Brown Is the New White (part 2)

March 23, 2016

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Having shown how demographic changes are enabling Democrats to put together a coalition of progressive Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans, Steve Phillips discusses what this means for political strategy and policy. He believes that Democrats must acknowledge how much they have been “blinded by the White”: “Even at this time, when a racial demographic revolution has transformed the composition of the electorate and elected and reelected a Black president, much of the progressive movement and many progressive campaigns are still dominated by White leadership, fixated on White voters, and focused on policies preferred by White people.” Until that changes, the progressive movement cannot reach its full potential either in popular appeal or social impact.

Part of the argument for refocusing Democratic strategy and policy is practical. The Party has been concentrating too much of its attention on the small and shrinking proportion of White swing voters in the electorate, while failing to mobilize the growing segments of the population. When Democrats win the Presidency but then lose the next midterm election, the pundits assume that too many White voters shifted Republican, instead of noticing that too few people of color turned out to vote. The Democratic base is now large enough to win more elections just by motivating existing supporters to vote, even if support from White working-class voters remains under 50%. Money that is spent on campaign ads trying to sway undecided voters might be better spent on door-to-door voting drives targeting minority neighborhoods. But when 97% of the Party’s political consultants are White, outreach to minority communities may not get the attention it deserves.

As long as Democratic leaders believe that their success depends on appealing to White swing voters, they may fail to develop policies that excite progressives and bring them to the polls. President Obama developed a very moderate position on immigration reform, trying to bargain with conservatives by getting tough on border security and deportations in the hope of gaining their support for a path to citizenship. He wound up with neither Republican cooperation nor enthusiastic Latino support. Phillips feels that Democrats would have done better by taking a bolder position and turning out their base to vote for it.

Beyond the practical argument that Democrats ought to pay more attention to growing minorities, there is a deeper argument about social justice. “The New American Majority is inherently progressive because it is a direct outgrowth of centuries of exclusion and exploitation.” Americans who care about social justice should make common cause with historically marginalized and oppressed peoples. Phillips quotes sociologist Joe Feagin on the subject of racial inequality: “Social science research is clear that white-black inequalities today are substantially the result of a majority of whites socially inheriting unjust enrichments (money, land, home equities, social capital, etc.) from numerous previous white generations— the majority of whom benefited from the racialized slavery system and/or the de jure (Jim Crow) and de facto overt racial oppression that followed slavery for nearly a century, indeed until the late 1960s.” Social science research also documents the persistence of subtle forms of discrimination. For example, a recent study sent out job resumes with identical credentials but different names. “Those with more ‘Black-sounding’ names such as Lakisha and Jamal received 50 percent fewer callbacks for interviews than those with more ‘White-sounding’ names such as Emily and Greg.”

The country’s changing demographics create an opportunity to rectify such injustices, by reconsidering policies that impact most heavily on minority communities. For example, a majority of those who live within two miles of a toxic waste dump are people of color. Bill Clinton now acknowledges that the tougher federal sentencing guidelines he approved contributed to the over-incarceration of African Americans. And Phillips wants to change the narrative that we like to tell about poverty “from one in which poverty is seen as an individual failing to one that connects modern-day poverty to more than four hundred years of systemic, intentional injustice against people of color as a group.”

If one takes this quote and a few others too literally, they make it sound as if only people of color are poor, and only communities of color are victims of injustice. A close reading of the book reveals that this is not Phillips’ intention, since he also mentions social reforms that could benefit all groups, such as larger investments in public education and universal voter registration. Nevertheless, he seems most interested in “making major changes in priorities so that time, attention, and massive amounts of resources are directed toward the country’s communities of color.” He does not discuss the historical struggle of working-class White ethnic groups for decent wages and working conditions. He seems content to assemble his progressive majority without increasing White working-class support. Although that is mathematically possible, wouldn’t it be even better if the Democratic Party could appeal to more working-class people across the racial divide? Too many working-class Whites vote Republican because Democrats have not shown them how they would benefit from Democratic economic policies. Surely Democrats can do a better job in that department without sacrificing their progressivism.

Although Phillips sees a great potential for Democrats to benefit from the “New American Majority,” he warns that conservatives can also count. Republicans have been using two main strategies to counter the growing numbers of minorities: “suppression and seduction.” First, they pass restrictive voting measures that impact more heavily on the poor and minorities, many of whom lack government-issued IDs. Second, they seek out unusually conservative members of minority groups (that is, those who oppose progressive policies to combat inequality) and back them for public office. Some moderate Republicans are willing to entertain more authentic minority appeals. After President Obama’s reelection in 2012, the Republican Party’s “Growth and Opportunity Project,” popularly known as the “autopsy,” recommended more outreach to people of color and specifically endorsed comprehensive immigration reform. Phillips warns Democrats that they could miss an historical opportunity here, if Republicans nominate a moderate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio and get serious about appealing to Latinos. So far, the Republican base doesn’t seem to be getting the message, since their favorite presidential candidates are those with the most restrictive immigration policies. At this time, the prospects for a “New American Majority” to elect another Democratic president seem pretty bright.

