2016. Latino turnout, widely seen as a surge that would elect Clinton, represented about the same percentage –11 percent — in 2016 as in 2012.
These dynamics keyed the Trump victory, particularly in heavily white working-class precincts in the Midwest, Pennsylvania and Florida, where he secured his electoral victory. Many of the pivotal states’ electorates remain very white indeed. In Wisconsin, for example, more than 80 percent of voters are white, and most of them are not residents of liberal college towns like Madison. This is also the case for Pennsylvania, where more than 75 percent of voters are Caucasian. Even Florida – itself a very diverse state — still has a heavily white electorate, accounting for more than 55 percent of voters.
These patterns will remain critical past what might be seen as their sell-by date for two critical reasons. One has to do with the concentration of minority voters. Nearly 60 percent of African-Americans live in Southern states where Trump won by dominating a very conservative white electorate. Other minority voters are clustered in big cities in the Northeast, which are not remotely contestable for Republicans.
Latino voters, and also Asians, are likewise heavily concentrated, particularly in California, now essentially a non-GOP zone, as well as the similarly politically homogeneous Northeastern cities and Chicago. To be sure, Latinos are also critical in Texas, and Asians too (increasingly so), but for now the Texas white population still outvotes them by a considerable margin.
Another problem for the much-ballyhooed “emerging Democratic majority” lies in one stubborn fact: The elderly, most of whom are white, are not dying out quickly enough for Democrats to win. Although the extension of life spans may have slowed, or even slightly reversed in some demographic segments, seniors are clearly living longer than before.
The Limits of Identity Politics
Ignoring the reality of economic decline in the states that swung to Trump, some observers maintain that the increased conservatism among white working-class voters reflects deep-seated racial antagonisms. But this does not explain the considerable movement of these voters, particularly in the Rust Belt, from support for Obama to support for Trump, as seen in such places as Youngstown, Ohio, Wheeling, W.Va., Macomb County, Mich., and Erie, Pa.
The Democratic Party made things easier for Trump by adopting identity politics as its mantra. This is particularly maddening when charges of racism are leveled by affluent professionals, academics and bureaucrats, many from elite universities, who are themselves privileged.
To their credit, some progressives suggest shifting away — at least in the short run — from identity politics. But racial determinism may now be too central to their ideological core. Bernie Sanders’ campaign spokesperson Symone Sanders, for example, said that when it comes to picking a new leader for the Democratic National Committee, whites need not apply.
Matthew Yglesias, always an excellent window on progressive dogma, insists that “there’s no other kind of politics” but identity politics; Democrats, he asserts, simply need “to do it better.” Progressives seem about as ready to ditch racialist politics as Southern segregationists were willing to abandon Jim Crow in 1948.
The Coming GOP Crisis
For Republicans, identity politics is the gift that keeps giving, but the question is for how long. If you want a nightmare racial scenario for the GOP, just look at California. Since 1994, when the state passed Proposition 187, a measure widely perceived as anti-Hispanic, the Anglo population has dropped by more than 2 million as the state has added 9 million people, including more than 7 million Hispanics. Minorities now account for 62 percent of the population, compared to 43 percent in 1990. The shift in the electorate has been slower but still significant. In 1994, 49 percent of the electorate was Democratic and 37 percent Republican. Due in large part to ethnic change, by 2016 the Democratic margin was 45 percent-26 percent.
In California this surge in minority voters has accompanied a gradual erosion of the white population, a large portion of which has left for other states. The Golden State also has gone out of its way to encourage immigration of undocumented aliens by offering them driver’s licenses, subsidized health care and financial aid for college; 74 percent of all California children under 15 are now minorities, compared to 66 percent in 2000, and 25 percent of them live below the poverty line. This is 2.5 times the white non-Hispanic rate in California.
Despite largely positive results outside the blue coastal states, potentially the biggest long-term problem facing Republicans is in a dominant aspect of geography: suburbia. Trump lost some largely affluent suburban areas like Orange County, where 55 percent the population is Latino or Asian, up from 45 percent in 2000. Perhaps most emblematic of potential GOP problems was Trump’s — and the GOP’s — loss of Irvine, a prosperous Orange County municipality that is roughly 40 percent Asian.
