Throwing “math water” on “minority-majority America”

You can pick your numbers as to when it occurs, but the impending demographic changes in the United States under which white Americans become the numerical minority in the country may either strike fear in your heart or hope for societal improvements, depending on your ideology. Despite the headlines, however, the math and associated politics do not support as radical a change as feared/hoped.

Using 2018 U.S. census projections, an excellent analysis from the Brookings Institution predicts that the “minority tipping point,” at which time the non-white U.S. population equals the white population, arrives in the year 2044. The finer detail in that data and current political “inertia,” however, reveal five important reasons that this date is perhaps less significant than you think:

  1. The demographic plurality of Americans traditionally identified as “white” will carry on for many years, even decades, after the 2044 date.
  2. “Minority America” is not one thing, rather it is made up of a variety of ethnic heritages, and they do not vote or act as one unified body.
  3. Even in 2044, the “minority-majority” population mix skews heavily on the “youth” side, and so voting power, which is highly correlated to age (as well as ethnicity), will continue to heavily favor white voters.
  4. Political power in Southern and rural regions of the U.S. will remain white-dominated well after 2044, thanks to the constitutional construction of the Senate and gerrymandered house districts.
  5. The reality is that already today we do not have “one-person, one-vote” political system, rather a “one-dollar, one-vote” system, and “Big Money” will “skew white” for many decades to come.

Majority versus plurality

Mind you, I personally do not see much downside in these trends; I believe that learning how to listen politically to more diverse voices would be better for America overall. But in the American “first past the post” electoral system, it is pluralities that decide elections, not majorities. For instance, older Americans regularly vote in a proportion “well above their weight,” creating a powerful demographic plurality on issues where there is a widespread age correlation, such as Social Security policy.

As the diagram from Brookings below illustrates, even in 2045 the “white bloc” of the population, while a bit less than the statistical majority, is by far the largest plurality by this method of “cutting the pie.” This bloc is still twice as big as the Hispanic bloc, the next largest, and even aggressive projections of further demographic change do not alter that dominance within the lifetimes of most people reading this blog.

Are the blocs really blocs?

And of course, this brings up the entire question of whether there is such a thing as a “white voting bloc.” We’ll leave that one open for the moment, but we do know, for instance, that Hispanics of Cuban heritage have long been much more favorable to Republicans than have been people of Mexican ancestry. Categorical lines are more difficult to draw here than the colors on the above pie chart suggest.

Barack Obama’s two successful presidential elections do show a very strong racial preference from Black Americans, with as high as 93% of this bloc voting for Obama in 2012, and in record numbers. I would assert, however, that this is likely more anomaly than permanent expectation (and evidenced by the 2016 election), caused in part by the excitement of the first American with African ancestry running for president, but also due to the open animosity toward concerns of many black Americans by Republican leaders ever since Richard Nixon successfully pulled most Southern segregationists into the Republican fold with his “Southern Strategy.”

The demographics of age

That earlier-cited Brookings Institution report projected that, by 2020, the under-18 population in the U.S. will turn “minority-majority.” However, the crucial age-based voting bloc of 50-60-year-olds is not projected to reach this “tipping point” until 2050, with the 60+ age group not tipping until after 2060. Unless the age demographics of voting change dramatically over the next couple of decades, the political dominance of the 50+ contingent in the U.S. will remain well entrenched.

The Senate and gerrymandered House

Much has been written on the “natural skew” of the U.S. Senate over time toward out-sized power for smaller, rural, and whiter states. In 1790 the most populous state (Virginia) had a 13-to-1 population advantage over the smallest state (Delaware), yet all states had two senators each. In 2010, the population ratio of California to Wyoming had reached 66-to-1. While many Republicans defend this skew on constitutional grounds, it is hard to make the case that the Founders ever anticipated this level of numerical imbalance. At best, this is a statistical accident of history, with some amount of political manipulation along the way (two Dakotas?).

Several court cases concerning House of Representatives gerrymandering, with most cases skewed toward mostly-white Republican districts, are currently reaching the Supreme Court. However, early indications for the court addressing political-based gerrymandering, which is a barely-disguised proxy for racial gerrymandering, are not looking good, given the new conservative shift of the court’s make-up. Both of these political realities will likely further entrench the white political majority far past 2044, although I would love to be proven wrong in the next few weeks.

The money skews white

Finally, the ever-increasing income inequality toward the high end of the income and net worth scales has been skewed racially to include proportionally-few black and Hispanic Americans as well. American power has, since its founding, been well-entrenched in the economic 1% of the population. More recently, the effective removal of monetary limits on political campaign spending increasingly makes this power so much stronger, at least on issues most important to the richest Americans, that the political power of minorities has been further reduced, I would argue, to the same flat line as the cumulative net worth chart below.

Household Net Worth 2016

Net worth vs. cumulative U.S. population (in millions)

The “money is power” reality also points out that there is a lot of “non-American” money floating around the U.S. exercising political power, and it comes from emigres and citizens of Russia, China and the Gulf states. Again, minority America is left “out in the cold” when this money enters the political system. As I have written in the past, money IS choice.

What is a “white issue” anyway?

In summary, the mathematical and political threat of “minority-majority America” seems to me to be pretty muted going well out past my line of sight into the future. The real change is occurring in issues where there is a small plurality of white voters on one side of an issue as opposed to the other, and thus where a countervailing plurality of non-white voters on the other side can shift the outcome. Immigration policy may be a case in point.

If, say, an issue is supported by 60% of white voters, let me suggest that it is not really a “white issue,” because 40% of white voters disapprove of the same issue. While 60% seems to be a substantial majority, note that just a 5-point voter swing on these issues is enough to “turn the tide,” as only 5%, not 10%, of the votes need to flip from one position to another.

I wrote a series of posts last year on how Markov chain math can yield insight into how minds are changed, one person at a time, whether it be in how patrons shift restaurant loyalty, or in how, say, a political party historically protective of free trade can quickly “switch sides” to support tariffs. Humans minds are surprisingly, and often frighteningly, malleable, whether it be to food tastes or political positions.

The “threat” posed by “minority-majority America” is thus not so much in “white people losing power” as it is in that some issues have important marginal support by people with decided racist tendencies and “fear of the other.” On most of these issues, the further marginalization of these tendencies would be, in my opinion, a very good thing for the overall heath of the society and the planet at large.

If anything, what looks like a “white issue” is really a “big money issue,” such as the 2017 tax law changes, where the majority of white supporters never realized that their pockets were being picked by the big money interests.

The “best sense” definition of politics is the process through which “good people who disagree” are able to co-exist without killing each other, using alternative tactics like advocacy, consensus-building and negotiation. The application of these skills can bring societal progress on “60-40” issues, or even “70-30” issues. However, where brinkmanship and authoritarian power come into the picture, we can see the entrenchment of political positions based on basic fear, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ignorance of basic science.

And unfortunately, this is pretty much where we are in America at the moment.

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