The slow, increasingly Democratic cast of the American electorate would seem to be a cardinal fact of American politics. The electorate is firmly polarized, with few voters actually liable to change their minds. The proportion of nonwhite voters has risen by about two percentage points every four years, a rate that seems likely to persist indefinitely as the population grows steadily more diverse. The youngest voting cohort has decidedly more liberal views, and more Democratic voting habits, than its elders, and partisan loyalty tends to stick throughout a voter’s lifetime. And yet the phenomenon continues to be met with an unduly wide, deep array of skepticism.
When Ruy Teixeira and John Judis wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority a dozen years ago, few of us placed much credence in their then-wild-sounding prediction. As recently as two and a half years ago, it was still being ridiculed.
As political events have increasingly borne out the prediction, it has been met with a series of objections, most of which have either been confounded or made no sense to begin with. Consider a few:
Objection: The growth of the Latino vote might stop (Sean Trende).
Result: Nope, the Latino vote has continued to rise.
Result: No, it turns out “Younger and older millennials also have similar assessments of the job Barack Obama is doing as president.”
Result: This goes in the “never made any sense” category. Like libertarians, millennial voters do tend to have left-wing views on social policy and culture. Very much unlike libertarians, they also tend to have left-wing views on economics. They self-identify as “liberal,” believe the government has a duty to provide health insurance to all Americans, and support “bigger government” in the abstract at a far higher rate than any other age cohort. It’s true that millennial voters self-identify as “independent” more than Democrat, but they vote heavily Democratic. (Political scientists understand that most self-identified “independents” reliably vote for the same party).
The most popular new grounds for skepticism hold that the browning of America will provoke a backlash among whites — as the proportion of Latinos and Asians rises, threatened whites will grow increasingly conservative. Versions of this hypothesis have reverberated not only among conservatives like Trende and Barone, but also among liberals like Jamelle Bouie. And this theory does have at least some suggestive evidence that it may be true.
A recent psychological study found that, when researchers read a news story reporting the rising share of minorities in the United States to a group of white subjects, the subjects grew more Republican. The study has attracted widespread attention, confirming the liberal fear, and the conservative hope, that the growth of Asian and Latino voters will produce an offsetting shift to the right among whites. “The changing American polity may come to look more like Texas than like the multicultural Democratic stronghold of California,” concludes political scientist Larry Bartels. “In an increasingly diverse America, identity politics will continue to cut both ways.”
It is certainly plausible that this study portends a future racially polarized America. But it seems strange to treat with suspicion mass trends in evidence among successive elections involving over 125 million Americans while hanging confident predictions of the future of American politics on a laboratory microsimulation. People are highly susceptible to priming — which is to say, even slight changes to the context in which they make a decision can produce large differences in their actions. Making white people focus on increasing diversity while sitting in a controlled room may cause them to immediately report more conservative beliefs. That does not necessarily tell you what the open vista of American politics, a vast ecosystem teeming with messages and context of all kinds, will look like.
In the same column in which he touts the white-fear study, Bartels touts a second research experiment. This one shows that when Asian-American students are subjected to an experimenter questioning their citizenship, their Democratic partisanship shoots up. This finding would certainly help explain Asian-Americans’ durable Democratic leanings, which — given their relative affluence — has frustrated Republicans. Bartels concludes instead that it augurs well for Republicans, since, he argues, “such experiences of social exclusion based on ethnicity will probably be less common in 20 years, when there are likely to be 50 percent more Asian-Americans and 50 percent more Hispanic-Americans than there are now.”
This is also a plausible way to imagine the future of the United States — in an increasingly diverse country, racial harmony prevails, and the feelings of exclusion that have driven growing segments of Asian-American (and, perhaps, Latinos) into the arms of the Democrats will melt away, allowing them to melt into the political mainstream just as previous generations of Irish- and Italian-Americans did.
Yet it’s important to note that this scenario is almost impossible to reconcile with the other scenario Bartels describes in the very same column. On the one hand, he predicts that rising diversity creates a growing racial backlash among increasingly resentful whites. On the other hand, he predicts that the decline of racial tensions will make minorities forget their outsiderness and start voting Republican. How could both these things happen at once?
Let us pull back for a moment and reassess what we know about the future. Predicting it is hard. The farther off into the future one extends a prediction, the less likely it is to come true. We do, however, have some relatively solid data and relatively solid guidelines to help us understand where the observable trends in American politics will take us.
In the medium term, we appear to have entered a period in which Democrats command a normal advantage in presidential elections. That doesn’t mean Democrats will dominate Congress — both the House and Senate maps geographically favor Republicans, and Democratic constituents reliably fail to turn out during midterm elections. It also doesn’t mean Democrats will always win a national election. Republicans probably held such an advantage from 1968 through at least 1988, but right in the midst of that period, the Watergate scandal created a massive Democratic wave in 1974 and a narrow Democratic win two years later. A major scandal or a recession would almost surely hand Republicans the White House. Still, it seems to be the case that the Republican coalition in its present form cannot win a presidential election without a major tailwind.
It is also safe to say that this condition will not hold forever and ever. In the long run, two rational political parties will move toward equilibrium. The Republicans will move toward the center, the Democrats will move left, or, more likely, both will happen. Or possibly something major will happen to shatter the political landscape, in the way the racial conflagrations of the 1960s broke up the New Deal coalition. (Many people believed 9/11 would play just such a role on behalf of the Republicans, but the effect faded, or arguably backfired, when it drove a Republican administration to launch a bungled invasion of Iraq.)
My belief, of which I obviously can’t be certain, is that conservatism as we know it is doomed. I believe this because the virulent opposition to the welfare state we see here is almost completely unique among major conservative parties across the world. In no other advanced country do leading figures of governing parties propose the denial of medical care to their citizens or take their ideological inspiration from crackpots like Ayn Rand. America’s unique brand of ideological anti-statism is historically inseparable (as I recently argued) from the legacy of slavery. Whatever form America’s polyglot majority ultimately takes, it is hard to see the basis for its attraction to an ideology sociologically rooted in white supremacy.
In the meantime, speculation about the long-term shape of American politics should give way to a recognition of the seismic changes already underway. Something very major is happening to the electorate right now, and for the time being, we know exactly how it works.