The Future of Racial Politics

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…