The Rise of the Young, Liberal, Nonwhite Republican?

Photo: Yaroslav Sabitov/Shutterstock/Yaroslav Sabitov/Shutterstock

The Republican coalition isn’t quite what it used to be. For decades, white college graduates gradually exited red America while non-college-educated whites drifted in. Donald Trump’s nomination then accelerated this long-run trend, increasing the GOP’s advantage with working-class whites in the secular north. In 2020, meanwhile, Trump made inroads with Hispanic voters, thinning the Democratic Party’s margin with that heterogeneous demographic by 8 percentage points.

In a new analysis of survey data, the New York Times maps the contours of the contemporary Republican electorate. Some of its findings give conservatives cause for concern. The new GOP coalition has considerable internal ideological tensions. The party now derives 12 percent of its support from a group that the paper dubs “blue-collar populists”: a mostly northern, socially moderate, economically populist contingent whose attachment to Republican politics derives primarily from their rightwing views on race and immigration, and personal affection for Donald Trump. In the Electoral College, this constituency punches above its weight, as it is disproportionately concentrated in the Rust Belt’s battlegrounds.

A majority of this group supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage. This aversion to bible-thumping moralism helped tie a segment of these voters to the Democratic Party before Trump’s emergence. To the extent that the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade increases the salience of reproductive rights, and Trump’s eventual exit from GOP politics weakens blue-collar populists’ emotional identification with the party, Republicans could lose ground with them. Indeed, in last year’s midterm elections, Democrats performed better in heavily blue-collar Midwest states like Michigan and Pennsylvania than they did nationally.

But the New York Times-Siena College poll also gives Democrats some cause for anxiety. The survey suggests that nonwhite, working-class Americans are starting to vote more like their light-skinned peers. In 2020, nonwhite, non-college-educated voters backed Joe Biden over Trump by a 48-point margin. Today, this group backs by Biden by merely 16 points, according to the survey. This erosion in the Democrats’ support among nonwhite voters leaves Biden and Trump tied at 43 percent nationally.

The realignment of some nonwhite voters appears to be partially driven by self-identified conservatives cutting ties with the party of their parents in favor of the one best aligned with their social views. In the Times survey, three quarters of nonwhite, non-college-educated voters identified as moderate and conservative. Historically, the Democratic Party has relied on the support of Hispanic and (especially) Black voters who lean right on most policy questions but whose racial identities and familial attachments have tethered them to blue America. In 2020, Democrats bled many such voters, as Trump won over right-leaning Latinos. The Times survey suggests a continuation of this trend.

More surprisingly, the poll suggests that Republicans are winning a non-negligible percentage of young, nonwhite voters with left-of-center views on public policy. According to the Times’s Nate Cohn, eight percent of Republican voters are “newcomers,” a subset characterized by moderate-to-liberal views on economics, immigration, race, and social issues. Only about 60 percent of this group is white, and a quarter are younger than 30.

In their policy views, these voters resemble Democrats. Only a minority identify as conservative, and most support immigration reform and transgender rights. And yet they are strong Republican partisans and supporters of Donald Trump. The source of this allegiance is unclear. But of the six types of Republicans that Cohn identified, they were among the most emphatically anti- “woke.”

Graphic: The New York Times

Now, we’re looking at one small subset of voters from a single poll. The margin of error here is so high that the existence of this voter group could be illusory. But it does seem possible that, among America’s youngest voters, the most overbearing forms of progressive discourse have acquired more political salience than concrete questions of public policy.

Regardless, there has long been reason to worry that the Democratic Party would struggle to perpetually maintain its landslide margins among nonwhite voters in general, and Black ones in particular. Keeping 90-plus percent of any subgroup united in one partisan camp takes work. The reason Democrats have managed to perennially win that high of a share of African-American voters — despite considerable ideological and attitudinal diversity within that demographic — is not that each individual African-American Democrat concluded that the GOP was hostile to people like them through their own personal ruminations on current affairs. Rather, as political scientists Ismail K. White and Cheryl N. Laird argue in their book, Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, the Black bloc vote is a product of “racialized social constraint” — which is to say, the process by which African-American communities internally police norms of political behavior through social rewards and penalties. In their account, the exceptional efficacy of such norm enforcement within the Black community reflects the extraordinary degree of Black social cohesion that slavery and segregation fostered.

If this thesis is correct, then it would follow that the erosion of African-Americans’ social isolation, and the declining cultural influence of community institutions such as the Black church, would weaken racialized social constraint, and thus narrow the Democratic Party’s margin with Black voters. And it is plausible that a similar phenomenon might occur within Hispanic communities with longtime ties to the Democrats.

In such a scenario, one thing we’d expect to see is more political diversity among younger non-white voters, who came of age at a time of greater social atomization and racial integration, and are less likely to regularly attend church or have an ethnically homogenous social world. This relaxation of ethnic social constraints could make it easier for ideologically conservative nonwhites to support the Republican Party. But it could also introduce more random variation into the voting behavior of younger, nonwhite Americans. Uncompelled by ancestral partisan attachments, some voters may be more likely to heed idiosyncratic (or irrational) political impulses, such as those that would compel a self-identified liberal to support Donald Trump.

As noted above, there are plenty of political trends that look favorable for Democrats, above all the exceptional liberalism of the Zoomer and Millennial generations writ large. But if Trump does manage to win reelection next year, there’s a good chance that nonwhite voters’ loosening attachments to their inherited partisan identities will be a big part of the story.

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