It may not be clear before Election Day who will win the White House or which party will control the House and Senate. But here’s a prediction that’s all but ironclad, and reflects a largely unappreciated change that could have just as much influence on the direction of the country: After the election, white men will constitute a minority of the Democratic House caucus for the first time in history.
This milestone is part of a broader trend that goes well beyond politics. The United States is expected to become a “majority-minority” nation within 30 years. That trend is being reflected in the Democratic congressional caucus, but only barely on the Republican side. In 1950, white men made up 98 percent of Democrats and 97 percent of Republicans in the House; today, 86 percent of Republicans are white men, but only 53 percent of Democrats.
As these numbers make clear, the parties are separating by race and gender. And because women and minorities view government differently, and want different things from it, than white men do, this change both tracks and exacerbates the partisan polarization that is consuming Washington.
“You really have two substantial portions of the electorate that together form the majority of voters,” says David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who has written extensively on the parties’ shifting demographics and provided these figures. “One set is overwhelmingly leery of big government, the other overwhelmingly leery of big business, and among members of Congress their conviction in these respective lines of thought is almost religious in its intensity.”
Last year, a National Journal-Heartland Monitor poll measuring views about economic opportunity and the role of government across a broad spectrum of racial and ethnic groups illuminated many of these differences. While Americans of every race and gender are optimistic about the future and united in their support for a free-market economy — ignore the campaign-trail nonsense about “creeping socialism” — whites (53 percent) and especially Republicans (59 percent) tend to believe that the pace of the country’s shifting racial profile is “troubling” and “changing the character and values” of the nation.
Likewise, a plurality of whites believes that government is “the problem,” not a solution to the country’s economic difficulties. Yet the overwhelming majority of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians view government favorably and prefer that it play a stronger role in the economy.
The issue of race (and to a lesser extent gender) lies beneath many of the current flash points in state and national politics. Congress has been unable to pass a farm bill, for instance, in large part because many Republicans insist on cutting food stamp benefits, which they view as a form of welfare. (When Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama the “food stamp president” during the Republican primaries, he was appealing to this prejudice.) At the state level, Republicans nationwide are pushing for new voter-identification requirements that would likely disenfranchise large numbers of minority voters.
The most troubling aspect of this trend is that race and gender lines have begun to coincide with all the familiar ideological divides in a way that could deeply damage the social fabric. As Thomas Byrne Edsall argues in his new book, “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics”: “For whites with a conservative bent, the shift to a majority-minority nation will strengthen the already widely held view that programs benefiting the poor are transferring their taxpayer dollars to minority recipients, from first whites to blacks and now to ‘browns.’ ”
These differences will be especially hard to overcome because the type of elected representatives who might push for compromise are disappearing. One measure Wasserman uses to determine how much Congress can get done is the number of “crossover districts” — congressional districts that voted for one party at the House level and the other party at the presidential level, and thus don’t mirror the ideological rigidity in Washington. That number dropped from 85 districts in 2009 to 40 today, he says, and could be less than 20 after this year’s election.
With that bridge between the parties crumbling fast, the drive toward political extremes will only gain momentum.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.