The GOP and the Albatross of White Racial Panic

July 25, 2013 6:36 a.m.

There’s a little Twitterese. So in case there’s any unclarity, according to these very early polls, Hillary Clinton is polling substantially better among white women than President Obama did in 2012. And remember, Obama won. Also notably, the relative percentage of white women in the electorate will probably be a bit smaller in 2016 than it was in 2012.Now, Hillary is a white woman. So the fact that she does better than Obama isn’t entirely shocking. It’s also 3+ years from now. And Hillary has name recognition (good and bad, to be fair) well beyond any of these guys. But it still captures the challenges, to put it generously, what Brownstein calls the GOP’s ‘white gamble’. There simply don’t seem to be enough whites to make up for the rapid growth of America’s non-white population which is trending heavily toward the Democrats. Or, to put it more precisely as a recent analysis by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz shows, the numbers and the history show little evidence that Republicans can drive up their margins with white voters high enough to offset the growing numbers of non-white voters if they those non-whites voters continue to vote Democratic in such outsized numbers.

As I wrote a month ago, the biggest news of the earlier 21st century in American politics isn’t that there’s more racism or less but that the political impact of racial division has changed. For decades, the irresistible political catnip of the right was the political appeal – more or less veiled – to racial division. It was, in most cases, undeniably good politics.

But that’s not clear at all any more. Two factors are at work. One is a process we’re all happily familiar with: the declining role of racism in our society. We see it in public opinion data – especially among the young, the rise of interracial marriages, willingness to vote for non-white candidates and many other ways. We all realize that in racial terms we’re not living in 1955 or even 1995 for that matter. The second is the rapid growth of the non-white voting population.

But talking about less ‘racism’ is too muddled and imprecise a way to put it, though it’s fine as a short hand. What we’re really talking about is a declining percentage of the white population that believe whites are or need to be the dominant social group in the country. To be clear, the converse of that doesn’t mean instituting apartheid or hating blacks or Hispanics or Asians or anyone else. It simply means, at a basic level and on a spectrum of meanings, who’s in control and whether whites need to be the ones in control. And being ‘in control’ can be as simple as making up the overwhelming percentage of the population.

At the moment we’re moving toward one party that is genuinely multi-racial in composition and another that is increasingly a white persons’ party, albeit having limited minority representation and a small number of non-white officeholders. There’s a small but substantial minority of the population that finds a new America where whites really aren’t the overwhelmingly dominant group, simply in numbers, very frightening. I’d put the number at somewhere between 20% and 25% of the population. And they are overwhelmingly in the Republican party or they’re right-leaning independents who vote Republican.

And that’s what brings you to the what we might better call the Steve King problem, the guy who’s in trouble today for saying that virtually all DREAMers are drug mules and criminals. He’s now been denounced by John Boehner, Raul Labrador (one of the biggest border security hawks in Congress) and others. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their rebukes. But King is speaking for the raw, undomesticated voice of that slice of the electorate for whom these social and population trends spell a basically non-stop state of white panic expressed through Obama conspiracy theories, fears of marauding Mexican hordes, hyper-opposition to primarily Latin American immigration and so much more.

Yes, King is more intemperate, voluable and perhaps more hateful than most. But he does speak for that relatively small slice of the electorate which makes up a pretty big slice of the GOP electorate and keeps the GOP anchored in opposition to immigration reform and to policies which put most of the non-white population off-limits to the party indefinitely. That’s why the whole plan to ‘double down’ on the ‘whites only’ strategy now increasingly favored by Republicans isn’t so much of a strategy as a recognition that it can’t break free or discipline that mammoth part of its voter base.

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