Political Animal


March 08, 2013 3:55 PM How Low Can Democrats Go With White Folk?

By Ed Kilgore

Friday afternoons are a fine time to look at counter-intuitive analysis that keeps the synapses firing. A WaPo op-ed today by Harvard’s Ryan Enos certainly qualifies:

Since the November election, in which President Obama won huge majorities among minority voters, it’s been taken as gospel that the Republican Party must, for its own survival, seek to appeal to those groups by moving to the left on topics such as immigration reform. But as the nation becomes more diverse, the demographic shift can cut the other way, too: Some Democratic voters are likely to move to the right.
It’s assumed that, as the United States becomes increasingly non-white, white Democrats will continue to support the party. But a substantial amount of social-science evidence suggests a different conclusion: As the United States becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, liberal whites might start leaning Republican.

After citing an experiment of his own wherein Boston train commuters registered a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment after being confronted with regular Spanish-speaking Latino travelers, Enos makes a big generalizing jump:

Political scientists, economists, sociologists and psychologists have long noted that, under most circumstances, when people from different ethnic, racial and religious groups come into new contact, conflict ensues. Just look at the battles over busing students from different neighborhoods into public schools in the 1960s and ’70s.
Those conflicts often change the way people vote.

Like southerners in black-belt areas and Chicagoans dealing with the consequences of fair housing laws, Enos suggests, previously Democratic-voting white folk may be driven to the right by rising minority populations. And he also indicates this is not simply a function of some latent white racism, but simply the product of the polarization that tends to occur (among minority groups as well) when different racial and ethnic communities come into close and immediate proximity.

As different groups come into contact, people often have adverse reactions, and this can cause them to vote for a party that represents opposition to other groups. In today’s electoral landscape, that might mean white Democrats would be more willing to vote Republican.

I don’t know how valid Enos’ “science” is on this subject; his examples seem awfully anecdotal. But it is probably worthwhile for Democrats to reconsider something many have largely taken for granted: that the 39% of the white vote won by Barack Obama in 2012 is close to some natural lower “floor” for Democratic support, which is unlikely to be reached again since (a) future Democratic nominees, even if they are nonwhite, are unlikely to have as polarizing an impact as the “first black nominee for president;” and (b) younger white voters were significantly more likely than their elders to vote for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

The second factor in particular is hard to argue away (and Enos does not try to do so), but he’s right that there is no iron law that dictates Democrats can steadily gain from a growing nonwhite electorate while maintaining white support at current levels or higher.

If, however, Enos is right, then the most disturbing consequence isn’t that one party or the other could benefit or suffer from rising racial and ethnic conflict: it’s that the Republican Party would have a fresh incentive to promote such conflict if the fruits of backlash are indeed unlimited. It’s certainly a lot easier than trying to get minority voters to favor conservative policies they have every reason to dislike.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • audax minor on March 08, 2013 4:03 PM:

    Actually, I see risible "research" like this (or the illusion that this process might actually play out in the real world) as a good thing, since it will give the current generation of Republican hacks the excuse they're looking for to postpone any serious attempt at the ideological renovation of their party even further into the future, until a blue trending Georgia, Arizona and eventually Texas dooms them.

  • c u n d gulag on March 08, 2013 4:15 PM:

    Two things:
    1. This is anecdotal evidence, and not carefully researched.
    2. Uhm... I'll put this as nicely as I can - Boston, is not exactly known as the hot-bed of racial calm, and hasn't been since they started busing the first black kids to white schools, and white kids to black schools.
    I've been to Boston several times - once, with a black friend. A lot of people didn't exactly welcoming us (but that's anecdotal, too).
    I mean, this is a city that doesn't mind when it's cops stop their best black athletes for DWB.

    I will say, though, that the Republican Party will take this as gospel written in stone, since it means they can continue using race as a wedge issue with white voters as they age - hoping to pick up more than a few stragglers.
    Why change what you don't want to change?

    A third point I'd like to make, is that in all likelihood, the next Democratic Presidential candidate will be a white man or woman, which might put parts of Appalachia back in play, since they never wanted to try the old saying, "Once you've had black, you never go back."
    The never went.
    But more than a few of them might come back when there's a white candidate. Especially if it's Hillary.

    And let's hope the Republicans don't figure that one out.

  • exlibra on March 08, 2013 4:29 PM:

    [...] the Republican Party would have a fresh incentive to promote such conflict [...]

