Race informs much of American politics.
As Alan Abramowitz writes in his trenchant analysis,The Polarized Public, “a century and a half after the end of slavery and almost fifty years after the end of legal segregation, race continues to divide Americans.” Abramowitz adds, “race continues to divide Americans politically as well.”
Students of American history may argue over whether the racial divide in politics is greater today than in other periods of American history. But what is inarguable is that the significance of the racial divide is greater today than in the past and will become even greater in the future because of demographics. The percentage of non-whites in the population increases every year; the Census Bureau projects by the middle of this century whites will no longer be a majority of the population.
The last presidential election demonstrates the importance of race. In 2012, whites made up 72 percent of the electorate, supporting Mitt Romney by a twenty-point margin, 59 percent to 39 percent. African Americans gave 93 percent of their vote to Barack Obama; the Democrat carried Hispanics by a margin of 71 percent to 27 percent and Asian-Americans by 73 percent to 26 percent.
It’s not just voting patters that reveal racial polarization. Issues, too, divide the nation by race. A poll this year found 55 percent of whites oppose Obamacare, while 59 percent of blacks favor it. On immigration reform, unsurprisingly, a majority of whites, 51 percent, oppose legal status for undocumented workers, while 63 percent of African Americans and 76 percent of Hispanics support it. Minorities are friendlier to activist government, while whites often sing the praises of limited government out of fear, in part, that an activist government grants disproportionate favor to people of color.
The racial makeup of the electorate, and the related racial division in voting patterns, influences congressional voting. That’s especially true in the Midwest and West, where the presence of few blacks and Hispanics means politicians have little incentive to support issues important to minorities. In the South, the picture is more complicated; in that region, the stark racial divide in voting results in white politicians beholden to white voters. Hence, the push for cuts in food stamp spending by Republican members of Congress, who erroneously believe African Americans are the main beneficiaries of the program, and the drive by Republican-controlled legislatures to enact voter-identification laws, which diminish minority voting.
The reasons for today’s racial polarization are not obscure. Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters have become an increasingly greater share of the Democratic coalition. Whites, by contrast, bitterly oppose President Obama and his agenda, and white voters make up an ever-larger share of the Republican electorate.
Racial resentment influenced the rapid growth of the tea party after 2010. Abramowitz, who holds the Alben Barkley Distinguished Chair in political science at Emory Univeristy, writes, “The rise of the tea party movement was a direct result of the growing racial and ideological polarization of the American electorate. The tea party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House — a black man whose supporters looked very different from themselves.”
Some of the racial animosity toward the president is a function of long-standing prejudice. Other whites are guided by anxiety over the changing demographics of American society, a change symbolized by the election of a black man to the highest office in the land. Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, captures this mood: “While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters [of the Republican Party] are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. The base thinks [it is] losing politically and losing control of the country.”
In this context, supporting voter ID laws and opposing citizenship for undocumented immigrants makes political sense: Why make more voters who will only vote Democratic? The fewer minorities who can vote, the longer whites will comprise a majority of the electorate.
That view is short-sighted, for demography is destiny and the middle of the century is not that far away.