Political competition, not racism, changes voter alignments

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Article Highlights

  • Awareness of minority status tends to produce greater partisan solidarity. That may be happening again

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  • Republicans face challenges among nonwhites. But Democrats may face similar challenges among whites. Charges of racism won’t help

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  • Are Republicans in danger of becoming a party made up almost exclusively of white people?

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Have the Republicans become the white man's party? Are the depth and bitterness of Republicans' opposition to Barack Obama and his administration the product of racism?

Those are questions you hear in the clash of political argument, and you will hear plenty of answers in the affirmative if you click onto MSNBC or salon.com with any regularity.

You can find a more nuanced and thoughtful analysis in Jonathan Chait's recent New York magazine article “The Color of His Presidency.”

Chait, a liberal, starts off by noting that the post-racial America that Obama seemed to promise in his 2004 national convention speech and his 2008 campaign has not come into being.

On the contrary. “Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history,” he writes, “has now became the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world.”

Many liberals see racism in every criticism of the Obama presidency, even though, as Chait points out, Bill Clinton met with similar and in some cases more strident opposition.

Conservatives, he argues, “dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs.” Understandably so, given his description of liberals’ “paranoia of a white racism.”

Chait defends liberals by arguing that the debates on big government inevitably produced by the Obama agenda and “there is no separating this discussion from one’s sympathies or prejudices toward, and identification with, black America.”

But he also admits that “advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.” And he seems to ignore the argument that policies that directed large sums of money disproportionately at blacks--like the welfare programs from the 1970s to the 1990s, which the Obama administration is trying to partially resurrect--harm more than benefit their intended beneficiaries.

This is, after all, what House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan was getting at when he lamented “a culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working.” The fact that Obama has made similar arguments didn't prevent Ryan from being excoriated as racist by some liberals.

On balance Chait absolves Republicans (and Democrats) of the charge of racism. But he is one of many analysts, including some conservatives, who have warned Republicans of the danger of becoming a party made up almost exclusively of white people.

That puts them at risk, the argument goes, of becoming a permanent minority in a nation with increasing percentages of Hispanics and Asians and with blacks voting almost unanimously for Democrats.

There's obviously some peril there. Mitt Romney won 59 percent of white votes in 2012, the same as George H.W. Bush in 1988. But with a smaller nonwhite electorate, Bush won 53 percent of the total popular vote to Romney's 47 percent.

History tells us that Republican presidential candidates have never won more than Romney’s 59 percent of the white vote except in 1972 and 1984 when incumbent presidents were re-elected in landslides.

But history also tells us that until the 1940s (except during Reconstruction) whites constituted nearly 100 percent of the electorate. Southern Blacks weren’t allowed to vote and there were few Hispanics or Asians.

The relevant electoral divisions in the past were between groups of whites—Southerners and Northerners, Catholics and Protestants, New England Yankees and Jacksonian frontiersmen.

The parties competed by maximizing solidarity among favorable demographic or regional minorities, while quietly seeking inroads among other groups.

Awareness of minority status tends to produce greater partisan solidarity. Extreme examples include Irish for 120 years after the potato famine, white Southerners for 90 years after the Civil War and blacks since 1964.

That may be happening again. Political scientist Larry Bartels points to research that shows that when Independent voters in the West were asked “if they had heard that California had become a majority-minority state,” they were more likely to vote Republican by a sizable 11 points.

These days voters nationally are being told, by triumphant liberals and defensive conservatives, that American is headed toward becoming a majority-minority nation. So whites may become more Republican than ever, not because of racism but because of the dynamics of competitive party politics.

Republicans still face challenges among nonwhites. But Democrats may face similar challenges among whites, and charges of racism won’t help.

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