Challenging the “Permanent Democratic Majority” Thesis

This is the first part of two posts analyzing and challenging the idea of a “permanent Democratic majority.” The second part can be found here.

A “Permanent Democratic Majority”

The permanent Democratic majority is a theory spun by many Democratic analysts optimistic about their party’s future. It asserts that demographic changes will leave the Republican Party in a state of perpetual minority.

Let’s take a look at this thesis and the underlying assumptions upon which it relies.

When Democratic strategists talk about demographic change, they are talking about how America will move to the left as it becomes majority-minority.

But not all minorities are increasing in number – the black population, for instance, is expected to stay relatively constant. It is Asian and Hispanic growth that is responsible for demographic change. Specifically, however, people are focusing on Hispanic growth. To most politicians the increase in Asians is, at most, a secondary concern (although it is quite conceivable that Asians might end up voting more Democratic than Hispanics). So the permanent Democratic majority is really talking about the growing number of Democratic-voting Hispanics.

There are two fundamental assumptions that the permanent Democratic majority thesis makes.

Assumption #1: Hispanics will continue voting Democratic.

This is quite an obvious assumption. Let’s examine its validity.

The story of the Hispanic community is remarkably similar to the story of previous immigrant communities in America. Hispanics came to the United States to chase economic opportunity unavailable in their homes. They built substantial communities in major cities and became a politically valuable constituency. Like other immigrants – the Irish, the Germans, the Italians – they then faced resistance: nativist defenses of the English language, attempts to restrict immigration. Some of the battles Hispanics currently face are almost exactly the same as those white ethnics faced a century ago.

Unfortunately, these similarities also are bad news for hopeful Democrats. Previous immigrants, such as Catholics, also constituted strong Democratic constituencies. Yet as these immigrants assimilated and became absorbed into America’s melting pot, they voted steadily less and less Democratic. Catholics went from casting around 80% of the ballot for Catholic nominee John F. Kennedy to voting Republican in 2004, even as the Catholic John Kerry ran as the Democratic nominee. As Hispanics follow the paths of previous immigrant groups, they too will steadily trend Republican.

Ahhh, a Democratic strategist might say, but you’re forgetting something. Unlike the Irish or the Germans, Hispanics belong to a different race than whites. As one intelligent poster wrote on the previous link, “Mexicans…have the disadvantage of being ‘people of color.’ Even if language ceases to be a problem, they are still faced with significant racism.”

This is quite a valid counterpoint; if Hispanics are treated more like blacks and less like the Irish, then there is certainly something to the permanent Democratic majority thesis. This argument will be discussed more in the next post.

But this leads to the second assumption that the permanent Democratic majority thesis makes:

Assumption #2: White movement to the Republican Party will not overwhelm Hispanics.

Name, for a second, the states with the highest black populations in America. These are Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland. Blacks constitute some of the most loyal Democrats in the United States, and yet four out of five of these states are Republican strongholds.

White voters in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia are some of the most conservative in the country. It is not a coincidence that these four states hold the highest black percentages in the United States.

If, then, Hispanics are treated as blacks and thus begin voting like blacks, that still does not guarantee a Democratic majority. The white backlash could be powerful enough to more than overwhelm Hispanics.

Yes, a Democratic strategist might reply, but you’re ignoring the blackest “state” of them all: Washington D.C. Today Washington is majority-black, and yet whites are some of the most liberal in the country. The same is true for Maryland and cities around the country. Does that not constitute evidence that racial backlash is not a certainty?

It certainly does. The great question, if Hispanics go down the path of blacks, is how whites will react: will they follow the path of Mississippi, or will they follow the path of Washington D.C.?

What is true, however, is that whites are trending Republican anyways. Here is a picture of the white vote over time:

The reasons for why this is happening are incredibly complex, and something which scholars can debate for a long, long time. Nevertheless, the phenomenon definitely exists, and there is no reason to see why it will not continue.

A Personal Opinion

The analysis up to this point has been fairly skeptical of the “permanent Democratic majority” thesis. The next post will articulate my personal opinion on what will happen to the Hispanic vote which underlies this theory.

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11 Responses to Challenging the “Permanent Democratic Majority” Thesis

  1. EC says:

    The idea that Hispanics will be alienated because they are from a “different race” doesn’t work for future generations. Based on surveys of young people, it is pretty safe to assume that the whole concept of “race” will become irrelevant over the coming generations.

    • Inoljt says:

      That is something that I hope will occur in the future. Unfortunately, I do not see it happening.

      • EC says:

        I think the trend toward elimination of race as an issue is perhaps best shown by polls regarding attitudes toward interracial marriage. Back in 1958, a Gallup poll showed that 96% of people disapproved of interracial marriage. That’s not a typo. Basically everybody then openly disapproved of interracial marriage. Today, polls show that around 90% of people under 30 approve of interracial marriage.

        Just like ethnic differences among whites virtually disappeared as an issue over the last several generations, racewill likely be marginalized as an issue over the next few generations, perhaps over the next half-century, given current trends.

      • Inoljt says:

        Well, I hope you’re right in your optimism fifty years from now.

  2. Andy says:

    Leaving the thesis aside, the Maryland vs. South Carolina/Georgia comparison is instructive. SOUTHERN whites have shifted strongly Republican. There hasn’t been nearly as much (if any) movement in the rest of the country.

    I don’t think that there will be a permanent Democratic majority, or that latinos will always be strong Democrats, but it won’t be because of a white backlash.

    • Henry says:

      I guess the issue is with the term “trending”, in the US Election Atlas sense of “swing compared to the national swing”. Whites are bound to trend Republican even if they don’t swing at all simply if Democratic-voting minorities increase in size.

    • Inoljt says:

      I do think whites have shifted right not just in the South, but everywhere. If you map the states Obama won with whites-only, he generally loses in all but the bluest states that he won. That wouldn’t have happened in, say, 1968. So white Southerners have moved especially strongly right, but that doesn’t mean whites elsewhere haven’t either.

      • Andy says:

        As a matter of political history, you absolutely have to consider the south separately from everywhere else. The voting patterns of whites just aren’t the same almost anywhere else in the country. You could just about draw a bullseye in Birmingham Alabama and see how the white vote shifts as you get further from it.

  3. Henry says:

    I too am sceptical of the thesis. My favourite counterexample to the claims some have made that Republican demagoguery today will hurt them for generations among Hispanics is Japanese-Americans. They were sent to internment camps by a Democratic administration, and yet vote Democratic today.

    • Inoljt says:

      That’s quite an interesting point.

      When I wrote about Hispanics, the voting patterns of Japanese-Americans was actually one of the farthest things away from my mind. I’ve never thought about that angle – although I think Japanese internment had strong bipartisan support.

      I would bet that Japanese-Americans vote Democratic. On the other hand, their presence is so small and diluted that it’s almost impossible to say much else about their voting habits.

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