The Fear That Is Shaping American Politics

It affects everyone from Joe Manchin to Joe Biden.,

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Why is the Republican Party so determined to constrain the franchise?

One answer is provided by the changing demographics of the children in the nation’s public schools, a leading indicator of shifts in the racial and ethnic makeup of the country.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics,

The percentage of public school students who were white was 64.8 percent in 1995, and this percentage dropped below 50 percent in 2014 (to 49.5 percent). N.C.E.S. projects that in 2029, White students will make up 43.8 percent of public school enrollment.

The changing racial and ethnic makeup of the schools, something visible to parents and to anyone who walks by at recess, is a leading indicator of the day (in roughly 2045) when non-Hispanic whites of all ages will drop under 50 percent of the U.S. population, soon to be followed by the day when whites become a minority of the electorate (although that will depend on how voters self-identify — among other things, data suggests that many mixed race Americans identify as white).

Hispanics and Asian-Americans are driving the ascendance of America’s minority population, while the Black share of the population will increase by a small amount. Pew Research estimates that over the 50 year period from 2015 to 2065, the non-Hispanic white share of the population — as defined by the U.S. census — will drop from 62 to 46 percent, while the Hispanic share will grow from 18 to 24 percent and the Asian-American share from 6 to 14 percent. The Black share will go from 12 to 13 percent.

Richard Alba, a sociologist at the City University of New York, and other experts have argued that predictions of a white minority in a little over 20 years have created a false narrative because it fails to account for the numerous second- and third-generation children of interethnic and interracial marriages, many of whom see themselves (and are seen by others) as white.

False or not, the white minority prediction has become a dominant political narrative — particularly insofar as Republicans exploit this characterization — and in the process this framing has become a central element in the worldview of many conservative whites.

How does the expectation of a majority-minority America affect the thinking of white Americans?

Maureen Craig at N.Y.U. and Jennifer Richeson, at Yale, reported in their 2018 paper “Majority No More? The Influence of Neighborhood Racial Diversity and Salient National Population Changes on Whites’ Perceptions of Racial Discrimination” that

White Americans considering a future in which the white population has declined to less than 50 percent of the national population are more likely to perceive that the societal status of their racial group — in terms of resources or as the “prototypical” American — is under threat, which in turn leads to stronger identification as white, the expression of more negative racial attitudes and emotions, greater opposition to diversity, and greater endorsement of conservative political ideology, political parties, and candidates.

Biden, more than either of his three Democratic predecessors — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — is putting this white reaction to the test.

Not only is Biden actively supporting voting rights reform designed to protect and strengthen Black and Hispanic political participation, but he has taken assertive stands on racial issues, both in terms of appointments and in supporting racially targeted provisions in his stimulus and infrastructure legislation.

The question for Biden is whether a Democrat can firm up the party’s multiracial coalition with a double-edged strategy. First, winning over enough working class whites by disbursing substantial benefits in his stimulus and infrastructure legislation; and, second, by targeting generous programs to racial and ethnic minorities to reduce disparities in income and education.

The underlying question is whether more white voters will turn against Biden in the 2022 midterm elections as they turned against Clinton in 1994 and Obama in 2010.

A large number of white people already believe that they suffer higher levels of discrimination than Black people and other minorities do.

Craig and Richeson write:

Organizational messages that are favorable to racial diversity have also been found to enhance the sense among whites of personal and group discrimination against them compared with race-neutral messages.

In addition, many Republican and conservative-leaning whites are convinced that as minorities become more powerful, the left coalition will become increasingly antagonistic to them. Craig and Richeson write:

This research suggests, in other words, that whites are likely to perceive more antiwhite discrimination under circumstances in which they perceive that their group’s position in society is under threat.

Nour Sami Kteily, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, emailed to say that he and Richeson have been conducting a study that asks whites how much they agree (7) or disagree (1) with statements like:

If Black Americans got to the top of the social hierarchy, they would want to stay on top and keep other groups down.

and

If Black Americans got to the top of the social hierarchy, they would put all of their effort toward creating a more egalitarian social system for all groups.

