For a long time it has been taken as a given by many on the left and some on the right that there was a demographic destiny for the US, one which would inevitably make it into country where Democrats overwhelmingly win elections. After all, we already have states like California where Democrats control everything, seeming in perpetuity. But today the NY Times’ Nate Cohn has a piece out that suggests recent Census data should cause both parties to rethink their assumptions about demographic trends and how those trends will impact politics.
The first set of data lays out long-term demographic trends widely thought to favor Democrats: Hispanics, Asian-Americans and multiracial voters grew as a share of the electorate over the last two presidential races, and white voters — who historically tend to back the G.O.P. — fell to 71 percent in 2020 from 73 percent in 2016.
The other data set tells a second story. Population growth continues to accelerate in the South and the West, so much so that some Republican-leaning states in those regions are gaining more Electoral College votes. The states won by President Biden will be worth 303 electoral votes, down from 306 electoral votes in 2020. The Democratic disadvantage in the Electoral College just got worse again.
Based on these two pieces of data, Cohn concludes, “increasing racial diversity among voters isn’t doing quite as much to help Democrats as liberals hope, or to hurt Republicans as much as conservatives fear.”
Cohn isn’t denying that the electorate has changed a lot or that those changes haven’t helped Democrats. He says, for instance, that there’s no way Democrats would have won control of the Senate if Georgia’s electorate still looked the way it did in 1980. But for Cohn the big takeaway is that those demographic changes don’t seem to determine the outcomes of elections, at least not without changes among white voters as well.
It is hard to find a single state where the increasing racial diversity of the electorate, even over an exceptionally long 30- or 40-year period, has been both necessary and sufficient for Democrats to flip a state from red to blue. Even in states where Democrats have needed demographic changes to win, like Georgia and Arizona, the party has also needed significant improvement among white voters to get over the top.
One reason demographic change has failed to transform electoral politics is that the increased diversity of the electorate has come not mainly from Black voters but from Hispanic, Asian-American and multiracial voters. Those groups back Democrats, but not always by overwhelmingly large margins.
So the bottom line here is that the share of white voters in the electorate has dropped about 2 percent since 2016 while the share of black voters has remained steady. The actual increase in minority representation has come from Hispanic and Asian voters who aren’t as monolithically committed to Democrats as black voters have been for decades. So all it takes is a slight shift toward the GOP among these groups to offset the decline of white voters. And in fact, that’s what we saw happen a bit in 2020. It wasn’t enough to win the White House or hold the Senate but it did help the GOP pick up seats in the House when most experts expected Democrats to gain seats. In fact, back in March the Times published a piece saying the Democrats had a growing problem appealing to Latino men.
Interviews with dozens of Hispanic men from across the country who voted Republican last year showed deep frustration with such presumptions, and rejected the idea that Latino men would instinctively support liberal candidates. These men challenged the notion that they were part of a minority ethnic group or demographic reliant on Democrats; many of them grew up in areas where Hispanics are the majority and are represented in government. And they said many Democrats did not understand how much Latino men identified with being a provider — earning enough money to support their families is central to the way they view both themselves and the political world.
Even Vox’s Matt Yglesias (before he left for Substack) wrote a piece arguing that Democrats were a bit tone-deaf about speaking woke to Hispanic voters who don’t all see themselves as victims of white supremacy.
Another piece of this type came from Andrew Sullivan who wrote about the assumptions behind demographic destiny and argued that, in fact, it was possible they were completely wrong.
Key here is the role of the Latino population, and how it is defined. Most demographic estimates of the “white” population are based on the Census definition: “non-Hispanic white.” But what of “Hispanic whites” — those whose lineage may come from South or Latin America in ethnicity but who also identify racially and socially as white? If you include them in this category, America remains two-thirds “white” all the way through 2060 and beyond. And this is not some wild diversion from previous definitions. Until 1930, Alba notes, Mexican immigrants were counted as “white” in the Census. If you kept that standard today, the whole notion of “majority-minority” would simply evaporate…
There is no reason, in other words, to believe that Latinos won’t be seen in 2060 the way Italian-Americans were seen in 1960, except that they will be assimilating into an off-white, brownish mainstream rather than a monolithically and stereotypically white one.
Lots of American immigrants who were once considered minority groups are now lumped into the white category. That really could continue to be the case in ways that completely upend the idea of demographic destiny.
Cohn doesn’t offer this next bit of speculation, but I will. The Democrats best hope to hold onto the outcome of demographic destiny (the one they have long expected) probably comes from woke ideology. That’s a view which a) makes white supremacy the core of all problems and b) focuses on group identity as more or less determinative of political views based on an oppressor vs oppressed outlook. If that message is adopted by Hispanics and even a large percentage of white Americans, then Democrats could continue to win elections based on their improved numbers with those groups.
The danger for Democrats is that by pushing that message, they will also turn off a large number of Hispanics and white Americans who reject the identity politics framing. Again, this is me not Cohn saying this, but I wonder if the Great Awokening couldn’t be viewed as a kind of grad school pushback to the disappointing results of demographic destiny for progressives thus far.