Demographic change and its role in US politics
As more detailed census data comes out, there is an increasingly clear picture of US demographics. One finding with significant political implications is the continuing trend of a declining white population in the country.
White Americans remain a clear majority of the US population, but a recent analysis of US Census Bureau data from the Brookings Institution found that the decline in the white population — a trend that began in 2016 — accelerated during the pandemic. Previous data found that US population growth had slowed to only 0.1 percent from mid-2020 to mid-2021. The Brookings analysis shows that declines in the white population are responsible for much of that overall slowdown. While census data shows slowing population growth among other racial and ethnic categories, the white population shows actual decline.
This trend is not consistent across the country. According to the Brookings analysis, 33 states experienced reductions in their white population. However, some others — mostly in the South — saw increases, especially Florida. Some major metro areas experienced overall population decline during the pandemic, and a loss of white residents was a major contributing factor.
These trends have multiple implications for US politics. Shifts in population between large cities, small cities and more rural areas, as well as shifts between states, shape the distribution of political and economic power.
One important impact of a decline in the white population is that it has become an activating issue for the political right in the US. The reasons for this are more complex than many observers often realize.
One challenge to properly analyzing this issue is the difficulty of defining the “political right.” Are we talking about Republicans? Donald Trump supporters? Conservatives? Christian nationalists? Right-wing populists? Are we talking about extremists or ordinary people? The political right in the US consists of different strands of political thought, often overlapping and sometimes conflicting.
Another challenge is defining “white.” Racially, white Americans might be defined as people of European descent with relatively light-colored skin. However, “white” people can descend from a wide range of places and look very different from each other. Furthermore, there are many people with specific ethnic backgrounds — such as Hispanic or Arab — who often identify as white. There are also increasing numbers of Americans who descend from more than one race. The US census has long struggled to respond to these nuances.
To add to the complexity, “white” can be an identity as much as a skin tone. For example, quite a few Latinos are among those on the political right who express concern about the changing nature of racial demographics. Some people who might not be seen as “white” still identify with a sense of white cultural or political identity.
Furthermore, many white Americans are not concerned about the country’s changing demographics. On the political left and center, and sometimes on the right, many white people embrace the country’s growing diversity and do not perceive it as a threat.
The various strands of American politics that express fear over the decrease in the white population are often intertwined with a range of other political, cultural and religious views. Fear of and anger over the decline in the white population is a salient factor in US politics because it relates to multiple other political and cultural grievances.
To foster any sort of productive political discussion about how to adjust to changing demographic realities, there needs to be a recognition that such changes are difficult. The reality is that demographic and cultural change is hard. Many countries that experienced demographic transitions have struggled. On an individual level, it is difficult for many people to watch their communities change. Shifts in demographics in a community also frequently bring cultural differences, which is difficult for many people to adapt to. Furthermore, demographic change in the US aligns with many other cultural and economic changes in recent decades that many Americans — not only white Americans — see as damaging, even though many others see them as positive.
One important impact of a decline in the white population is that it has become an activating issue for the political right.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
It is also important to fully acknowledge that racism, xenophobia and other societal evils are playing a role in politics around the numerical decline of the white population. Many people who fear change but who might be open to adapting can instead turn toward voices that manipulate their fears for political advantage. People who are afraid, grieving or angry are easy targets for those who have truly hateful agendas.
Americans cannot move forward if voicing uncertainty about change leads to immediate accusations of racism. Many people — not only white Americans — are mourning what they see as the loss of a cherished past. They miss what they believe was a country that was more religious, more disciplined, less confusing, stronger, better. Leaders on the political left need to distinguish between normal human concerns about change and the more insidious ideas that threaten to tear apart the fabric of the US.
The story of America is of a country that has always struggled with racial inequalities but has also consistently embraced change and drawn strength from its diversity. Americans must now acknowledge the challenges of change and come together to forge a united future — or face allowing the forces of division to tear them apart.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch