Against Demographics

As my colleague Cord Jefferson notes, the 2012 election returns have been widely interpreted as the ratification of an ethno-political realignment that first occurred in 2008: Black, Latino, and Asian voters are firmly in the Democratic column, and they will remain so in ever greater numbers. The white population is shrinking relative to its brown counterparts, and demography is destiny. Brown people are Democrats, white people are Republicans, and brown people are having more babies. Good luck, GOP!

This narrative has been seized by both sides. On election night, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly mournfully announced the death of the "white establishment" and calmly explained to his viewers that black and brown people simply outnumbered them now, and would be coming soon for their "stuff." Joyous liberals have essentially endorsed that analysis (minus the racism): After decades of marginalization, the nonwhite electorate is finally—and permanently—making its voice heard in a decisive way.

At some level, that demographic view of the 2012 election is inarguably sound. It worked. Obama set out a year ago to mobilize black, Latino, and Asian voters (as well as young ones). He did, and he won. And to the extent that, in secret war rooms full of humming servers and gimlet-eyed operatives, narrow demographic coalition-building works as a political strategy for electing Democrats, I heartily endorse it.

But it's a lousy way to explain elections to the public, and to think about politics. Black people have reasons beyond their blackness for favoring Barack Obama. So do Latinos. And Asians. Barack Obama didn't win by getting more nonwhite people to the polls. He won by advocating policies that appeal to more people, period. To splinter that appeal into ethnic categories is useful to the folks concerned with what's under the hood of the campaign machinery, and it's important to know how those people view their jobs. But to chalk up the nonwhite vote to a simple "Latinos vote Democrat" formula does a disservice to real policy preferences that exist independently of, and matter much more than, the race of the voter.

The black vote, for instance, is commonly thought by right-wing Republicans to have gone almost exclusively to Barack Obama in 2008 and this week as a matter of racial solidarity: An expression of tribalism, not rational preference. To some extent, that's probably true (and eminently unobjectionable, given the historical breakthrough he represents). But Jimmy Carter received 83% of the African-American vote in 1980, versus Obama's 93%. There's obviously something more than blackness at work. Black people tend to vote Democratic not because they are black, or because their candidate is black, but because the Democratic Party embraces policy proposals around a number of areas—particularly education and urban poverty—that many African-Americans also embrace.

The Latino vote is of course a function of the GOP's toxic attitude toward immigrants and their children. But the pride on the left at having won that group—the Latinos are ours!—threatens to reduce those voters to mere self-interested actors who vote for the people who are nicest to their race. When Romney surrogate John Sununu dismissed Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama as unthinking racialism, rather than a thoughtful choice, he was roundly castigated. Every Obama voter deserves the same respect that Sununu failed to show Powell—the presumption that their votes are based on values and reason rather than thoughtless self-interest.

One of the reasons the right-wing "brown people won" argument is so irksome is the implication that nonwhite votes don't really count in the way white ones do. That white people vote based on logic and argumentation, and are persuadable, but nonwhites just press the "D" button and wait for their Obamaphones. That appealing to white votes and nonwhite votes are fundamentally different things. We would have won—we had more votes, but they had the blacks. What are you gonna do?

This is vile. All votes are the same. Persuading an African-American to vote for increasing taxes on the wealthy is precisely the same as persuading a white voter. Every Latino who cares about the treatment of illegal immigrants in this country and so voted for Obama did so for the same reason I did. There's no difference between us. But the giddiness among the left over the racial coalition Obama built sometimes strikes me as uncomfortably close to eliding that fundamental equality, and regarding nonwhite votes as gimmes that don't require persuasion. And it subtly ghettoizes those nonwhite voters, splintering issues of national importance into slivers of self-interest. Obama didn't win because Latino voters want immigration reform. He won because more Americans want immigration reform than don't.

I don't mean to say that race doesn't matter, or that we are all atomized political actors calmly evaluating positions without reference to our own cultural identities. And the overwhelming margins Obama got among nonwhite voters speak for themselves. But when it comes to explaining and analyzing the results, we do those voters a disservice if we let their race stand in for their reasons.

(By the way, Cord's boss and mine has crudely dismissed the view that Obama won because of a realignment in the nonwhite vote as "Brown Triumphalism." Nick is wrong. The demographic trends are real and will grow. The close overall margin this year doesn't negate the long-term impact that 71% of Hispanics voting Democratic will have on our politics. I don't dispute the trends; merely the weight we place on race as an explanatory tool.)