Brown Is the New White

March 21, 2016

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Steve Phillips. Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority. New York: The New Press, 2015.

Steve Phillips makes the case that the United States already has a progressive majority, if the demographic growth and voting patterns of the nonwhite population are taken seriously. In 2012, President Obama won reelection with only 39% of the White vote, but with 93% of the Black vote, 71% of the Latino vote, and 73% of the Asian American vote. Other things being equal, this Democratic coalition should grow because of the rapid growth of the nonwhite population. “Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color.”

This is not to say that progressive Whites are an insignificant part of the coalition. If only people of color voted reliably Democratic, then any significant political shift could not occur until around 2044, when the U.S. is expected to become a “majority minority” country. But looking at it that way assumes more white-nonwhite polarization than actually exists, and it “overlooks the equation that’s been hiding in plain sight.” Add progressive Whites to progressive people of color, and “this calculation reveals that America has a progressive, multiracial majority right now that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics, policies, and priorities for decades to come.”

Historically, the growing political significance of people of color goes back to two major legislative acts of 1965. The Voting Rights Act enabled African Americans to vote in many states where they had been prevented from doing so. The Immigration and Nationality Act got rid of the old quota system that had favored European immigrants, thus opening the door to more Asians, Latin Americans and Africans. Illegal immigration has changed the electorate too, since the children born here are citizens with voting rights even if their parents are not.

Consider the demographics of the various groups:

Non-Latino Whites are 63% of the population and 71% of the Citizen Voting Age Population. They are a much larger portion of the older population than the younger, however, and their overall proportion will continue to decline. On the average they have voted 40% Democratic since 1972.

African Americans are 13% of both the total population and the Citizen Voting Age Population. They have an exceptionally strong allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Latinos are now 17% of the population but only 10% of the Citizen Voting Age Population, since so many are undocumented or not old enough to vote. However, young Latinos are turning eighteen at a rate of about 800,000 a year. Latinos surpassed African Americans in population in 2001, but they have not surpassed them in voting population. They vote much more Democratic than Republican, but not as Democratic as Blacks.

Asian Americans are 6% of the population and 4% of the Citizen Voting Age Population. Their rate of growth in the population surpasses all the others. They also tend to vote Democratic.

Phillips sees a “New American Majority” that is now at 51% of the electorate and growing. He bases this on a simple calculation that multiplies each group’s percentage of the country’s eligible voters by the group’s support for Barack Obama in 2012. (One has to accept the latter as a decent indicator of progressive sentiment.) For example, Latinos are 10% of the country’s voters and voted 71% for Obama, so it follows that 7% of the electorate may be considered progressive Latinos. Similar calculations reveal an electorate that includes 28% progressive Whites, 12% progressive Blacks, 3% progressive Asians, and 1% other progressives. Total: 51 percent!

Phillips identifies 33 states where this new majority “has an outright or soon-to-be-outright mathematical majority of eligible voters.” That’s a total of 398 electoral votes, far more than the 270 required to win the presidency. The new majority is especially influential in big cities, while what might be called the old majority is more prominent in rural areas. This urban-rural split, along with some very effective Republican gerrymandering, accounts for the pattern of governance in states like Texas and North Carolina, where Republicans control the state government and the Congressional delegation while Democrats control many large cities.

The next post will discuss the implications of these changes for political strategy and policy. How can the Democratic Party best consolidate a progressive coalition?


Who Votes Now? (part 2)

February 21, 2014

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Leighley and Nagler argue that voter turnout matters in the United States because of increasing income inequality and a persistent income bias in voting. Higher-income voters vote more, and political leaders are more responsive to their interests.

Perceived policy choices

The poor may vote less for many reasons, such as being too busy trying to make ends meet to think very much about politics. But one reason might be that they don’t perceive much difference between candidates on the issues that concern them, or that they don’t see either candidate’s position as very close to their own. Leighley and Nagler test these hypotheses by measuring two variables they call Perceived Policy Difference and Perceived Policy Alienation.

The data for this part of their study come from the American National Election Study covering elections from 1972 to 2008. They analyze the responses to two items:

  1. A seven-point political ideology scale from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative”
  2. A seven-point jobs question, with the endpoints “Some people feel that the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living” and “Others think that the government should just let each person get ahead on his/her own.”

Respondents were asked about the candidates’ positions as well as their own.