On average, whites fell at the midpoint but, Kteily wrote, there was

large variation associated with being Republican vs. Democrat, with Republicans being more likely to believe that Black Americans would use power to dominate. The difference is highly statistically significant.

In a December 2019 article, “Demographic change, political backlash, and challenges in the study of geography,” Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, wrote:

The relationship between diversity and reactionary politics should be considered one of the most important sociopolitical issues facing the world today — it is a near certainty that almost every developed country and many developing countries will be more diverse a generation from now than they are today.

Thus, Enos continued,

if increasing diversity affects political outcomes, the relationship can point in two consequentially different directions: toward increased diversity liberalizing politics or toward increased diversity causing a reactionary backlash.

The 2020 election of Biden combined with Democratic control of the House and Senate have contained, at least momentarily, the reactionary backlash, but a liberalized politics has not yet been secured. What are the prospects for Democrats seeking to maintain, if not strengthen, their fragile hold on power?

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Nicholas Kristof, Opinion columnist, writes that “Biden’s proposal to establish a national pre-K and child care system would be a huge step forward for children and for working parents alike.”
  • The Editorial Board argues the president should address a tax system where “most wage earners pay their fair share while many business owners engage in blatant fraud at public expense.”
  • Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, writes that “the real crisis is not at the border but outside it, and that until we address that crisis, this flow of vulnerable people seeking help at our doorstep will not end.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

Looking toward the next two sets of elections, Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, argued in an email that Biden will have to tread carefully if he wants to maintain winning margins for his party in 2022 and for himself in 2024:

I think much of the survey data we have seen over the past several years indicates that many whites have quite favorable attitudes toward the social welfare programs that the Democratic Party supports while they are often turned off by the party’s rhetoric and platform on the issue of race and racism.

If the Biden administration, Schaffner wrote,

can continue to deliver on popular policy programs like the American Rescue Plan and make the midterm elections a referendum on those policies rather than on discussions of racism then he may be able to hold together the coalition that helped him win in 2020.

Robert Griffin, research director of the nonpartisan Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, wrote by email that he expects “the national environment to be worse for Democrats in 2022 than it was in 2020.”

The shift, he continued,

will almost certainly include a loss of support among white voters who — if history is any guide — will represent a larger share of the electorate in 2022 because of midterm turnout dynamics.

Griffin wrote that “it’s not obvious to me that this shift will be dependent on Biden’s ability or failure to overcome white racial resentment,” because “these midterm dynamics are pretty baked in and it would be shocking to see them defied.”

On the plus side for Democrats, Griffin noted:

The growing educational divide among white Americans does present an interesting opportunity for the Democratic Party. One of the things most people don’t appreciate is that white overrepresentation among voters is driven almost entirely by white college voters. This overrepresentation of white college voters is even greater in midterm elections. The growing educational divide among white voters — with Biden viewed much more favorably by white college voters — potentially blunts some of those midterm dynamics I described.

I asked Griffin what the prospects are for Biden to build a stronger and more durable Democratic coalition. He is doubtful:

If you had to pick one group that would do the most to solidify the democratic coalition electorally, it would be white non-college voters. They make up more than 40 percent of voters and are exceptionally well represented in the Electoral College, the House and the Senate.

Biden, Griffin continued,

improved slightly on Hillary Clinton’s margin among these voters, but it wasn’t anything massive. Given the long-term trends away from the Democratic Party among these voters, even holding onto his 2020 margins would likely represent an achievement.

Based on his actions to date, Biden clearly disagrees, and remains intent on strengthening both the white and minority side of the Democratic multiracial coalition through legislative action.

In one of the ironies of politics, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — who personifies in the extreme the Democratic Party dilemma on race, ethnicity and immigration — has become a critical stumbling block to Biden’s ambition to enact a transformative agenda.

West Virginia is 92 percent white, the third highest percentage in the nation, exceeded only by Maine and Vermont. In a generation, it has undergone a virtually complete Republican realignment.

Just 25 years ago, in 1996, Bill Clinton won West Virginia, decisively beating Bob Dole 52-37, with 11 percent going to Ross Perot. By 2012, in contrast, Mitt Romney not only beat Barack Obama 62-35 in this once reliably Democratic state, but the Republican presidential nominee carried every one of West Virginia’s 55 counties, a pattern repeated in 2016 and 2020.

