If any force on Earth could be powerful enough to unite the Democratic Party, you’d have thought the words “President Donald Trump” would do the trick. Instead, Hillary Clinton’s defeat last November only served to intensify the split within the party. Nine months in, two warring camps continue to offer seemingly irreconcilable versions of what went awry and how to fix it. On one side, populists like Bernie Sanders and Rust Belt Democrats like Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio argue that the party lost by neglecting working-class voters while catering primarily to “identity politics.” On the other side, an equally vocal contingent makes the opposite case: that the Democrats will blow it in 2018 and 2020 if they take voters of color for granted and focus their energy on wooing the white voters who backed Trump.
Steve Phillips of the Center for American Progress, a leading proponent of the latter view, argues that the Democrats doomed themselves in 2016 with “a strategic error: prioritizing the pursuit of wavering whites over investing in and inspiring African American voters.” In the wake of the election, Phillips wrote in The Nation that “the single greatest force shaping American politics today is the demographic revolution that is transforming the racial composition of the U.S. population.”
Taken together, Phillips writes in his book, Brown Is the New White, “progressive people of color” already combine with “progressive whites” to make up 51 percent of voting-age Americans. “And that majority,” he adds, “is getting bigger every single day.” The strategy prescription logically follows. Rejecting the notion that Democrats must woo Trump voters as a “fool’s errand,” Phillips says the party must be “race-conscious and not race-neutral or color-blind.” Demographics are destiny. “The concerns of people of color,” he concludes, “should be driving politics today and into the future.”
This isn’t a new argument, of course—and I bear some responsibility for it. The book I co-wrote in 2002 with demographer Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority, laid out an overly optimistic forecast of the party’s prospects in an increasingly diverse America. By and large, Teixeira still holds to the view that the growth of minority populations will provide a long-term “boost to the left.” In his new book, fittingly titled The Optimistic Leftist, Teixeira notes that by the 2050s, eleven of the 15 largest states will be “majority-minority.”
On one level, there’s no arguing with the math. If you take the percentage of Americans that the U.S. census defines as “minorities” and project their past voting habits into the next decade and beyond, you’ll come up with a very sunny version of the Democrats’ prospects. There are only two problems with this line of thinking, but they’re pretty big ones. For starters, the census prediction of a “majority-minority” America—slated to arrive in 2044—is deeply flawed. And so is the notion that ethnic minorities will always and forever continue to back Democrats in Obama-like numbers.
The U.S. census makes a critical assumption that undermines its predictions of a majority-nonwhite country. It projects that the same percentage of people who currently identify themselves as “Latino” or “Asian” will continue to claim those identities in future generations. In reality, that’s highly unlikely. History shows that as ethnic groups assimilate into American culture, they increasingly identify themselves as “white.”
Whiteness is not a genetic category, after all; it’s a social and political construct that relies on perception and prejudice. A century ago, Irish, Italians, and Jews were not seen as whites. “This town has 8,000,000 people,” a young Harry Truman wrote his cousin upon visiting New York City in 1918. “7,500,000 of ’em are of Israelish extraction. (400,000 wops and the rest are white people.)” But by the time Truman became president, all those immigrant groups were considered “white.” There’s no reason to imagine that Latinos and Asians won’t follow much the same pattern.
In fact, it’s already happening. In the 2010 Census, 53 percent of Latinos identified as “white,” as did more than half of Asian Americans of mixed parentage. In future generations, those percentages are almost certain to grow. According to a recent Pew study, more than one-quarter of Latinos and Asians marry non-Latinos and non-Asians, and that number will surely continue to climb over the generations.
Unless ethnic identification is defined in purely racial—and racist—terms, the census projections are straight-out wrong and profoundly misleading. So is the assumption that Asians and Latinos will continue to vote at an overwhelming clip for Democrats. This view, which underpins the whole idea of a “new American majority,” ignores the diversity that already prevails among voters lumped together as “Latino” or “Asian.” Cuban-Americans in Miami vote very differently from Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles; immigrants from Japan or Vietnam come from starkly different cultures than those from South Korea or China. While more than two-thirds of Asian voters went for Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 2016, they leaned the other way in the 2014 midterms: National exit polls showed them favoring Republicans by 50 to 49 percent.
Similarly, while Latinos form a strong Democratic bloc in California, in most states they don’t automatically punch the “D.” In Texas, Senator John Cornyn bested his Democratic opponent among Latinos in 2014 by a small margin, and Senator Richard Burr won 49 percent of the Latino vote in North Carolina last year over a strong liberal challenger. In Florida, Marco Rubio almost won the Latino vote in 2016. Those are not the kinds of numbers on which you can build a lasting majority.
Going forward, the real demographic question is not whether voters of color will combine with progressive whites to form a new American majority; it’s whether Democrats, without abandoning their commitment to racial justice and to America’s immigrants, can succeed in crafting a message and an agenda that steers clear of the liberal version of racial stereotyping: assuming that people of color will inevitably vote alike.
Democrats need to heed two obvious but often ignored facts about American politics. The first is that Democrats from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama have succeeded in winning national elections (as have most of the Republicans who’ve entered the White House) by convincingly portraying themselves as the candidates of “the common folk” and “the middle class” against Wall Street and other special interests.
Especially following his noxious comments on Charlottesville, it’s hard to see Trump’s election as anything but a national revival of white supremacy. To be sure, he put out plenty of dog whistles for the racists. But in the general election, Trump ran as the candidate of the “silent majority,” who promised to “make America great again” in the face of opposition from “the establishment.”
The second fact about elections is that conservatives in both parties have repeatedly defeated left and center-left candidates by dividing their natural constituency—the bottom two-thirds of America’s economic pyramid—along racial or ethnic lines. The Democrats who have successfully countered this divide-and-conquer strategy didn’t turn their backs on the civil rights of African Americans or Mexican-Americans, or on a woman’s right to choose; rather, they emphasized the fundamental interest in prosperity and peace that unites the working and middle classes. Think of Bill Clinton’s “putting people first” campaign in 1992, or Obama’s reelection effort in 2012, when he spent the year contrasting his vision of a country in which “everybody gets a fair shot” with the GOP’s “same old you’re-on-your-own philosophy.”
By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” campaign was rooted in the idea of “inclusion.” She conveyed her concern with race, ethnicity, and gender, but not with what Sanders called “the disappearing middle class.”
If Democrats try to win future elections by relying on narrow racial-ethnic targeting, they will not only enable the Republicans to play wedge politics, they will also miss the opportunity to make a broader economic argument. Not long ago, I spoke with Mustafa Tameez, a Houston political consultant who made his name helping to elect the first Vietnamese-American to the Texas House. The momentum in American politics, he believes, is with Democrats who stress “an economic message rather than ethnic-identity politics. We can’t buy into the conservative frame that the Democrats are a party of the minorities.”
This thinking runs contrary to the “race-conscious” strategy touted by Democrats who believe that a majority-minority nation is a guarantee of victory. Sorry to say, but it’s not going to happen. The best way for Democrats to build a lasting majority is to fight for an agenda of shared prosperity that has the power to unite, rather than divide, their natural constituencies. There is no need, in short, for Democrats to choose between appealing to white workers and courting people of color. By making a strong and effective case for economic justice, they can do both at the same time.