With the white population shrinking, the black-Hispanic-Asian coalition that powered Obama’s victory has the potential to set a new, more progressive American agenda
If Barack Obama’s election as America’s 44th President in 2008 was historic, as surely it was, with him becoming the nation’s first black head of state, his re-election marks an epochal transition in the political and electoral landscape of the United States. Demography indeed became destiny on November 6, 2012. America’s receding white electoral majority continued giving way to a new majority-minority ascendance. The historical significance of this transition and its implications for the future of America and the world should not be underestimated.
The ‘founding fathers’ on up to even ‘The Great Emancipator’ Abraham Lincoln were so bent on the vision of America as a ‘white nation’ that uppermost on the agenda of solving ‘the race problem’ was: free the slaves and ship them back to Africa (which inspired Liberia’s founding, burdening the Mano River region of West Africa with an Americo-Liberian settler problem); and exterminate as many native Amerindians as possible. Meanwhile, the fledgling American political system became enthralled to a southern slavocracy, the legacy of which is only now being overcome through the Obama elections of 2008 and 2012.
Until now, the southern U.S. — Ol’Dixie — has been the tail wagging the dog of American politics. No longer. What was once a ‘solid South’ of racially-based, Christian fundamentalist-grounded, and pro-militarist reaction has eroded amid a major demographic transition that has been under way in the U.S. for decades beginning with the outlawing of racial segregationist Jim Crow in the 1960s. This happened as a result of a civil rights/black power movement that ushered in an era of national socio-racial and class upheavals and wrought profound changes in the American body politic.
President Obama’s ascendant black-Hispanic-Asian ‘rainbow coalition’ joined by women, younger age cohorts and university educated and professional classes is, in many respects, a legacy of the1960s-70s black movement (black activism having catalysed other American social movements, and the rise of ‘identity politics’: women’s liberation, anti-war protest, counter-cultural assertion). But this legacy has begun making itself felt in electoral terms only after an extremely costly but unavoidable interregnum of ‘white backlash’ political polarisation.
The partisan political identity reversals of the two-party system were a dramatic outcome of President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to commit the Democratic Party to regional political suicide in dismantling the South’s racial dictatorship. The Republican party of black emancipation from slavery grabbed the ‘Dixiecrat’ mantle from Democrats who became the party of civil rights and black political empowerment!
In this political transfiguration, other things happened. As the northern Catholic-southern Dixiecrat alliance underpinning Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal crumbled, Johnson ceded the South to a Republican party that was increasingly beating Democrats to the anti-communist punch while assuming the ideological mantle of ‘law and order.’ This was in the form of white backlash resistance to urban black protest and political assertion, counter-cultural New Leftism and perceived liberal elitism. Republicans discovered a ‘southern strategy’ to victory in presidential elections, reinforced by a power shift within the GOP — from Northeast-Midwestern Lincoln-Rockefeller Republicans to new elites hailing from the southwest in a ‘sunbelt’ rim extending from Orange County in southern California through Texas all the way to the Florida panhandle with its influx of anti-Castro Cubans.
The presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and those of Bush the elder and Bush the younger reflected this GOP ‘electoral lock’ on the White House. Democrats had to adapt to this new sunbelt regionalism in the ‘southern fried’ liberal presidencies of Jimmy Carter (Georgia) and Bill Clinton (Arkansas). Otherwise, the other part of Johnson’s legacy was the Democratic Party becoming the home of the politicisation of African-American ethnicity. This regionally polarised northern politics as whites fled the cities for the suburbs, taking their tax bases with them.
Republicans were able to successfully play a racial politics of isolating the black electorate while mobilising a conservative majoritarian white coalition. That is, until converging demographic forces of black migration back to the South (from where blacks had fled during the racist terror at the turn of the 19th-20th century) and Latino-Hispanic immigration gained momentum. This involved Puerto Ricans moving into the Northeast and Midwest interacting with Mexican immigration into the southwest and the Rocky Mountain west.
Altering social landscape
All combined, the social landscape upon which electoral strategies are built began to alter. This occurred to a point where Democratic strategists began taking another look at the South as a potentially competitive region that need not be conceded to the GOP; this was especially the case in the upper South of the Mid-Atlantic focusing on detaching Virginia (seat of the old Confederacy of Jefferson Davis) and North Carolina from the ‘Bible Belt’ of deep southern states: Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Overall, the white American population, in a mirror image of its European counterpart, is both ageing and shrinking. This is really what amounts to notions of ‘the decline of the west’ amid the ‘rise of the rest.’ The last census found that non-Hispanic whites accounted for 49.6 per cent of all births in the U.S. while minorities — blacks, Hispanics, Asians and those of mixed race — accounted for 50.4 per cent of all births. This represented a majority for the first time in the country’s history. According to the U.S. Census, in the first decade of the new millennium, the Asian-American population rose 43.3 per cent, the African-American population 12.3 per cent, the Latino community 43 per cent — and the white population just 5.7 per cent.
In electoral terms, this demographic transition is accelerating exponentially with each national election. Thus, according to leading pundit Jonathan Chait, every year, the non-white proportion of the electorate grows by about half a percentage point — meaning that in every presidential election, the minority share of the vote increases by 2 per cent, a huge amount in a closely divided country.
New ‘majority-minority’ ascendancy
Combined with the emergence of women and the most university-educated of all races, the new ‘majority-minority’ ascendancy within the electorate underpins increasingly prophetic projections of a Democratic Party comeback in what has now become the liberal guide to strategy formulation: The Emerging Democratic Majority by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira (2002).
A take-off on The Emerging Republican Majority by one-time Republican strategist Kevin Phillips (1969) upon which Richard Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’ had been based, Judis and Teixeira were a bit ahead of their time given the defeat of Senator John Kerry’s challenge to George W. Bush in 2004. Even then, it was apparent that the white electoral base upon which the GOP was banking its fortunes was an eroding one. Yet, Mr. Obama, with his Muslim moniker, seemed an unlikely ‘young-gifted-and-black’ — in the lyrics of the late great jazz soloist Nina Simone — prince of prospects to suddenly shoot into the spotlight of Democratic political imagination as the party’s new lease of life against what seemed an interminable right-wing ascendancy in American politics.
What is particularly intriguing about Mr. Obama is that, with his focus on ‘community’ building in pursuing ‘nation-building at home,’ he transcends the African-American integrationist-nationalist divide that always retarded black political potential. Yet the black electorate has emerged as his ‘nationalist’ firewall at the core of the rainbow coalition he has constructed in reconfiguring the American electoral landscape. As a harbinger of things to come, this is where the new majority-minority underpinnings of the Obama presidency bear close watching as a sort of an ‘American BRICS’ of emerging non-white minorities setting what, over time, will be a new American agenda. For, herein resides the potential for a much less jingoistic and militarist foreign policy constituency.
After all, there are already burgeoning kinship ties binding this new American demographic with BRICS and other emerging economies in the world at large. As ‘White America’ fades into the sunset, metaphorically, a convergence of the American ‘BRICS within’ with the emerging ‘BRICS without’ may hold the keys to the future global order.
(Francis Kornegay is senior fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue in Johannesburg, South Africa and alumnus of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and editor of the forthcoming volume: Laying the BRICS of a New Global Order.)