The Democrats' Demographic Dreams

If Democrats agree on anything, it’s that they will eventually be on the winning side. The white Americans who tend to vote Republican are shrinking as a percentage of the population while the number of those who lean Democratic—African Americans and other minorities—is rapidly growing. Slightly more than half of American infants are now nonwhite. By 2050, the U.S. population is expected to increase by 117 million people, and the vast majority—82 percent of the 117 million—will be immigrants or the children of immigrants. In a little more than 30 years, the U.S. will be a “majority-minority” country. By 2050, white Americans will no longer be a solid majority but the largest plurality, at 46 percent. African Americans will drop to 12 percent, while Asian Americans will make up 8 percent of the population. The number of Latinos will rise to nearly a third of all Americans. 

It’s become an article of faith among many progressives that these trends set the stage for a new Democratic majority. A decade ago, Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis popularized this argument in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority. More recently, Jonathan Chait in New York magazine made a similar case: “The modern GOP—the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes—is staring down its own demographic extinction,” he wrote. “Conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests.” 

At the moment, Democrats have a powerful hold on nonwhite voters. African Americans routinely vote Democratic by huge margins; 95 percent cast ballots for President Barack Obama, and on average 88 percent have voted for Democratic candidates since 1964, the year Lyndon Johnson guided the Civil Rights Act through Congress. Over the past decade, Latinos have also become a reliably Democratic constituency; 67 percent voted for Obama, and 60 percent supported Democrats in the 2010 congressional elections, when Republicans triumphed otherwise. Asian Americans are only a bit less enthusiastic about the Democrats. 

At the same time that Democrats won the overwhelming support of African Americans, white voters began to make a corresponding shift into the Republican Party. With the help of racist appeals to the former Confederacy (the “Southern Strategy”), Republicans built on their advantage with white voters to earn a decisive share of their support. In 1972, Richard Nixon won nearly 70 percent of white voters, and in 1984, Ronald Reagan won 64 percent of whites. In the last decade of presidential elections, Republicans have won, on average, 56 percent of the white vote. If whites were the only people who voted in presidential elections, Democrats could not win.

For many Democratic activists, Obama’s surprising 2008 wins in Virginia, Indiana, Colorado, and North Carolina proved that the party can now win toss-up states with high support and turnout from minorities. As the nonwhite population grows, Democrats are expected to win national elections as long as they keep a healthy portion of the white vote. If Republicans represent the ethnic majority of today’s America, then Democrats represent tomorrow’s—a coalition of black, brown, and Asian Americans, along with liberal and moderate whites, that will become the “permanent majority” that Karl Rove once dreamed of for the GOP. 

At least that’s the story. In reality, however, it’s not clear that Democrats can count on the inexorable march of demographics to secure a majority. Assimilation and shifting notions of racial identity could change the equation, and political affiliations—to say nothing of parties—can change dramatically over the course of a generation. Adrian Pantoja, a political scientist who studies Latino political behavior and racial politics, is skeptical. “This is all based on the assumption that the GOP is going to continue to be hostile to minority voters,” he says, “and that minorities will continue to identify as minorities or nonwhite.” Neither is certain. 

For all of the racial disparities that still characterize the American experience, it’s also true that race is declining in cultural significance. Interracial relationships—romantic or otherwise—are more common than they’ve ever been. In 2010, 15 percent of all new marriages were intermarriages, and 86 percent of Americans approved of them. The large majority of these marriages occurred among whites, Latinos, and Asians: Forty-three percent were between white and Latino partners, while 14 percent were between white and Asian partners. 

This has profound implications. If whites are the “mainstream” of American life, with overwhelming representation in politics, business, and culture, then intermarriage with Latinos and Asians has the potential to bring those groups into the mainstream as well. Put another way, the wildly popular comedian Louis C.K. is understood to be white, even though his father and grandfather are Mexican and his first language is Spanish. More important, his children will be perceived as white, despite their Latino heritage. In effect, C.K. and others like him are expanding the definition of “white.” 

To Pantoja, this bears a strong resemblance to the pattern of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the U.S. saw massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. “Latinos seem to be on a similar trajectory as Italians,” he says. “At the turn of the century, the Italians were seen as a stigmatized minority group that could not be assimilated into the American mainstream.” It was common to describe Italians as “dark,” “swarthy,” and—in language that also has characterized African Americans—prone to crime and poverty. But as Italians rose out of working-class professions and joined a burgeoning middle class, they and other “nonwhite” immigrants assimilated. Eventually, the New Deal, along with unions, service in World War II, and the G.I. Bill, brought Italians fully into American life. 

The politics of Italian Americans changed with their shifting status. As the party most identified with immigrants, Democrats gained an early lead with Italian Americans; they formed a key part in Franklin Roosevelt’s victorious coalition and proved crucial to Democratic successes through the 1960s. But as Italians became fully assimilated, and Democrats championed the rights of racial minorities and women’s rights, the balance shifted. By the 1980s, Italians would join most white Americans in voting Republican. 

