Monday, November 19, 2012

Demographics and Inevitability

Conventional wisdom has congealed around the notion that Obama was re-elected largely because of the demographics.  That is (as revealed in exit polls), Republicans have become the party of old, white, straight men; while Democrats represent what Ron Brownstein has called the “coalition of the ascendant”, i.e. racial minorities, gays, the young, urban professionals, and women; that is, everyone who is something other than old, white, straight and male.  (The chart above is by Tom Scocca of  For decades the demographics have been moving slowly in the Democrats direction, and will continue to do so for some time to come.  Consider that in 1984 whites were 89% of the vote and in 2012 they were 72%.  And at the same time that the voting public has become less old, white, straight and male, the Republican Party has become more and more conservative; that is, it increasingly tailors its policies to the interests and sensibilities of old, white, straight men.  The broad liberal constituency continues to grow while Republicans appeal more and more exclusively to their narrow and shrinking base.  And the recent election seems to have been the tipping point.  With a few breaks, or a better ground game, or a better advertising strategy, or better messaging, or more specificity, Romney might have won the presidency, but he’s very possibly the last Republican who could have won by relying upon that shrinking base.  The demographics just roll slowly on, unstoppable, like a glacier transforming the landscape.

Historically, American partisan alignment has been defined by ethnicity and religion, less so by ideology.  For example, 19th century Irish Catholic immigrants all joined the Democratic Party for reasons of practicality and solidarity.  But now party affiliation is both ethnic/religious and philosophical.  Before the American welfare state was created by Progressives and New Dealers, working class liberalism opposed a strong central government, because they saw it as a tool of the rich and connected.  That is, the American populist instinct viscerally fears both big business and big government.  But the success of the New Deal created a contradiction within economic populism.  Big government was now the instrument of populism and economic egalitarianism, and a vast majority was quite happy with the results.  But most voters retained their conservative, i.e. anti-government, instincts, even as they happily received all the benefits of big government.  They held fast to the myth of undiluted individual responsibility while they cashed their federally-mandated paychecks and Social Security checks.  Pragmatism overrode ideology; it overrode it all the way to the bank.

This explains the truism that – as Jonathan Chait is so fond of reminding his readers – “the American people are ideological conservatives but operational liberals.”  Put another way, welfare state capitalism works better than the laissez-faire variety.  This explains such strange incongruities as Tea Partiers angrily wielding signs that read, “Keep government out of my Medicare.”  Even government-hating conservatives only hate government in general but love it in the particulars.  But from the 1930’s to the 1960’s white working people voted the pragmatism side of that pragmatism-vs.-ideology dialectic; since the 1960’s they vote the ideology.  What happened?  Well, what major social development occurred in the 1960’s?  Yes, that’s right, the end of racial segregation.  Racial minorities had been excluded from the material and social benefits of the welfare state until the 1960’s, and during that time white belief in anti-government ideology was not particularly troubling.  But whites could not abide a welfare state that also benefitted blacks, Hispanics, etc.  Their racial prejudice overpowered their pragmatism and they swung over to their ideology.  Blind fear made them choose instinct over interest. With a little help from conservative intellectuals (like Bill Buckley) and politicians (like Ronald Reagan) shrewd enough to exploit white populism, they began to vote for scaling back the welfare/regulatory state.  It suddenly made sense to oppose a government that ladled out goodies to Cadillac-driving welfare queens.

This is why ideology, not pragmatism or compromise, has come to dominate American politics.  When white working people – the dominant demographic in the 1960’s – began voting for conservative Republicans it spelled the end of the New Deal.  White anti-government ideological instincts became the dominant theme of American politics.  The white working class abandoned liberalism and liberals rejected the white working class in return.  This Great Rupture has polarized all subsequent political, social and cultural developments.  As that Tea Party sign reminds us, the tension between ideology and practicality remains.  This forces the conservative intelligentsia to dare ever greater heights of hysteria – Obama is a “Kenyan anti-colonialist”, Obamacare is really racial reparations – to ensure that working class whites discount their practical concerns in favor of their ideological instincts.  Thus our era, the era of ideology over pragmatism, is also the era of bitterness and rancor.

Democrats, in the meantime, have become the party of the young, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays and women (particularly unmarried women); that is, all the groups that until relatively recently had to defer to old, white, straight men.  But the liberal re-alignment isn’t based simply in practicality; it is as ideological as the conservative version.  Conservatives may console themselves with the thought that minority votes for Obama were based upon little more than racial solidarity and they may encourage themselves with the hope that Hispanics, for instance, can easily be had with an liberal immigration policy; but they are kidding themselves.  Non-whites, for the most part, simply don't share the anti-government instincts of the white majority; those instincts appear to be an exclusively white cultural artifact.  Michael Brendan Dougherty of the American Conservative:

Recent Hispanic immigrants may be entrepreneurial and have some traditional religious values, but they most definitely do not come from political cultures that make them receptive to the GOP’s message of slashing the social welfare state.

Since whites historically kept racial minorities from assimilating to white society they didn’t absorb white political culture, and multiculturalism has done little to disturb that alienation.  Minorities simply don’t have to agonize over being anti-government while benefitting from big government; they can vote for the welfare state in good conscience.  This is why the post-60’s alignment is so ideological.  To a large extent, you actually can guess someone’s view of the welfare state based upon her race.  Party means tribe means philosophy.  And with the slow demographic shift in favor of the pro-welfare-state constituency the pro-welfare-state party is winning more and more elections.

