The palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
—Herman Melville, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Moby Dick, 1851.
It’s not a traditional America anymore....The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?
—Bill O’Reilly, Nov. 6, 2012
Fred Barnes says the GOP should get over its hangup about being the party of white people. The white vote’s “share of the electorate is shrinking,” he writes in the Weekly Standard, “but slowly."
Whites are the nation’s dominant voting bloc today and will be for many elections to come. In 2008, 74 percent of voters were white. That percentage might have held in 2012 as well, if millions of white voters from 2008 hadn’t stayed away from the polls last week.
In any event, the white vote is a Republican stronghold—and not because of racism. In 2008, Obama fared better with white voters (43 percent) than Democrat John Kerry had in 2004 (41 percent). In 2012, Obama’s white support fell to 39 percent.... Republicans shouldn’t feel guilty about their white support.
Actually, they should feel a little guilty. Barnes is being disingenuous when he suggests that white flight to the GOP since the 1960s has nothing to do with racism. True, it hasn’t entirely to do with it. But if you ignore the role that racism (particularly southern white racism) played in this historic migration you’re ignoring the, um, elephant in the room. Barnes is right that whites demonstrate no unique aversion to Barack Obama as compared to other Democratic presidential candidates of the post-civil-rights era. But that’s mainly because many white voters viewed the lot of them as coddling blacks and other minorities. Even Obama’s 39 percent of the white vote this year, while lower than what he got in 2008 and what Kerry got in 2004, is the same percentage Bill Clinton got in 1992. It also beats Walter Mondale’s 35 percent in 1984, Jimmy Carter’s 36 percent in 1980, and George McGovern’s 32 percent in 1972 (with the significant difference, of course, that Mondale, Carter, and McGovern all lost). The next person the Democrats nominate for president will likely be Caucasian, yet probably won’t poll appreciably better among whites than Obama did in 2012. He (or she) might poll worse.
Even so, trying to keep building electoral majorities around the white vote is a terrible idea for the GOP. Barnes notes the obvious problem, which is that the white share of the electorate is shrinking; according to current projections, whites will cease being the majority sometime around 2050. Perhaps Barnes figures that as the white majority continues to shrink, white people will become more like a minority, embracing identity politics and maintaining electoral coherence through a shared sense of exclusion from the mainstream. The rise of the Tea Party would seem to support that view.
But there’s something Barnes isn’t thinking about. It isn’t just the white proportion that’s changing. White people themselves are changing, too. They’re getting, for want of a better phrase, less white.
The Tea Party is going in an opposite, whiter direction. But the thing to remember about Tea Partiers is that they’re disproportionately old—basically, they’re retirees and near-retirees who oppose all aspects of the welfare state except the part that goes to them through Social Security and Medicare. (As it happens, that’s most of it.) The 2012 results suggest that the Tea Party movement may already have peaked, but even if it hasn’t, actuarial science dictates that its members won’t be around for very long.
And it’s doubtful they’ll be replaced by younger versions of themselves. In 2008 Obama won 54 percent of all white voters age 18 to 29, even as he lost the broader white vote. In 2012 Obama’s share of 18- to 29-year-old whites fell to about 44 percent, but that’s still better than his 39 percent share of all white votes. One reason Mitt Romney was able to win the white youth vote, I’d guess—apart from the obvious reason that younger white voters (males especially) were disaffected by the state of the economy—is that after briefly flirting with a race-tinged message, Romney wisely backed off (at least in his national messaging).
Even vague appeals to white voters based on a common identity—appeals that work pretty well right now with older voters—just aren’t going to work with younger ones. And while older voters may feel perfectly comfortable inhabiting a GOP electorate that’s 90 percent white, I seriously doubt that younger white voters will. Young white people dwell in a world that’s much more multicultural than that of their elders—all that tiresome sermonizing they get in grade school seems to have a beneficial effect—and they’ll be disinclined, I think, to leave it behind when they enter the voting booth. They won’t want their party to be a white ghetto.