Speaking at a news conference on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) disparaged President Trump’s renewed effort to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census.
“This is about keeping — you know, Make America, you know his hat? Make America White Again,” she said. “They want to make sure that certain people are counted. It’s really disgraceful and it’s not what our founders had in mind.”
Setting aside her fraught invocation of the Founding Fathers — a group that reserved the franchise for white, male landowners and who declined to count black slaves as full people — Pelosi’s reworked slogan captures a potent dynamic in American politics.
It is to the Republican Party’s advantage to center political power and government resources on white people and to draw district lines with a focus on white Americans. It is to the party’s advantage to limit the ability of nonwhite Americans to vote. It is the case, in other words, that a political structure that is more heavily white is one in which Republicans have broader advantages.
The reason for this is simple. Black Americans overwhelmingly and consistently vote Democratic. To a lesser extent, so do Hispanic and Asian Americans. In the 2016 presidential election, those groups backed Hillary Clinton over Trump by 81, 38 and 38 points, respectively. In 2017, whites were more heavily Republican than Democratic, according to Pew. Eighty-four percent of black Americans, though, identified as Democrats, as did 63 percent of Hispanics and 65 percent of Asians.
The result? The Democratic Party is about 59 percent white, according to Pew Research Center data from 2018, compared with about 83 percent of the GOP. The Republican Party is more heavily white now than the Democratic Party was in 1997.
If you pick 10 white Americans at random, you’re going to get about an even mix of Democrats and Republicans (including independents who lean toward one party or the other). Pick 10 Asian or Hispanic Americans and you’ll have twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Pick 10 black Americans at random? You’ll end up with one, maybe two Republicans.
In other words, if you want to target Democrats, targeting black Americans or nonwhite Americans is an effective proxy. In fact, it’s often the only way to draw that distinction.
We’ve seen this play out in fights over state elections. North Carolina legislative districts drawn after the 2010 Census were struck down by a federal court in 2017 in part for intentionally weakening the power of black voters. A legislator involved in drawing those lines was explicit in describing his aim: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats, so I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.” Weakening the power of black people meant bolstering the power of the Republican Party.
Republicans in the state were also criticized for implementing a voter ID law that similarly had a disproportionate effect on black voters. A federal court found that the Republicans drafting the law requiring identification to vote specifically sought to identify and exclude forms of identification used by black North Carolinians. The goal wasn’t specifically to keep black people from voting. It was to keep Democrats from voting, and the way to do that was to throw up roadblocks for blacks.
Trump’s administration has argued that a citizenship question is needed on the Census to protect the Voting Rights Act, an argument the Supreme Court rejected. To hear Trump tell it, though, one reason the question is needed is “for Congress for districting.”
This, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, is precisely the argument that opponents of the question have offered: that Trump and Republicans want to focus on the number of citizens in a district when drawing district lines. Why? Because doing so would exclude many nonwhite noncitizens, diluting the power of nonwhite residents. And, again, bolstering the power of Trump’s party.
This dilution would occur because districts are drawn to cover certain population sizes. If the recorded population of a heavily nonwhite area excludes a number of residents, each of the actual residents in that area would make up a smaller share of an elected official’s constituency than in a district without such exclusions. What’s more, drawing districts using those inaccurate data could mean fewer districts drawn in more Democratic (and less white) areas in an effort to hit the required population benchmark for a district — and therefore drawing more districts in Republican areas.
Including the question at all might prompt some people to not respond to the Census, experts fear, having the same effect as excluding noncitizens from the districting process. That reduction in participation — an undercount in the parlance — would by itself aid the GOP’s political purposes.
In her MAWA comment, Pelosi was getting at these perverse incentives — but she was also making a broader point.
While some Trump supporters and Republican officials see race-based tools as a way to centralize power for the party, some Trump supporters support centralizing power explicitly among whites as a viable goal in its own right.
In 2016, a candidate for Congress in Tennessee was explicit, putting up literal “Make America White Again” billboards in his district. (He lost.) Others are more subtle, embracing Trump’s presidency and rhetoric because they see it as bolstering their own racist goals. Trump’s response to the racist protests in Charlottesville in 2017, for example, was embraced by racists like David Duke. Many were thrilled by his embrace of the purported plight of white farmers in South Africa, a staple of white-nationalist rhetoric.
Polling generally shows that about half of Americans think Trump is racist. Some small portion of those who think he is a racist likely see that as a positive. It seems safe to assume that the more densely white a group is, such a sentiment might be more common -- and the more that group might appeal to those who hold that sentiment.
Since he declared his candidacy, Trump has walked a fine line between the two rationales motivating his supporters to prioritize white Americans, the political motivation and the racist one. He’s at times been forced to disavow white-nationalist supporters but clearly recognizes the broader potency of racial rhetoric, such as his excoriations of immigrants with his base.
Pelosi was highlighting questions about Trump’s views on race in modifying his slogan. In doing so, she also drew attention to the political utility for the Republican Party in drawing distinctions based on race. Identifying the boundary between those two motivations during fights over changes to the political system can at times be tricky.
Particularly because, on some occasions, there isn’t much of a boundary at all.