We appear to be witnessing the demise of the populism that has dominated American politics for two centuries.  A majority is arising whose instincts are more at ease with big government.  This may be the end of American exception from the general trend of Western welfare state social democracy.  We may be becoming Europe after all.  How will the white rump react?  But before you consider that question, remind yourself that whites, particularly old, male whites, still control most of the money and probably will continue to do so even as they become a numerical minority.  Maybe our future is not Denmark, but South Africa.  As polarized as our present politics is, with its ideology-race equivalence, imagine how bad it will get when it becomes starkly ideology-race-class.  A situation in which whites hold all the economic power and non-whites hold all the political power is not a sustainable one.  Maybe our future is not South Africa, but Venezuela.  Obama won, but nightmares abound!  How is it possible that the victory of such a broad, multi-racial, pragmatic, moderate, social-democratic majority could be so ominous?  What will post-populist America look like?

But consider that racial alienation doesn’t explain why the young are part of that new democratic coalition.  They have an entirely different explanation: culture. Younger white Americans have grown up without all that crazy pre-60’s baggage and they can’t fathom why anyone would oppose racial inclusion or equal pay or gay marriage.  They have been bred on the notion of individual expression utterly unconstrained by categories of race, gender or orientation (actually, unconstrained by much of anything).  They are the product of post-60’s liberal individualism, with all the accompanying libertine notions of sexual and social freedom.  The irony is that conservative embrace of individualistic rhetoric has only fed that unconstrained libertinism, as has the modern culture of capitalist marketing.  Liberalism made individualism about personal expression and growth.  Conservatism made it about freedom from government interference.  And capitalism made it about material acquisition.  Each in its own way has helped create that culture of relativism, materialism and atomism that so dominates American youth.  But here’s the rub: that individualism seems to make the young more suspicious of government intervention in the economy.  For example, those under 30 are more in favor of privatizing Social Security and Medicare than their elders.  And though the economic views of younger Americans are not entirely clear (for example, they don’t perceive the government to be as inefficient as older ones do), their openness to laissez-faire economic policies conflicts with the views of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly traditionally Catholic groups whose views on economics are informed by the church’s egalitarian teachings on social justice.  This libertinism-vs.-community contradiction may prove to be as difficult for the new non-white liberal coalition as the pragmatism-vs.-ideology contradiction has been for the old white working class.

This might conceivably present an opening for a future conservative re-alignment.  That is, if the Republican Party (or its successor) becomes more broadly libertarianpromoting both lower tax rates and gay marriage – a large number of the young might, as time goes by, switch over.  But no; but that’s just not gonna happen.  Conservative individualist rhetoric aside, the conservative heart beats to the tune of authority, tradition and hierarchy.  The unpredictable, mercurial, rebellious nature of libertine youth culture could never be reconciled with that conservative propriety.  Also, even if the Republicans became libertarians tomorrow, it would take them twenty years to lose the stink of cultural, racial and sexual philistinism that so repulses today’s liberal youth.  Another conservative option is to become more economically liberal while remaining culturally conservative; but this is also utterly at odds with conservative obeisance to social hierarchy.  And most damning, American conservatism has played too long on white racial fears to accept the new demographic reality.  And such racial fear-mongering precludes the last right-wing hope, that social conservatism might appeal to religious blacks and Hispanics, that racial minorities might be converted to broad conservatism.  Those minorities, lacking the visceral anti-government instincts that have so molded white views, are not susceptible to conservative arguments.  Conservatism is simply incapable of addressing our current crisis.  It can only exacerbate it with strident calls for more unconstrained capitalism, more racial animosity, more fundamentalist unreason.  All conservatism can do is make an embattled rich, white minority more angry, more bitter, more self-righteous in its wealth.  The road of Limbaugh-ism leads only to bleak civil, cultural and economic alienation.

For the time being minorities and the young will not become Republicans.  But, given the new demographic realities, what will working-class whites do?  This is the question that must be answered.  Is it possible to bring them back to welfare-statism by appealing to their naked self-interest?  Probably not, since the last 40 years of ideological indoctrination and purification have made them less susceptible to pragmatic arguments.  American idealism has caused much American foolishness.  No, the only real solution is to make liberalism utterly race-neutral.  The Great Rupture between liberals and working class whites must be healed.  If a new, post-multicultural, post-relativist, community-oriented, morally passionate liberalism could embrace a genuine color-blindness (like that of the early Civil Rights movement) it might make whites feel as welcomed by liberalism as do blacks and the other racial groups.  Such a liberalism – severe in its anti-racism while earnest in its color-blindness – would have real credibility when claiming to speak for working people of all races.  It might appeal to both the pragmatism and the idealism of white working people.  This is neither a populist future nor a multicultural future, it is a united future, one in which our common American commitments to freedom and justice overcome our divisions.

The irony of Obama’s re-election is that it actually makes it harder to reach this united future.  A coalition that wins without the support of white working people is a coalition that is unlikely to try to appeal to those people – particularly if doing so would require it to abandon its diversity fetish.  Since the election there has been much speculation as to whether Republicans will learn to adjust to the new demographic and ideological reality.  My argument is that they can not without abandoning conservatism altogether.  But the more important question is: Will Democrats do the right thing in the face of their newfound demographic dominance?  Can Democrats resist the momentum of the last decades and whole-heartedly accept working class whites back into their coalition?  It’s true that Obama did garner white working class votes in the Midwest – mostly because of his rescue of the auto companies – and Obama himself seems genuinely eager to help struggling people of all races.  But it’s just not clear if his coalition will consistently support the interests and values of white working people.  As the demographics keep moving in their direction, Democrats simply won’t need to do so to keep winning elections.  But they will need to do so to avoid the even more horribly divided future that awaits us.  If liberals can’t heal the great rupture with working class whites they will still inherit America, but it may not be an America worth inheriting.

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