Demographic Blinders

In the course of research for my current book, I’ve been reading an essay, a screed really, first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1916 by Randolph Bourne. Something he wrote struck me, not for my work, but in light of all the discussions this week concerning the election and expectations about who would vote–about who they are who voted, more accurately. Bourne, who had been a student of John Dewey, wrote that:

Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed. In a world which has dream of internationalism, we find that we have all unawares been building up the first international nation. The voices which have cried for a tight and jealous nationalism of the European pattern are failing. From that ideal, however valiantly and disinterestedly it has been set for us, time and tendency have moved us further and further away. What we have achieved has been rather a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures, from whom the sting of devastating competition has been removed. (July, 1916, page 93)

What’s remarkable about this is really two things. First, it seems as though it could have been written about the changing demographics almost a century after it was published. Were it to appear today, the author would likely be a Democrat extolling the rising influence of Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans on our electoral system. Some things don’t change.

Yes, some things don’t change. Which brings me to the second “thing.” That is, reports of the death of the “traditional” Republican party may be premature. The “bloc” of white males, shrinking though it may appear to be in this recent election, is no limited and homogenous “bloc” at all but a coalition of admittedly European-descended males who have come together over the past century out of distinct and often hostile groups. Calling them a single group, for predictive purposes, is probably still not a good idea–for the group is not as exclusionary as it may seem when just looking at the numbers today. For the group will change: it won’t always be just white males.

Again, as it has in the past, that group will grow and change, even if many of its political goals do remain the same (which they probably will not). Once the thrill of our first African-American president wears off, many blacks will probably peel themselves away from the Democratic Party, even though there is certainly a great deal of racism remaining in the Republican Party. The same thing happened with Catholics over the last generation–anti-Catholic feelings in America, remember, were once rampant. Latinos, as a sane immigration policy develops and as the place of Latinos in American culture grows more secure, will do the same thing. Asian-Americans, too, will stop being a block but will participate in many.

The idea that ethnicity defines voting patterns is an old one, but it does not tell the whole story. Visible ethnic markers never suffice for prediction. This does not mean that America has that old melting pot (Bourne argues against that quite strenuously) but that people do compromise and cooperate, developing new allegiances and alliances.

Right now, the real problem for the Republicans is that they are caught in a Tea-Party vice that allows no compromise. Cooperation, that Tea-Party few believe, means coming over to their side (witness John Boehner’s recent comments calling on Obama, even in the light of electoral rejection of Republican plans, to move to his position without leaving any room for compromise on his own part). It is these few, not the white males who went for Romney, who are on the wrong side of history–for America has always been a land of compromise and will have to be, to survive into the future.

The only way to create a successful ‘federation of national colonies’ is to constantly reach out to other ‘states.’ Over time, as these ‘states’ become more and more identified with each other, outsiders begin to see them as the same–as current political demographers do with white males–ignoring the differences that are constantly being overcome and the changes always going on within that new demographic ‘state.’

The problem facing the Republican Party right now isn’t demographic change–it can weather that, even though it did not recognize it during the recent election campaign–but is inability to compromise. As soon as Boehner, for example, realizes that he can risk alienating the Tea-Party members of the House without losing his Speakership, he can start helping his party move forward, forging coalitions across the aisle and with the President, returning the American political process to its fluidity and movement, breaking the current log-jam, one so alien to our political traditions.

The Republican Party is not dependent on the Tea Party, but on the process of ethnic alliance that has often worked so well that we tend to forget the differences within the older of those alliances. The groups within the Democratic Party may be more visibly distinct right now but, at their core, they are no more distinct than those making up the groups within the Republican Party. The latter had just been together a little (or a lot) longer.

Putting people in demographic boxes sometimes works in the moment (as it did for the Democratic Party in this election and did not for the Republicans). Relying on them for the long term will not. Relying on them only turns them into blinders, making it certain you see only what you want to see as the road ahead, not the whole of the landscape.

One thought on “Demographic Blinders

  1. Aaron is right on the mark with this post. One might consider how quickly, following the Great Migration, African-Americans in the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest shifted from voting Republican to voting Democratic when their interests aligned with and, more accurately, overlapped with those of other groups that were Democratic–specifically, unionized industrial workers and, more recently, unionized public-sector workers. That shift began well ahead of the Civil Rights era. Also, one might consider how quickly, following the Civil Rights legislation of the mid-1960s, Southern Whites shifted from voting Democratic to Republican not just because of the very salient issues of race but because Republican conservatives pointedly embraced other appealing ideologies such as religious fundamentalism and anti-environmentalism (which still has great appeal in the states that produce coal, oil, and natural gas, and because of “fracking,” natural gas production is rapidly becoming as important economically in Appalachia as it has been in Oklahoma, Texas,Louisiana, and the rest of the Gulf).

    We prefer to consider electoral demographics as something that can be rendered nicely into pie or bar graphs. But those demographics are more analogous to a plate of somewhat over-cooked spaghetti.

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