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As America has become more racially diverse and economic inequality has increased, American politics has also become more clearly divided by race and less clearly divided by class. In this landmark book, Zoltan L. Hajnal draws on sweeping data to assess the political impact of the two most significant demographic trends of last fifty years. Examining federal and local elections over many decades, as well as policy, Hajnal shows that race more than class or any other demographic factor shapes not only how Americans vote but also who wins and who loses when the votes are counted and policies are enacted. America has become a racial democracy, with non-Whites and especially African Americans regularly on the losing side. A close look at trends over time shows that these divisions are worsening, yet also reveals that electing Democrats to office can make democracy more even and ultimately reduce inequality in well-being.
Racial divisions in the vote raise concerns. In American democracy most White Americans end up on one side of the vote, while the overwhelming majority of racial and ethnic minorities end up on the other. This racial divide is growing, now rivaling or surpassing all other demographic divisions in the vote. Division may be a normal and healthy part of democracy, but when the main political divide in a society so closely mirrors the racial identities of its public, larger issues emerge.
The potentially negative consequences of this large and growing racial divide are not hard to imagine. Indeed, the math is quite simple. Although America is becoming more and more racially diverse, it is still a nation dominated by Whites. Whites still represent 61 percent of the population. And more critically, they still account for over 70 percent of the active voters in the country. Given that most Whites oppose candidates favored by most racial and ethnic minorities, the odds that minorities will lose out in American democracy are high. The White majority could effectively shut out racial and ethnic minorities from most aspects of the democratic process.
This book is the story of Beau and Malik and American democracy. I do not actually know Beau and Malik. In fact, I do not even know their real names. But I do know a lot about Beau and Malik. In 2016, they both provided wide-ranging details about matters such as their race, their economic status, their demographic characteristics, and their politics to the American National Election Survey, a prominent political science survey.
Beau and Malik are similar in many ways. The first and perhaps most important is class. Neither Beau nor Malik has progressed very far along the pathway to economic success. Beau made it only as far as high school graduation. He did not attend college. Malik made it only a little further. He managed to obtain an associate degree. Both earn very little. In fact, they are both poor, reporting household income of less than $5,000 annually. Both are very much part of America’s disadvantaged working class.
Over a decade and three presidential elections ago, America bore witness to a historic moment. The National Mall teemed with people, all longing to be part of a transition that had seemed unimaginable not so long before, both for a man and for a nation. The man was Barack Hussein Obama – the offspring of a Black father from Kenya and a White mother from Kansas whose family tree includes slave owners, among them, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. The moment was the Presidential Inaugural – taking place on a cold, bright and breezy day 146 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and forty-six years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
When President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, his signature put into effect one of the biggest tax cuts in the history of American democracy. The act that Trump and the Republican majority in the House and Senate implemented was remarkable for another reason: the overwhelming majority of Americans did not favor it. Only 26 percent of Americans polled before the bill’s passage approved of the bill. And it is not as if the American public was not watching or did not care. Nearly half of all Americans – 43 percent – said they would be less likely to vote for a senator or congressperson who supported the tax plan. Yet, despite such opposition, Trump and the Republican Party not only passed the law, but they triumphally fêted its passage. As Trump proclaimed at a ceremony on the White House lawn to celebrate the passing of the sweeping tax bill, “It’s always a lot of fun when you win” (Walsh et al. 2017).
“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
With these now infamous lines about Mexican immigrants, President Trump set in motion his meteoric rise in the 2016 presidential campaign. Before giving that speech, Trump was floundering. Polls placed him near the bottom of the 16-candidate Republican field. But just a month later – after almost non-stop coverage of his immigration remarks – Trump had skyrocketed to first place in the polls.
African Americans are the biggest losers in American democracy. That is the bottom line for much of what I have written so far in these pages. That conclusion is correct, but it is also incomplete. Blacks are not the only losers in American democracy. Latinos and other immigrants are also regularly a target of our politics and our policy, as evidenced by Trump during his campaign (calling Mexicans rapists, and promising to build a wall on the Mexican border) and during his presidency (deciding to rescind DACA, and declaring a national emergency to move forward on the border wall in the face of congressional opposition). But the phenomenon is much broader than Trump and the presidential political arena. Anxiety about immigration is becoming more and more central to American politics. As I have already noted, one sign of that broad White backlash is the defection of so many Whites to the Republican Party. But other signs are surfacing. They have been “invisible” largely because my focus until this point has been on the national policy arena – which is certainly worthy of attention, but perhaps not the most visible political arena in which an anti-immigrant backlash may be visible.
Donald J. Trump put his hand on Lincoln’s Bible on a cold, gray, and damp day in January 2017, and swore to faithfully execute his presidential duties. This was a moment that few had predicted. Less than a year before, Donald Trump had been widely viewed as certain to lose. He had none of the credentials typically required for elevation to the nation’s highest office. In all of his years, he had done no public service. He had no experience with national security issues. His greatest claim to fame was as a self-aggrandizing celebrity. Past actions and events seemed to jeopardize his candidacy, and, perhaps, to disqualify him from the office. He had been caught on tape boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy” (Victor ). In an exciting but checkered career in business he had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy six times. In multiple years, he had paid no income taxes despite garnering earnings that were unimaginable to most Americans. Moreover, Donald Trump faced a deep bench of seemingly attractive and qualified opponents.
As the world knows, Donald Trump, a White male, won the presidency in 2016. But entertaining the hypothetical, one wonders, what if he had lost? What if one of the other twenty or so serious contenders for the presidency had emerged victorious? And what if the winner had not been a White male?
The unprecedented diversity of the presidential candidates in 2016 – two Hispanics, one African American, one Asian American, and two women – gives us the chance to think more deeply about race and representation. In the previous chapter, to gauge minority representation, I simply tallied how many racial and ethnic minorities won office. The 2016 presidential election tells us why this calculus is insufficient to understand the complexity of race in the American political context.