Perceived Policy Difference turned out to be a better predictor of voting than Perceived Policy Alienation. For both of the above items, voters who perceived a difference between candidates were more likely to vote. Each item had an independent effect, suggesting that the more differences voters perceive between candidates, the more likely they are to vote. Low-income respondents perceived less difference in candidates than high-income respondents, which is one reason they didn’t vote as much.

Differences between voters and nonvoters

For voter turnout to matter, voters must differ from nonvoters in their positions on issues. More specifically, the authors argue that the income bias in who votes matters because voters differ from nonvoters on economic issues. This is true, for example, for the jobs question: “In 2008, there is a 10.2 percentage-point difference between nonvoters and voters believing that it is the government’s responsibility to guarantee jobs, and a 12.5 percentage-point difference between voters and nonvoters believing that people should ‘get by on their own.'” Voters also differ from nonvoters in political affiliation. In 2008, Republicans were a much larger percentage of voters than of nonvoters (42.7% vs. 26.9%), while Democrats were a slightly smaller percentage (51.7% vs. 54.1%), and Independents were a much smaller percentage (5.6% vs. 18.9%). Independents are a rather disparate bunch, by the way, since the term includes many people who just aren’t interested in politics, as well as a few with specific positions outside the political mainstream.

The authors also report on the 2004 National Annenberg Election Study, which compared the percentages of voters and nonvoters favoring certain economic policies. For each of the following policies, voters were less in favor than nonvoters:

Government health insurance for workers (68.1% vs. 82.1%)
Government health insurance for children (76.6% vs. 88.1%
Making union organizing easier (53.5% vs. 65.9%)
More federal assistance for schools (66.9% vs. 78.6%)
Increasing the minimum wage (80.5% vs. 88.3%)

Leighley and Nagler summarize their findings:

Voters are significantly more conservative than nonvoters on redistributive issues, and they have been in every election since 1972. If we had to point to our most important empirical finding of the many that we report, this is it. Voters may be more liberal than nonvoters on social issues, but on redistributive issues they are not. These redistributive issues define a fundamental relationship between citizens and the state in a modern industrialized democracy and are central to ongoing conflicts about the scope of government. It is on these issues that voters offer a biased view of the preferences of the electorate.

International studies find that the United States stands out among democracies both for its low voter turnout and the income bias in its turnout. The authors charge that our political parties are “failing to convince lower-income voters that they are offering distinctive choices on these issues. Whether perception or reality, this perceived lack of choices undermines the extent to which elections function as a linkage mechanism between citizen preferences and government policies.” Although legislative changes to make voting easier do increase general turnout a little, the authors do not find that they boost turnout very much for the lowest income quintile. What would help more, the authors believe, is giving low-income voters something more substantial to vote for.

Clearly the focus of this study on income bias in voting reflects the authors’ values. They are obviously concerned about the impact of economic inequality on democracy. Critics may fault them for looking so hard for evidence to support their theory. On the other hand, by focusing on this issue, Leighley and Nagler are able to correct some conventional wisdom in their field that turnout doesn’t matter very much. Studies that include a large smorgasbord of issues may find that it often doesn’t. But who participates in the democratic act of voting may matter a great deal in deciding how our democracy addresses a specific issue of great importance–the response of democratic government to the economic inequalities generated by the market economy. (For an interesting discussion of this very old problem, see Benjamin Radcliff’s The Political Economy of Human Happiness.) The question of who votes is inseparable from the question of whose economic interests does government serve. Does it protect the winnings of the more successful or create more opportunity for the less successful? Bill de Blasio ran away with the New York mayor’s race by attacking economic inequality specifically. Is that an antidote for voter disengagement, and a portent of things to come?

Who Votes Now?

February 20, 2014

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Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler. Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014

In 1980, Ray Wolfinger and Steve Rosenstone published Who Votes?, a classic text on voter turnout in the United States. They found that although turnout in presidential elections is low–often less than 60% of eligible voters–that doesn’t effect election outcomes as much as one might think. They didn’t find that voters and nonvoters were different enough in political preferences to make turnout a very large factor. Adding in the nonvoters would not change the outcomes of most elections.

Leighley and Nagler believe that new research is warranted, especially in light of increasing income inequality and the persistent income bias in voter turnout. “The share of income going to the bottom fifth of the distribution decreased from 4.1 percent in 1972 to 3.4 percent of income by 2008. During that same time the share of income going to the wealthiest fifth of the population increased from 43.9 percent of income to 50% of income.” During this period voting rates varied from about 50% for the poorest quintile to 80% for the richest quintile.

