Can the Republican Party thrive on white identity?

April 16
(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Liberals like to imagine a political future in which increasing ethnic diversity will inexorably shift the partisan balance in America from Republicans to Democrats. But demography is not destiny, and the political implications of increasing diversity cannot be inferred simply from projected demographic shifts.

The Republican-leaning white majority is shrinking, while Barack Obama’s vote share in the growing Hispanic and Asian American communities increased from more than 60 percent in 2008 to more than 70 percent in 2012. What could go wrong? Among other things, demographic change itself could blunt the pro-Democratic impact of identity politics among non-whites and magnify its pro-Republican impact among whites. Two new studies of how racial and ethnic identities shape political loyalties shed light on the future of identity politics in a more diverse America.

A working paper by Alexander Kuo, Neil Malhotra and (my Vanderbilt colleague) Cecilia Hyunjung Mo examines the basis of growing Democratic identification among Asian Americans. Among other analyses, they report the results of an experiment in which Asian American college students were randomly subjected to a seemingly incidental but carefully staged “microaggression”—having their U.S. citizenship questioned by the experimenter. This minor but socially charged interaction boosted Democratic partisanship by 13 percentage points,  a remarkable shift. (The corresponding effect among white students was only three percentage points.)

Asian Americans who experienced the insensitive questioning were also “more likely to view Republicans generally as closed-minded and ignorant” and to express more negative feelings toward them — despite the fact that Republicans were never mentioned by the experimenter or connected to the microagression. Thus, the authors’ findings “suggest that Asian Americans associate feelings of social exclusion based on their ethnic background with the Republican Party.”

It is easy to see how that sort of implicit association in the minds of Asian Americans could bolster their Democratic loyalties. However, such experiences of social exclusion based on ethnicity will probably be less common in 20 years, when there are likely to be 50 percent more Asian Americans and 50 percent more Hispanic Americans than there are now. In that respect, the very fact of increasing ethnic diversity may blunt the political force of minority identities.

Conversely, increasing ethnic diversity could magnify the political import of white identity. A new article by psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson nicely illustrates this often-overlooked political byproduct of demographic change. In one experiment, a nationally representative sample of white political independents was asked “if they had heard that California had become a majority-minority state.” An otherwise similar control group was asked “if they had heard that Hispanics had become roughly equal in number to Blacks nationally.” Both groups were then asked which political party they leaned toward. The people who had been informed (or simply reminded) of the potentially threatening demographic shift in California were significantly more likely to lean Republican. This effect was twice as strong in the West as in the nation as a whole, producing a substantial 11-point increase in Republican leaning (and a 15-point decrease in Democratic leaning). And remember, these were political independents—not the hard-core dead-enders already won over by the Republican Party’s “indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity.”

In a follow-up study, white subjects who were randomly assigned to read a press release about “projections that racial minorities will constitute a majority of the U.S. populace by 2042” subsequently expressed more conservative policy views than those who read about “the growth in geographic mobility in the United States.” Being prompted to consider the prospect of demographic change produced more conservative views not only on plausibly relevant issues like immigration and affirmative action, but also on seemingly unrelated issues like defense spending and health-care reform.

Results like these seem to me to cast considerable doubt on Thomas Edsall’s estimate that “a strategy banking on mobilizing white voters” can only be viable in American politics for “the next decade or so.” Even momentous demographic changes occur slowly; non-Hispanic whites will remain a majority of the U.S. population for the next 30 years, and (allowing for differences in age profiles, citizenship status and turnout) a majority of the electorate even longer. (According to Census Bureau tabulations, non-Hispanic whites were 65 percent of the U.S. population in 2012, but 74 percent of the electorate.) Thus, if white voters “continue to migrate toward the Republican Party” in response to demographic change, “it will be a long time before it finds itself unable to win elections.”

Just look at demographically diverse but stubbornly Republican Texas, always just about to turn blue. The changing American polity may come to look more like Texas than like the multicultural Democratic stronghold of California. In an increasingly diverse America, identity politics will continue to cut both ways.

Larry Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. He has written extensively on American electoral politics, public opinion, representation, and public policy.
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Andrew Gelman · April 16