Republicans should be even more worried about trends in Texas, where Latinos are already close to a plurality and the Asian population is surging. There are still enough conservative whites to win elections in Texas — Trump won by 10 percentage points — but the margins will continue to shrink. This trend can already be seen in Houston’s sprawling, increasingly multiracial suburbs. Trump, for example, lost solidly middle-class Fort Bend County, by some estimates among the most diverse in the country, which voted Republican in every presidential elections since 1968.
If this pattern continues, the die may indeed be cast for the GOP. As most minorities now live in the suburbs — a trend that continues to increase — a loss of suburban voters, given the total Democratic lock on inner city electors, would be too much for rural and small-town whites to overcome. Simply put, by 2030, losses in the multicultural suburbs could make dreams of progressive long-term dominance all but inevitable.
How Republicans Can Withstand the Racial Shift
Republicans must reverse these trends if they don’t want to go the way of the dinosaur. They can take some limited satisfaction in knowing that Trump did somewhat better than Mitt Romney or John McCain among Hispanics and blacks as well as improving slightly among Asians.
To expand on these modest gains, Republicans need to focus not on race but economics. Our recent study for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism demonstrates clearly that minorities generally do far better in red states than in blue ones, based on such factors as income, homeownership, entrepreneurship and migration. Minorities all continue to move in ever larger numbers to red states because their economic climate and regulatory regime work better for them.
Conservatives can make a case that Barack Obama’s progressive agenda actually favored the highly affluent, who tend to be disproportionately white. According to a 2016 Urban League study, African-American levels of economic equality are lower now than in 2009, surely a disappointment for a black middle class so understandably proud of Obama’s elevation.
The best role model for the GOP could be in Texas. Latinos in the Lone Star State generally do better than their counterparts in California — as measured by homeownership, marriage rates, incomes — and also tend to vote more conservatively. In 2014, for example, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott won 44 percent of Texas Latinos. In contrast, that same year Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown won 73 percent of the Latino vote in California.
Other factors, notably upward mobility among Latinos, African-Americans and Asians, could play a transformative role. As they continue to move to the suburbs, buy houses and start businesses, they may become less likely to support a high-regulation, high-tax and redistributionist agenda. Since 2000, more than 95 percent of the minority growth (black, Asian and Hispanic) in the 52 largest metropolitan areas has been in suburban and exurban areas. Trump did much better among college-educated black males, for example, than those with no college education — 16 percent vs. 11 percent.
If more minorities enter the middle class, particularly under Trump, this could provide an opening for Republicans, just as occurred after the World War II when Italian, Irish, Polish and other eastern European voters moved to the suburbs and assimilated, even intermarried, after years of living apart. A message that targets the middle class aspirations of minorities could be more effective in the long run than appealing merely to xenophobic sentiments shared by an inexorably diminishing population.
Critically, in the coming decades, the vast majority of Latinos and Asians will be native-born. They will have spread out increasingly not only within regions but to more conservative parts of the country, notably Texas and the Southeast. At the same time, the population of undocumented workers, the least assimilated and generally the poorest demographic, is already declining, down by 300,000 since 2008. If it continues to decline, which may be likely under Trump, immigration may soon fade away as a primary issue for Latinos.
Perhaps even more critical, however, may be the growing trend toward intermarriage among minorities. Among second-generation Latinos and Asians, interracial marriage is creating what could become an increasingly fluid racial identity. Intermarriage involving African-Americans is also on the upswing. The new generation of ethnic hybrids, most with one Anglo parent, will no longer be easily pigeon-holed ethnically. Overall, 15 percent of marriages were between partners of different ethnic groups in 2012.
These are all opportunities to succeed, but the GOP can only prolong itself if it finds a way to reach minority voters based on an appeal of economic mobility. Whether they take this tack, or simply play for time until white voters lose their primacy, may determine whether it is the stupid party that some suggest, and one that, even at its great moment of opportunity, is destined to remain permanently so.
Ultimately, Republicans could build on Trump’s economic message by demonstrating its efficacy for minority voters. This may be the party’s only hope in the future, given the demographic trends. The competition could also encourage Democrats to focus more on “bread and butter” issues. If future presidential campaigns are waged over key economic issues, rather than pitting ethnicities against one another, the nation will be both unified and stronger.