Leighley and Nagler set out to show that voters are not representative of the general population when it comes to certain policy issues, especially issues of taxing and spending that affect the distribution of wealth. Nonvoters are more likely to be low-income people who would support redistributive policies if they had an opportunity to do so. The qualification is important, since the authors believe that “the impact of increased economic inequality on turnout will be conditioned by the nature of the political choices offered by the political parties. Individuals may not be given the option by either party to substantially redistribute income from those above the median income level to those below it.” If not, they may have little incentive to vote. And since politicians are more responsive to those who vote than those who don’t, the income bias in voting perpetuates an income bias in policy. By this logic, low turnout is much more detrimental to democracy than earlier studies acknowledged.

Demographics of voting

In addition to the persistent income bias in voting, Leighley and Nagler report a large educational effect–individuals with more formal education are more likely to vote. Multivariate analysis shows that income and education each have an independent effect on voting.

The Anglo (non-Hispanic white) portion of the population declined from 83.2% to 65.6% over the election period studied, 1972-2008. Hispanics are less likely to vote, however, even after controlling for ethnic differences in income and education. African Americans are also less likely to vote, but that difference disappears after controlling for income and education. Blacks actually vote at higher rates than whites of similar socioeconomic status, and black turnout was already increasing before Barack Obama ran for president.

The old vote more than the young, with a noticeable recent increase among those over 75. While age gaps persist, voting rates for the young have been gaining on those of the middle-aged. Single people vote less than married people, even after controlling for age, but the single portion of the population has been growing as people marry later and experience more divorce.

Women used to vote less than men, but since 1984 they’ve been voting more than men.

The authors do not discuss in any detail how these changing demographics affect political party affiliation or voting preferences. The turnout of higher-income voters is no doubt crucial to Republican candidates, but Democrats might take comfort in the fact that some groups with Democratic inclinations are either growing as a share of the population (Hispanics, single people) or voting at a higher rate (women, African Americans).

Legal measures to increase turnout

The authors observe that “the United States is unique among modern democracies in the burden it puts on citizens seeking to exercise their right to vote.” Voter registration usually requires a special application process well in advance of an election. Voting often takes place within a short window of time scheduled for a workday. One approach to increasing turnout is making it easier to register or cast a ballot.

Between 1972 and 2008, most states adopted one or more innovations to make voting easier. The number of states allowing voter registration through motor vehicle departments increased from 2 to 50, as required by a new federal law; the number with “no-fault” absentee voting (voting absentee for whatever reason), went from 2 to 27; the number with in-person early voting went from 2 to 27; and the number with election-day registration went from 0 to 9.

Leighley and Nagler find small but significant effects for many of these reforms. Their quantitative model estimates that no-fault absentee voting increases turnout by 3.2%, and election-day voting increases it by 2.8%. Early voting has little effect unless the voting period is unusually long. The authors did not study the effects of rolling back any of these reforms, as Republicans in some states are now trying to do. One wonders if increases in turnout are easily reversible, or if most of the newer voters continue to participate once they get over the initial hurdle. Also not studied were new legal requirements such as voter ID.

Having reported the modest effects of legislative changes on turnout, the authors turn to their main interest, demonstrating that the income bias in turnout leaves certain economic policy positions underrepresented in our democracy. That will be the topic of my next post.

Our Politically Independent Poor

September 24, 2012

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The Democratic Party has traditionally tried to do more for poor people. So one might well assume that poor people strongly support the Democratic Party. This turns out not to be true, according to research by Gallup. Gallup finds that the percentage of poor people identifying themselves as Democrats is only 32%, only slightly above the 30% of non-poor with that identification. This is not because the poor are Republicans; it’s mainly because 50% of them don’t identify with any party. Either they describe themselves as Independents, or they just don’t have strong opinions one way or the other. Maybe they have more pressing concerns than following politics, or they don’t believe that election outcomes make much difference in their lives anyway. As for the non-poor, Gallup classifies 40% of them as Independents, with the remainder split fairly evenly between the two major parties. Note that they are using “independent” as a broad term to include all those without a particular party, not just those who haven’t made up their minds in this particular election.

This is further evidence that Obama supporters cannot be equated with people who are dependent on government, or with people whose incomes are too low to be subject to federal income taxes. These are three different groups that only partly overlap, and that together make up well over half the population. Governor Romney displayed a serious misunderstanding of the electorate when he said that he should concern himself with independents instead of people who don’t pay income taxes, since they will vote for Obama “no matter what.” A large portion of the poor are independents whose votes are normally up for grabs, and they shouldn’t be either written off by Republicans or taken for granted by Democrats.  Even the smaller number of voters who haven’t yet made up their minds in this election are probably spread across many income groups and tax categories. Gallup is finding that many of the poor are less likely to vote for Romney as a result of his dismissive remarks.