    I sincerely hope they will. The sooner their whole crazy train derails and gets wrecked past repair, the happier I'll be. Since, if they stop pretending they have their "nice moments", more people will see them for what they are, they'll antagonise just about everyone all that much sooner. Perhaps, a few years from now, a new conservative party can reconstitute itself and become functional but, for this iteration, we're, I think, at the end of the road. And the sooner they wedge themselves into that dead-end street, the better.

  • bos'n on March 08, 2013 4:33 PM:

    Bottom line, Dems need to appeal to more white voters, particularly males. That cohort seems to be voting their prejudices rather than their self interest. Dems need to figure out how to dim right wing noise and obfuscations.

  • adjacent on March 08, 2013 4:36 PM:

    I hope it doesn't happen not because of any party getting advantage, but because it would be terrible for the country. There are racial tensions already, but the least we need is to have one party of the white people, and another party of minorities, and most people voting long that line.

  • exlibra on March 08, 2013 4:47 PM:

    adjacent, @4:36PM,

    Not gonna happen. What *is* going to happen is that the whites will abandon the party of whites-only in droves, not just in dribs and drabs, as they're doing now. I'm underbaked-cracker-white and I'd never consider joining the exclusion party. *Nor* would I consider joining one that was less conservative, but also exclusive. And I don't think minorities would form a separate, no-whites party, either; why should they, as long as they're welcome -- on equal terms (not as a token or prop) in the current mixed-colours one?

  • Citizen Alan on March 08, 2013 4:52 PM:

    I don't believe it either. The Democrats may be able to get below the floor set by Obama, but not by much and not for much longer. Younger whites are demonstrably less racist than their parents, let alone their grandparents, and they are increasingly appalled by the xenophobia that is now the defining characteristic of the GOP. Add to that the fact that younger people of all races are finally starting to see that they're all in it together against the 1%.

    My hope with Obama from the beginning was that he would be the guy who could get the poor black man and the poor white man together at the table and finally explain to them that it's actually been the rich white man who's been screwing them both for the last 30 years. Obviously, Obama was never the person for that job. Perhaps Hillary will do better at it.

  • Mimikatz on March 08, 2013 6:18 PM:

    "Republicans would have fresh incentives . . . ."

    Considering this has been their basic playbook since the 1960s, how would anyone even notice?

    Those pointing out that younger people are more openminded and liberal provide the counter evidence. The GOP strategy is a loser over time.

    Third try at Captcha

  • Keith M Ellis on March 08, 2013 8:04 PM:

    I think that the future importance of the left-leaning sentiment among younger voters is often exaggerated — it's as if people are forgetting that a large portion of the notoriously liberal sixties boomers became reliable conservatives.

    That's not to say that the cliche that people become more conservative as they age isn't also exaggerated, because it is.

    A better, more reliable analysis is the one that connects lifelong voting patterns with the winning party for Presidential elections for a cohort's coming-of-age. This better follows the boomers political evolution and it bodes well, from the Democrats' perspective, for those who have come of age in the last twenty-five years: two-thirds of them should continue to favor Dems.

    And it is surely true that there's been quite an evolution with regard to race in the US and that the contemporary GOP is beholden to the polarization of the the Civil Rights era. The contemporary GOP was forged in that time and, as we all know well, it doesn't know how to stop playing upon white fears about race. For the under-40 crowd, this is either an outmoded message, or one that is actively repugnant. So, yes, there's no doubt that this emphasis will be a net negative for younger voters.

    That said, we can't count on the younger voters not to evolve politically in ways that won't make a portion of them favor the GOP for reasons that are independent of the GOP's regressive messages on race. I do think that in this respect the boomers and the sixties are relevant, as the impetus driving much of their liberalism in the sixties — war and cultural values — became for many of them subordinate to the economic concerns of the late seventies and eighties where they found GOP positions more attractive. We shouldn't assume that despite the likliehood that the GOP will continue to have these affiliations that work against them, that the national context might change sufficiently to make those affiliations less relatively important.

    Another good example of this is 9/11 and how fears about terrorism so dominated the national consciousness that for a large number of people it made most other concerns subordinate — I don't think that Bush would have been re-elected otherwise.

    I think we can safely assume that the GOP will remain less attractive for the now-under-40 group; but we can't assume that this will alone determine the course of future American political history.

  • John Petty on March 09, 2013 12:37 PM:

    That Obama received 39% of the white vote is misleading. In the Old Confederacy, he received 30%. In the rest of the country, Obama received 50% of the white vote.