The prevailing narrative is that President Obama’s re-election and hopes for long-term Democratic Party control are rooted in a demographic revolution, in which Hispanics, African-Americans and other nonwhite minorities are becoming the new American majority. This view is not wrong, but it is incomplete and misleading.
The deeper narrative is economic, pointing to a socio-economic transformation in which majorities of all races depend increasingly on government protection and public investment. The two narratives, while they agree on the demographic statistics, have different policy implications, with the current interpretation of the demographic story belying the deeper change that both parties must make.
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Whites, currently 63 percent of the population, will become a minority by 2050, according to a November 7, 2012, Pew Research Center Report. Republicans, fearful of permanent minority status, are rethinking immigration policy as a way to appeal to Hispanic voters and other minorities, while also eyeing 2016 potential White House candidates such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, son of Cuban immigrants, and his mentor, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, married to a Mexican-American and fluent in Spanish. Meanwhile, the Democrats consider moving immigration policy to the front burner to hold onto the Hispanic vote.
But this is where the reigning demographic story misleads. It suggests that minorities are voting identity politics, with dark-skinned candidates or immigration the key way to their hearts and ballot. And it focuses on policy toward minorities rather than toward whites, a misreading of how to win in the new America.
The economic narrative argues that minorities, like the majority of whites, while not at all indifferent to identity appeals and often promoting important identity politics agendas, are voting mainly their socio-economic interests, especially jobs, but also broader social government protections of education, health and the environment.
This interpretation is supported by The New York Times exit polling data showing that lower-income Americans of all colors supported President Obama at higher rates than higher-income voters. As shown by the Pew Report, economic logic – a strong need for government protection – helps explain why minorities, women and singles voted for Obama and have long expressed more support for an activist government than whites, men and married people.
But the same economic narrative helps explain crucial differences among white voters. President Obama won re-election because he held his “firewall” in crucial Midwestern states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Minority turnout was crucially important, but so was the vote of working-class whites.
Unions mobilized to promote economic-based voting among culturally conservative white workers. Obama gave the unions the necessary ammunition with his auto bailout, the policy that secured his re-election. Jobs in Ohio and other vital Midwest swing states depend on the auto and auto-parts sectors. When Obama delivered a strongly progressive economic policy – temporary nationalization of GM and Chrysler, with the US owning 61 percent of GM shares of stock in August 2010 – he guaranteed Ohio jobs and gave white workers a strong economic reason to vote for him. And – according to exit polls – a majority of lower-income Ohio, Michigan and other Midwestern white workers did vote for Obama, in contrast to upper-income whites, who voted overwhelmingly for Romney.
Obama, pushed by labor and other progressive movements, delivered activist government, helping economics trump identity politics.
Such activist government is color-blind. It is the kind of policy in the new America – a land not only of a minority majority but of surplus people of all colors looking for jobs – that will guarantee future political success. In the new America, minorities are likely to vote Democratic and support broader and deeper progressive agendas, not mainly because the Party’s leaders are black or brown, but because they are more likely to promote the activist government that minorities disproportionately require.
The economic narrative means that there are no easy answers for Republicans. Their brand is based on small government and slashing entitlements. In the new America, this will not win over minorities nor the necessary percentages of working-class whites, except possibly Southern whites.
The Democrats, though, cannot sit back and bask in the illusions of identity politics. As the crisis of surplus Americans intensifies, the Democratic Party will have to develop a far more robust economic policy protecting both whites and minorities, promoted aggressively by coalitions of all progressive social movements, including labor and identity movements.
This will require more than emergency interventions such as the auto bailout. It will necessitate preventive strategy – a new and profoundly ambitious new New Deal of green coloring – the most promising policy to ensure that the majority of Americans of any color in the new America will find work and prosper. It will be the foundational agenda of progressive social movements in the 21st century, which must lead the Democrats where they will not go on their own.