Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Demography is not destiny

In yesterday's post, I addressed the concern within the Republican Party that the growth of the Latino population, combined with their Democratic leanings, can cause enough of a headache for the GOP, and if they become the party of Donald Trump, that could lock in Latinos for the Democrats, making it extraordinarily difficult for the GOP to win nationwide.  I am generally not a fan of this kind of argument.

To summarize why, consider the following:


Now, how many presidential elections would you have to flip for the sequence of above to be the pattern from 1944 through 2012?

One.  1980.  If the White House had gone to the Democrats in 1980, and everything else stayed the same, we would have had DDRRDDRR from 1944 through 2012.

One party rarely wins three in a row.  That's why Alan Abramowitz forecasts presidential elections with the "time for a change" model, in which one party faces a penalty for having won two in a row.  It can happen.  In 1980, 84 and 88, the GOP won three in a row.  But, that's the only sequence since FDR/Truman.

Now, think of all of the changes that have happened to the population, and the electorate over that time period.  Civil rights, the transformation of the South, reducing the voting age to 18, the starting influx of Latinos, the baby-boomers...  The population and the electorate have changed dramatically from 1944 through 2012 in ways that might have affected the fundamental balance between the parties at the presidential level.

But the balance remained.

Latinos are a large and growing demographic.  They lean heavily Democratic.  It does not follow that the Republicans are DOOMED! DOOMED! DOOMED!  Here are just a few reasons.

1)  Generational shifts.  Children of Cuban immigrants are not as strongly Republican as Cuban immigrants themselves.  Why not?  They don't carry the memories of fleeing the Castro regime, so they don't have a visceral attachment to the Republican Party as the party of anti-communism.  A generation or two can make a world of difference.

2)  Changing definitions of whiteness.  I like to ask my students a trick question.  (Well, lots of trick questions).  How many of my great grandparents were white?  The answer:  none.  When they emigrated here, jews weren't considered white.  Then there was that whole Holocaust thing, and Americans had a choice.  They could either retain the antisemitism that drove the Nazis, or get rid of it.  Well, actually Hitler hated pretty much everyone who wasn't "aryan," so really differentiating ourselves from Nazis would have meant giving up racism, but that was too hard.  So, Americans just moved jews from the "not white" category into the "white" category, and voila!  We're totally not like Nazis!  And then a few decades later, we started letting African-Americans vote, but who's counting?

Anywho, the basic point here is that racial boundaries are absurd social constructions, and that means they can and do change.  Yes, jews are still overwhelmingly Democratic, but that isn't true for Irish-Americans or plenty of other people who didn't used to be considered "white."  As racial boundaries change, their political implications change.  We have a census categorization that permits classification as both "white" and "Hispanic."  As racial boundaries change, politics can change.

3)  White mobilization.  So, I got my Ph.D. at Berkeley.  Do you know which university has the most conservative and Republican student groups in the country?  Berkeley.  Why?  Sociologists call this "counter-mobilization."  When a group feels surrounded and outnumbered, they mobilize.  As the Democratic Party becomes increasingly the party of minorities, white people who feel threatened will mobilize, and they will do so more for the Republicans.  Doesn't this mean a potentially toxic level of racial polarization?  Yup.  But it doesn't mean the Republicans are destined to lose elections.  Fox News is already gearing up...

4)  "Exogenous shocks."  Buzz-word alert!  Buzz-word alert!  OK, this one is a favorite among economists.  "Exogenous" versus "endogenous."  Generated from without versus from within.  Stuff happens outside the control of partisan politics, and parties must respond.  Example?  9/11.  You see, when Elvis and the Roswell aliens planted the explosives in the twin towers to kill the people who were going to blow the whistle on chem-trails, American politics shifted to terrorism, the Middle East, etc.  Since terrorism wasn't a major political issue before 9/11, the parties had to re-orient themselves around it based on expectations of voter responses.  Some people expected long-term consequences, favoring Republicans.  Then, the financial collapse in 2008, brought on by the tri-lateral commission to distract everyone from the autism they were spreading through MMR vaccines, shifted things again.  Exogenous shocks happen.  Parties have to respond.  And these shocks upset whatever long-term patterns may be developing from demography.

Demography is not destiny.  Should Republicans worry about the growing Latino population, their loyalty to Democrats, and Trump's effect on this?  Sure.  Never ignore a potential problem.  But, the system somehow keeps chugging along.  Why, it's almost as if it's a conspiracy, or something...


  1. Any comment on why the Indian American community isn't generally included in discussions of demography and politics?

  2. Good question, but you probably won't like the answer. Lack of polling data on relatively smaller demographics. It's easier to survey African-Americans and Latinos because there are more of them. That also creates more motivation among survey organizations to target them. Smaller demographics get more attention when they are very politically homogeneous. Jews, for example, lean so heavily Democratic that their very homogeneity attracts attention. Indian Americans are fewer in number, and hence harder to survey, and less politically homogeneous, which attracts less attention.

    As a social scientist, I always want more data. This is an area in which we are sadly lacking.