Are American Political Parties Becoming Defined Largely By Race?

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A new AP report suggests that 80 percent of the U.S. population struggles with poverty at some point in their lives. Ryan Cooper riffs on this to make a nonpartisan point about American political parties:

It’s probably fair to say also that poor whites are overwhelmingly Republican, and in large part due to an overhang of racial resentment….This is why I despair of analysis like Matt Yglesias’ or Sean Trende’s making the case the Republicans can keep winning with white voters alone (though NB that Trende doesn’t argue that this means the GOP doesn’t have to change). Because that does not bode well for our future.

I lived in South Africa for a time, where voting breaks down almost entirely by race. To a first approximation, blacks vote for the African National Congress, whites and Coloureds (the non-offensive term adopted by mixed-race people) vote for the Democratic Alliance. The upshot is that because blacks make up about 77 percent of the population the ANC has won every election with over 60% of the vote. (An outcome, I should add, that is the predicable outcome of the Apartheid state’s vicious racist terrorism.)

But the lack of political competition has been disastrous. Especially during the tenure of Thabo Mbeki, the whole South African government was shot through with corruption and rank incompetence, culminating in the 2008 power crisis. Single party states, outside of a few possible exceptions like Singapore, are a recipe for failure.

I don’t have time right now to ruminate on this at length. But it’s worth tossing out for further thought. My big problem with Cooper’s thesis is simple: it’s not clear to me that poor and working-class whites actually do vote overwhelmingly Republican. That’s certainly true in the South, but everywhere else this vote is split fairly evenly between the parties—and this has changed very little over the past few decades. There’s really no national trend of working-class whites becoming more Republican.

At least, that’s one view. Andrew Levison and Ruy Teixeira present a different one here. They don’t address regional differences, but they present fairly dire national data and go on to suggest that things might actually be even worse than they look. Democrats really are losing the white working-class vote, and this is a recipe for disaster unless things change.

I share Cooper’s apprehension about the future of American politics if our major political parties both end up being defined largely by race and ethnicity. For that reason, among others, it’s important to figure out which of these views is actually true.


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