How Low Can Democrats Go With White Folk?

Friday afternoons are a fine time to look at counter-intuitive analysis that keeps the synapses firing. A WaPo op-ed today by Harvard’s Ryan Enos certainly qualifies:

Since the November election, in which President Obama won huge majorities among minority voters, it’s been taken as gospel that the Republican Party must, for its own survival, seek to appeal to those groups by moving to the left on topics such as immigration reform. But as the nation becomes more diverse, the demographic shift can cut the other way, too: Some Democratic voters are likely to move to the right.

It’s assumed that, as the United States becomes increasingly non-white, white Democrats will continue to support the party. But a substantial amount of social-science evidence suggests a different conclusion: As the United States becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, liberal whites might start leaning Republican.

After citing an experiment of his own wherein Boston train commuters registered a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment after being confronted with regular Spanish-speaking Latino travelers, Enos makes a big generalizing jump:

Political scientists, economists, sociologists and psychologists have long noted that, under most circumstances, when people from different ethnic, racial and religious groups come into new contact, conflict ensues. Just look at the battles over busing students from different neighborhoods into public schools in the 1960s and ’70s.

Those conflicts often change the way people vote.

Like southerners in black-belt areas and Chicagoans dealing with the consequences of fair housing laws, Enos suggests, previously Democratic-voting white folk may be driven to the right by rising minority populations. And he also indicates this is not simply a function of some latent white racism, but simply the product of the polarization that tends to occur (among minority groups as well) when different racial and ethnic communities come into close and immediate proximity.

As different groups come into contact, people often have adverse reactions, and this can cause them to vote for a party that represents opposition to other groups. In today’s electoral landscape, that might mean white Democrats would be more willing to vote Republican.

I don’t know how valid Enos’ “science” is on this subject; his examples seem awfully anecdotal. But it is probably worthwhile for Democrats to reconsider something many have largely taken for granted: that the 39% of the white vote won by Barack Obama in 2012 is close to some natural lower “floor” for Democratic support, which is unlikely to be reached again since (a) future Democratic nominees, even if they are nonwhite, are unlikely to have as polarizing an impact as the “first black nominee for president;” and (b) younger white voters were significantly more likely than their elders to vote for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

The second factor in particular is hard to argue away (and Enos does not try to do so), but he’s right that there is no iron law that dictates Democrats can steadily gain from a growing nonwhite electorate while maintaining white support at current levels or higher.

If, however, Enos is right, then the most disturbing consequence isn’t that one party or the other could benefit or suffer from rising racial and ethnic conflict: it’s that the Republican Party would have a fresh incentive to promote such conflict if the fruits of backlash are indeed unlimited. It’s certainly a lot easier than trying to get minority voters to favor conservative policies they have every reason to dislike.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.