Manchin stands out among his colleagues in the Senate as a Democrat who can win in what has become a deep red state, but the going is getting tougher. In 2012, he won by 25 points, 61 to 36 percent. In his most recent election in 2018, he won by 3.4 points, 49.6 to 46.2 percent.

In 2020, the state voted for Trump over Biden 68.6 to 29.7 percent. Trump’s margin of victory in West Virginia was higher than it was in all the other states except Wyoming, 43.7 points, 70.4 to 26.7.

Not only are West Virginia voters conservative and Republican, they overwhelmingly fit the demographic and ideological portrait of those most threatened and angered by the prospect of whites becoming a minority. The 2020 poll of West Virginia voters by NORC at the University of Chicago showed that they were 95 percent white (higher than the state’s residents); 69 percent without college degrees; 74 percent small town or rural; 71 percent in favor of building a wall on the border with Mexico; 70 percent with an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party; and 63 percent with a favorable view of the Republican Party.

In light of these facts, it is little wonder that Manchin has emerged as the key Democratic holdout in the Senate, demanding the near impossible — that at least some Republicans support a top Biden agenda item, voting rights reform. In addition, Manchin has declared his opposition to killing the legislative instrument currently used to protect the interests of whites, the filibuster — delighting his West Virginia constituents but angering many of his Democratic colleagues.

There are good, some would say persuasive, arguments for both the elimination of the filibuster and for enactment of the voting rights legislation currently before the Senate.

Jessica Bulman-Pozen and David Pozen, of Columbia Law School, developed an apt description of the contemporary use of the filibuster in their 2015 law review article “Uncivil Obedience,” arguing that while civil disobedience “violates the law in a bid to highlight its illegitimacy and motivate reform,” there is a “less heralded form of social action that involves nearly the opposite approach.” Dissenters, they write, may attempt “to disrupt legal regimes through hyperbolic, literalistic, or otherwise unanticipated adherence to their formal rules,” i.e., through uncivil obedience.

In an email, Jessica Bulman-Pozen wrote:

the filibuster is the most potent tool of obstruction. Today’s filibuster threatens American democracy, but its adherents hold themselves out as defenders of the rules.

Those making use of the filibuster to delay or kill legislation “cast themselves as meticulous law-followers while they subvert representative democracy.”

Alexander Theodoridis, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, expanded on the argument that polarization has weaponized the filibuster:

Increasingly, voters and elites find those on the other side repugnant and not worthy of trust. Any win for “them” is tantamount to a loss for “us.”

In the case of the voting rights bill, Theodoridis argued,

the prospect of the filibuster thwarting efforts to reduce democratic backsliding amounts to the use of a minoritarian legislative tactic to enable a minoritarian electoral strategy.

Along parallel lines, Nate Persily, a law professor at Stanford, emailed his view that

The next two years may be the last chance for the Democrats (and the country) to pass significant election reform. The filibuster stands in the way. Declaring that only voting policy that can attract 60 votes should be passed, is tantamount to saying that no voting reform should be passed.

Inaction by the federal government “will necessarily lead to greater divergence among the states” Persily continued:

One set of states will codify the accommodations that were made to deal with the pandemic and to make voting more accessible. Another set of states will make voting more difficult in the name of election integrity but in service to the Big Lie that the 2020 election was marred by fraud.

Despite the logic of these claims, and the possibility that Manchin — who has held statewide office in West Virginia for the past 20 years and is also the last Democrat to hold statewide office at all — could emerge, at least momentarily, as a hero to fellow liberals across the county. But joining forces with fellow Democrats has the earmarks of political suicide.

Manchin has repeated his demand for bipartisanship and his support of the filibuster, but he did take one stand that could signal his openness to negotiation, voting twice to convict Trump on impeachment charges filed by the House.

Those votes were not cast by a politician calculating his best chances for re-election.

Biden and Democrats in the Senate are asking Manchin to help move the nation past the divisive forces of white racial and ethnic animosity. In doing so, they are asking the Democratic senator under the most pressure to accede to these forces to abandon political self-interest. It will be a tough sell.

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