A change is gonna come – race, elections, and public policy

I was part of a conversation yesterday that included Ron Brownstein, editorial director at the National Journal. It was a wide-ranging, high-energy discussion that included some of his thoughts on how demographic change will be driving public policy.

As most people are aware America will be a "minority-majority" nation, probably within the next 20 years. While whites will continue to be the single largest racial group, we will, taken together, represent a minority of the population.

This, of course, gives a lot of white people the heebie-jeebies. Perhaps it also explains the vehemence of the rhetoric we hear from some quarters, the avalanche of money going into conservative causes and candidates, and the ferocious, even frantic, efforts to restrict and suppress voter turnout among minorities. Complete speculation on my part, of course, but I grew up in a hard-right Republican household in the 50s and 60s, and I know these folks in my bones.

But, back to business. Ron posted a fascinating, detailed piece on the NJ website last Wednesday, looking at projections about minority representation in the coming election and what that means for Obama’s re-election.

Read the whole thing, but what stood out for me was, first, that Obama’s people project minority participation may hit 28 percent of the vote, an increase from 26 percent in 2008. That year, Obama won 80 percent of the non-white vote. If minority participation increases to 28 percent, and Obama holds his 80-percent level, he will need only 38 percent of the white vote to be in a position to win. Caveat – these are national numbers, and we have an electoral system that doesn’t necessarily reward the candidate who gets the most votes overall, as Al Gore painfully discovered. But in some states, local numbers show minority voters could be Obama’s ticket to victory, as well.

Note that Democratic presidential candidates have been hovering in the low-40-percent range of white votes over the last four presidential elections.

Check this handy NJ graphic.

True, many other factors, especially economic, will come into play between now and November. And turnout will matter. While the 2010 Dem wipeout was an off-year election, one in which Obama had cratered in terms of favorables and allowed, though flaccid message and communications, the Rs to totally dominate the public conversation, minority turnout sagged, while angry whites flocked to the polls. Will the Teahadists muster up similar energy to 2010? Right now, the trend in the Republican primaries (see below) is division and discouragement. But that could turn around by the fall, when they train their wrath on Obama alone. Nevertheless, it’s clear there is a rainbow tide rising.

One other consideration – America’s working class has largely been white, and culturally conservative, and Republicans have, since at least the mid-60s, when they decided that race-baiting was an important election message (I know, I was there), been able to count on strong support from that part of the population. But America’s working class is becoming brown, not white, which gives rise to the question of whether race and class will re-configure voting patterns in the future. Minorities are not necessarily liberals, and some are strongly conservative in their religious bent, which may also explain the energy the Rs are putting behind their campaigns against choice and contraception. But given the Right’s track record on race as a whole, they should, indeed, feel a chill coming on.

Segue to what Timothy Egan does in this NYT piece on the complexion of the Republican primary voters. As Egan notes, “[T]he small fraction of Americans who are trying to pick the Republican nominee are old, white, uniformly Christian, and unrepresentative of the nation at large.”.

In fact, the racial makeup of the primary turnout – which, in terms of overall numbers has been very low, as others have noted – is even more strongly white that the overall U.S. population in 1900! Perhaps this is why the 19th-century messages from Republican candidates resonate so strongly.

What does this mean for policy? Well, consider the strong support for the Social Darwinist, anti-choice, anti-tax, anti-contraception, pro-Christian (at least, a certain strain of Christian) messages of the candidates. Match that against polling which shows Americans overwhelmingly support, for example, the Obama administration’s rule that private health plans must provide contraception coverage at no cost. That’s at 66 percent overall and 67 percent Catholics. Similar strong margins support higher taxes on the wealthy and efforts to stop global warming.

So the Rs have a shrinking national electoral base, albeit one willing to turn out and willing, among those who can afford it, to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars to defend their status. The opportunity is there to orchestrate an enormous shift in American public policy that aims to regain some of the ground lost over the last 32 years in terms of social and economic justice. Will Dems and/or Progressives capitalize on this?



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