A persistent if unspoken thought in many political discussions is that race and ethnicity are powerful influences on people’s politics and beliefs.
While this belief is common in almost every country, in South Africa and America it forms a foundational pillar of how we talk about politics. Think of how much ink has been spilled regarding the DA and ‘the black vote’ – as if 42 million people of differing wealth, education, language, geography and religion are somehow a coherent political block. In the United States, much polling and analysis has also been framed by race and ethnicity.
It is worth considering how political party strategy in the US has been framed by race in the past 20 years.
In the late 2000s on the back of Obama’s massive victory in the 2008 presidential election, conservative Americans began to fear that their party was headed for electoral oblivion. This view was also held by many in Obama’s orbit. Obama had put together a so called ‘coalition of the ascendant’ to win the presidency; that is, he mobilised large numbers of young, black and Hispanic voters to propel him to comfortable victories in many of America’s key swing states and ensure he achieved comfortable popular vote margins.
All of these groups were, over time, projected to grow their share of the population and therefore the vote, while at the same time, the white share of the vote, the bedrock of the conservative voting base, was projected to slowly diminish. Conservatives feared that this would ultimately destroy the party’s chances of victory.
Demographics were destiny and many Democrats eagerly licked their lips at the prospect of an age of dominance.
Compounded in 2012
Conservatives’ fears that this was indeed true were compounded in 2012 when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was defeated by Obama and, despite some improvements over 2008, achieved one of the lowest vote totals among minorities (black and Hispanic voters) in Republican party history. Obama won 71% of Hispanic voters and 93% of black voters, according to exit polls.
Republicans had once comfortably owned the ‘black vote’ in the United States, being the party of anti-slavery and Lincoln. However their grip on this demographic had gradually loosened from the 1950s, with Republican president Dwight Eisenhower being the last Republican candidate to get significant numbers of black voters.
Hispanics – in the days when most Hispanics were either Texan Mexicans, who are very integrated into larger American society, or Cuban Americans, who are mostly exiles from Cuba and very anti-communist – were also once far more Republican-leaning, In 2004, Pew Research Center claimed that George W. Bush had managed to get 44% of the Hispanic vote.
In the aftermath of its 2012 election defeat, the Republican party issued an ‘autopsy’ report which recommended, among other things, immediate support for immigration reform, as it was believed that, because many Hispanics were relatives of immigrants, softening their stance on this issue would win back Hispanic voters.
Some Conservative writers, however, such as Ann Coulter and Mark Steyn, attributed diminishing Republican support among Hispanics to the effects of a ‘tide’ of poor, low-skilled immigrants, mostly from Mexico and central America, ‘flooding’ across the border in the 2000s, many illegally. These immigrants usually had children who received American citizenship, managed to acquire citizenship after a few years or were expected to receive a ‘pathway to citizenship’, through an act of legislation strongly favoured by the Democrats.
These voters were thought by some conservatives to be essentially unpersuadable to their side, as they were raised in socialist countries, came from ‘collectivist’ cultures, were poor and were easily bribed with welfare to vote for Democrats. These conservative writers – what I like to call ‘Apocalyptic conservatives’ – believed that once the demographic tide shifted, socialism would come to America and the country’s days as a free nation would be over.
In my opinion, this fear and belief was what helped propel the immigration issue, and Donald Trump to the top of the Republican party, in 2016.
While Trump’s appeal on immigration was often framed as being driven by white working-class fears of job competition from Hispanics, it likely had more to do with the fear that Obama’s envisaged ‘coalition of the ascendant’ would ultimately destroy the Republican party if immigration was not halted and all illegal immigrants deported.
When Trump gained his narrow victory in 2016, much attention was focused on the white working-class voters who switched away from the Democrats and formed the bedrock of Trump’s support base. Left and right framed these voters as uneducated racists, or as ‘the forgotten men’, respectively. The narratives from the left cast 2016 as a reactionary ‘whitelash’ by voters angry that they had lost their place of prominence in society to the ‘coalition of the ascendant’.
Lost in all the noise and overlooked because of the focus on white voters was Trump’s stronger showing among black and Hispanic voters in 2016. Without really trying much, Trump secured 29% of the Hispanic vote and about 6% of the black vote, which was a marginal improvement over Mitt Romney.
In 2020, Trump campaigned aggressively for black and Hispanic voters, and his message to them was in very similar vein to his message to his white supporters: ‘I will be strong on law and order, and grow the economy.’
While the results of the 2020 election are still being analysed, there are already some clear trends. Exit poll findings on the racial breakdown of voting – although these polls may be more unreliable this year – seem to reflect things seen in the pre-election polls and some of the voting results.
For example, a BCC poll found that Trump’s support among black voters had grown to 12% in 2020. Others held this number at 8%. In a heavily black area like Wayne county in Michigan (which contains Detroit) and is about 40% black, Trump received 30.7% of the vote as opposed to 29.5% in 2016.
Trends are very favourable
Among Hispanic voters, however, the trends are very favourable for the Republicans.
Nationally, exit polls suggested Trump had increased his share of the Hispanic vote to 32% in 2020. In some regions of the country, particularly Texas and Florida, these numbers were even higher.
In Starr county on the Texan border with Mexico, the most Hispanic area in the United States, which is about 95% Hispanic, Trump managed about 19% of the vote in 2016. In 2020, he grew that to 47.1%. Considering his support was bleeding away in the suburbs of Texas, the vastly improved performance with Hispanics in Texas helped keep Trump safe in that state. In Florida, Miami-Dade County saw Trump’s vote share jump from 34% in 2016 to 46% in 2020. This almost certainly saved Trump from disaster in Florida and allowed him to grow his vote share in that state.
The 2020 election, despite months of protest about racial inequality and despite the march of wokeness through the country’s institutions, has been the least racialised election in many years.
Apocalyptic conservatives, once bemoaning the inevitable decline of their party because of hordes of unpersuadable immigrant and black voters, will have to deal with the reality that their fears of demographic destiny at the hands of Obama’s ‘coalition of the ascendant’ is poorly founded.
It turns out that voters are in fact persuadable and the straightforward and attractive economic and law-and-order messages of Trump won over many minority voters. Why shouldn’t it? Race is a poor proxy for one’s standing in the world, despite the claims of racial nationalists and wokistas.
In the end, it appears many minority American voters felt isolated from the Democratic party because it didn’t speak to issues they cared about and, just like many white voters (who switched from Trump to Biden because of his handling of Covid), they voted for the candidate who stood closest to them on the issues they cared about and who most honestly and clearly sought to win their votes (in contrast to Biden’s ‘if you don’t vote for me you ain’t black’).
Republicans now have an opportunity to build the future of their party on a coalition of voters across racial lines who care about the economic issues championed by Trump and his party.
This is a lesson for South Africa, where too often South Africans talk about ‘black voters’ as some hegemonic block, which will all go in one direction, rather than speaking to the many different people who make up that group – teachers, cashiers, shop owners, civil servants, policemen, and so on – with different needs and worries.
Many assume that the demographics of South Africa have determined that its politics shall always be determined by race and that where black people go, so shall the nation. The reality is that while the ANC rules a coalition of people who vote for it for many good and bad reasons, their supporters are not unpersuadable avatars of racial group think.
The demographics of South Africa will not determine our future; demographics are not destiny.
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