White right? How demographics is changing US politics

When Donald Trump was campaigning to become the U.S. president, much of the discussion about his growing popularity focused on so-called “angry white males,” who had been struggling through years of declining economic opportunities. Their frustration led some of them to adopt and espouse white supremacist ideology.

In many media portrayals, these men, their anger and their sometimes extreme views on how to return to economic and political relevance were treated as a new phenomenon.

But as a scholar of demography and civil war, I can say definitively that none of this is actually new. Declining opportunities for white males and racist ideology have long been features of U.S. politics, from at least the 1930s until now.

So, the real question is, why are we seeing an upsurge of white nativism among white males now – a nativism which combines anger over lost status with a historically bankrupt white supremacist ideology?

Lagging whites, growing minorities

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s data, all racial and ethnic minorities are growing faster than whites. Interestingly, one of the fastest growing groups in this country is “mixed race” (full disclosure: my children are such, being both Mexican- and Irish-American).

Still, at 198 million, non-Hispanic whites remained the largest group of Americans in 2014; followed by Hispanics at 55.4 million, and blacks or African-Americans at 42 million. Those who identified with two or more races stood at just under 8 million.

The Census Bureau projects the crossover point at which the non-Hispanic white population will no longer be a majority will occur in 2044. In fact, no one group will comprise a majority. We will become a plural nation of different ethnic and racial groups.

‘Guac the Vote’ was a voter registration drive run by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2016. Here, a sign on a Houston taco truck. REUTERS/Trish Badger

Demography and democracy

That powerful shift in the makeup of the U.S. population has created ideal conditions for a political backlash against people of color, including Hispanics, blacks, Asians and especially immigrants of color.

One prominent example: President Trump’s lament that the U.S. was being overwhelmed by immigrants from “s-hole countries,” rather than from places like Norway.

The backlash also extends to the political leaders who support minorities’ right to be accepted and respected as Americans.

These communities of color remain in the minority. But already in some states, white voters as distinct from all whites are in the minority, and nationally, whites are unlikely to remain in the majority for long.

In California, for example, non-white populations now make up 62 percent of the population, with Hispanic and white populations at near parity at 38 percent each.

Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are among three southern states where the gap between Hispanic minorities and white majorities is closing. Like Florida, these are also states with difficult-to-seal borders and with well-established immigrant communities.

Politics and population shifts

For two decades, I have been studying how population shifts across nation-states have led to their collapse. In some cases, those collapses have been violent, such as in Lebanon in the 1970s and the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Now, demographic dynamics we previously witnessed in “other” or “developing” states are happening in the U.S.

In places where white people have been a demographic majority, white nativism – characterized by the longing for a period when whites were dominant political and economically – arises when some of the majority white population fears for the loss of its stature relative to non-white populations. And in the U.S., non-whites have higher birth rates and make up the bulk of new immigrants.

As populations shift in democracies, the key question is which group challenges these changes, when – and how? Is it the expanding minority or the declining majority? Is it a combination of fear and desire for change emanating from both the declining majority and rising minority?

Fighting for lost dominance

My research reveals that it is the declining majority that tends to act aggressively, often imagining it must preempt a rising minority. Simply put, declining majorities don’t want to yield their status or hegemony.