A similar path might emerge for Latinos. Initially outsiders, they form a bond with the political party that most identifies with their concerns. As they move into the mainstream, those concerns become less salient, and their political preferences become identical to those of whites’—less dependent on their racial or ethnic traits than on factors like education, wealth, and geography. 

This comparison has its limits. Unlike “Italian,” “Latino” has no singular identity. Guatemalans, Argentineans, Chileans, and Dominicans are all counted as Latino, along with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. In a survey released this year, the Pew Hispanic Center found that when it comes to describing their identity, 51 percent of respondents prefer to use their family’s country of origin over pan-ethnic terms like “Latino” or “Hispanic.” The same goes for Asian Americans, who come from India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as well as countries like China, Japan, and South Korea.

What’s more, among Latinos, there is evidence that economic and social outcomes diverge for the children of legal and undocumented immigrants. Legal immigrants tend to have more education and higher incomes. As a result, their children are better equipped to succeed in the United States and move up the social ladder. By contrast, undocumented immigrants tend to have low-wage, low-skill jobs that make mobility difficult. Accordingly, fewer of their children will intermarry or enter the mainstream. You could easily imagine a world where the descendants of legal immigrants are more likely to vote for the Republican Party, on account of their greater integration, while the descendants of undocumented immigrants gravitate to the Democratic Party, because of its association with minority interests. 

 

Much depends on how the Republican Party reacts to the rise of nonwhite Americans. Right now, the dominant faction in the GOP, the Tea Party, is hostile to immigrants. The party’s refusal to consider comprehensive immigration reform, and the restrictive policies passed by Republicans in states like Arizona and Alabama, are the most obvious examples, but the attitude has become embedded in right-wing rhetoric as well. The response to Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court was emblematic: Some Republicans attacked her ethnic pride as “racism” and portrayed her as an unqualified affirmative-action hire. If this kind of animosity persists, it’s easy to envision a future where Latinos become an enduring part of the Democratic coalition. This has happened already in California, where Latinos have voted overwhelmingly Democratic—and their turnout has increased dramatically—ever since 1994 when Republicans pushed through Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing state services. Over time, anti-immigrant laws and rhetoric could create a Latino political identity set against Republicans, in the same way that African Americans turned against the GOP after it embraced former segregationists in the 1960s. 

But a move away from draconian immigration policies and belligerence could make Latinos a contested demographic. During the George W. Bush administration, for example, sustained outreach boosted GOP support among Latinos; Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, a nine-point improvement over 2000. Throughout his presidency, Bush worked to recruit Latinos into his administration. In his second term, Alberto Gonzales served as White House counsel and later attorney general, and Carlos Gutierrez headed his Commerce Department. At the same time, Bush’s rhetoric on immigration was accommodating. His 2006 speech calling for comprehensive immigration reform stands out: “We must remember that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are decent people who work hard, support their families, practice their faith, and lead responsible lives.” 

If Republicans pursued the Bush strategy, they could regain some standing with Latinos. Indeed, Republicans are already laying the groundwork, especially in key states like Texas and Florida, which have large Latino populations. George P. Bush, son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, co-founded the political action committee Hispanic Republicans of Texas with Juan Hernandez, a former member of the Mexican cabinet and director of Hispanic outreach for John McCain’s 2008 campaign. The PAC has successfully elected Latino Republicans to Congress, the Texas Supreme Court, and the state’s House of Representatives. 

The GOP strategy has been to appeal to Latinos on the basis of shared social and religious convictions—opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and a commitment to “family values.” Republicans elected Susana Martinez governor of New Mexico in 2010—making her the first female Hispanic governor in the nation’s history—and did the same for Brian Sandoval in Nevada. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is a darling of the conservative movement, and former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz has made national waves in his bid to fill the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison. All four are staunch conservatives, with strong support among the right-wing elite. (Cruz was the subject of a glowing National Review cover story.)

So far, this push to build a roster of Latino elected officials hasn’t translated to national support for the GOP. A May poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found President Obama leading Republican nominee Mitt Romney 61 percent to 27 percent among Latinos, a 34-point advantage. One reason: Latinos are more likely than others to support government intervention in the economy. “The proclivities and interests of Hispanic voters don’t really lie with Republican Party libertarian economics,” says Ruy Teixeira, now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

The vision of an enduring liberal majority is seductive, but there’s not enough evidence to support the conviction. Of course, it’s not hard to understand why liberals would cling tightly to the idea. It emerged and was popularized at a time when the right had consolidated its gains from the previous 20 years. Republicans had won the presidency, won Congress, and were using their power to further cut services and weaken regulation and take the nation into ill-conceived, disastrous wars. Despite a hard fight to win the White House and mitigate the damage in 2004, liberals lost and watched as Republicans brought the country to the brink of another Great Depression. It’s no coincidence that the idea of a coming Democratic majority has gained new currency as liberals fear that Republicans will regain the White House, win a majority in both houses of Congress, and radically alter the size and nature of American government. If that happens, however, even a new Democratic majority may not be able to undo the damage.

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