Tag Archives: demographics

It’s Not Just Gerrymandering

Give credit where it’s due–Republicans are so much more strategic than Democrats. Of course, maintaining minority control requires certain…techniques.

Talking Points Memo recently reported on Texas’ state takeover of Houston’s schools , in an update of an academic article that was first published in The Conversation by an NYU political science professor.

School takeovers are supposedly efforts to improve public school performance. (Although thirty years of that pesky thing called evidence says takeovers fail to do so.) In Texas, however, the usual justification for takeover–that the  school district is failing–was absent; the district was actually doing reasonably well.

It seems that in 2015, Texas’ Republican-dominated legislature granted the state authority to take over an entire school district if a single school in that district failed to meet state standards for five or more years.

 Although the state has given the Houston Independent School District a B rating, it plans to take over the Houston schools because one school, Wheatley High School, has not made sufficient progress since 2017.

Houston has 280 schools serving over 200,000 students. It employs roughly 12,000 teachers. Wheatley High School serves some 800 students, and employs 50 teachers. Why take over an entire system based on the performance of fewer than 1% of the district’s student/teacher population?

Good question, and that NYU professor has an answer.

In order to understand the logic of the planned state takeover of the Houston schools, it pays to understand the important role that schools have played in the social, political and economic development of communities of color. Historically, communities of color have relied on school level politics as an entry point to broader political participation. School-level politics may involve issues like ending school segregation, demanding more resources for schools, increasing the numbers of teachers and administrators of color, and participating in school board elections.

The process of gaining political power at the local level – and eventually state level – often begins at the schools, particularly the school board. For instance, before Blacks and Latinos elect members of their communities to the city councils, the mayor’s office and the state legislatures, they often elect members to the school board first.

In virtually all Red states, Republicans are heavily dependent on White rural voters to retain power, and they gerrymander accordingly. But in states like Texas (and even, in some analyses, Indiana) population shifts mean that in a few years, racial districting won’t be sufficient.  Houston is the largest urban center in Texas; it’s at the forefront of the growing demographic challenge to the GOP’s grip on state power.

The nine-member Houston school board is reflective of the community it serves. It has three Latinos, four African Americans and two white school board members. This, in my view, is what has put the Houston public school system and school board at the forefront of a battle that is really about race and political power.

The Houston public school system is not failing. Rather–according to the article– Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, together with Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Republican state legislature, has manufactured an education crisis to prevent people of color in Houston from gaining the sorts of experience and exposure that could eventually translate into statewide political power. (Immediately after the takeover, Abbott and his gang threw out all the board members.)

Takeovers aren’t as effective as gerrymandering, but ulterior motives are far less visible…..

What makes this scenario seem so improbable is that it requires considerable strategic smarts; from my Indiana vantage point, Gregg Abbott is a lot meaner than he is smart. But then I think about the massive gerrymandering that Republicans managed to pull off  in 2010, extensively detailed in the book “Ratfucked.” There were highly sophisticated–and undoubtedly highly paid–  political consultants who managed that very successful multi-state operation.

Maybe the Texas takeover is just part of the GOP’s unremitting war on public education, but the article makes a pretty compelling case that it’s part of the party’s ongoing effort to retain political control–control that is threatened by demographic shift.









Appealing To The Dark Side

Credit where credit is due: Today’s Republican strategists are absolute masters of appealing to the fears, resentments and outright hatreds of their base. A current example is the GOP’s unremitting and very strategic attack on an imaginary critical race theory, or CRT.

There is, of course, an actual scholarly sub-field called Critical Race Theory. It’s a research area pursued almost exclusively by law professors, and it examines the various ways in which racial stereotyping has infected the nation’s legal systems. (Redlining is one example–negative beliefs about Black people were incorporated in housing policies that were discriminatory.) But the target of GOP’s anti-CRT campaign bears little or no resemblance to the real thing.

As the Brookings Institution recently confirmed, the GOP’s war on “divisive topics” has little or no relationship to the study of how racism distorted American legal systems. The bans on teaching “CRT” that have been passed in Red States, ironically, are intended to serve a clearly “divisive” purpose.

Many of these laws were embedded in broader initiatives to address sometimes legitimate parental concerns about public schools’ capabilities to deliver quality educational experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the specific focus on banning the teaching of racial history smacks of political motivation by a party that is trying to ignore this nation’s rising diversity and appeal to its largely white, culturally conservative voter base. In fact, the term “critical race theory”—a much narrower academic framework than what is commonly taught in K-12 courses on American racial history—is intentionally used as a scare tactic to appeal to that base.

Survey research shows that actual parents–as opposed to the GOP’s elderly base–are relatively unconcerned about this manufactured version of CRT.

Surveys taken in Virginia, Florida, and Texas show underwhelming support for banning the teaching of racial history and diversity in public schools among most respondents, including parents. Moreover, a February nationwide CBS poll found that more than eight in 10 Americans oppose banning books that discuss race or slavery from schools, and more than six in 10 believe that teaching about race in America makes students understand what others went through.

This is noteworthy because the demography of the nation’s school children and their parents is distinct from nonparent voters of the traditional Republican base—older white voters, especially those without college educations. Therefore, it is fair to say that the political strategy behind these laws, particularly in rapidly diversifying Republican states, is really intended to appeal to nonparent voters who are fearful of the nation’s changing demography.

Raise your hand if you are shocked by this conclusion…

If demographics are destiny, America’s diversity will eventually prevail: the data shows that children of color are already more than a majority of the nation’s K-12 students. That reality would seem to dictate the need for both white and nonwhite children to become familiar with “all elements—both good and bad—of the nation’s racial and ethnic history.”

Of course, what is reasonable–what a democratic polity requires–is irrelevant to the Republican strategists who are desperately working to delay the inevitable. As the Brookings article puts it,

The recent Republican-initiated state bans on teaching racial history or diversity in schools seem to be targeted to voters who are not parents of school-aged children.

This divide between older white populations on the one hand and younger minorities on the other is emblematic of what I have called the “cultural generation gap.” Older white Americans—especially those fearful of the nation’s changing demography—respond to political messages that favor curtailing immigration, suppressing minority votes, and providing less government support for education or other social service programs targeted to younger, more diverse generations, who they do not see as “their” children.

These voting blocs were on the frontlines of the Trump administration’s “war on demography,” which persists today. A July 2021 Pew Research Center survey showed that 35% of white residents age 65 and older feel that a declining share of white people in the U.S. is either “somewhat” or “very” bad for society, compared with just 5% who think it is either somewhat or very good. Among all residents age 18 to 29, the comparable figures are 13% versus 29%. Moreover, among Republicans age 65 and older, just 18% see increased public attention to slavery and racism in the history of America as somewhat or very good, compared with 54% who believe it to be somewhat or very bad. Among respondents age 18 to 29, the responses are 66% and 16%, respectively.

As I used to tell my students, my generation is leaving them a profoundly messed up country. (I may have used a stronger word than “messed up” to describe the situation…). When my age cohort dies off, I promised them, things will improve.

I just hope we can hang on that long….


America the Divided

A new Brookings Institution report shows that a substantial majority of Americans live in counties that did not vote for Donald Trump.

The contentious political back and forth seen daily in the media, cable TV, and polls should come as no surprise in a nation where Donald Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. Newly released Census population estimates for 2016 provide further evidence of just why the nation’s politics are split demographically. These data show that 31 million fewer Americans live in counties that voted for Trump than in those carried by Hillary Clinton…

While it is true that Clinton took less than one sixth of the nation’s 3,100+ counties, she won most of the largest ones, including 111 of the 137 counties with over 500,000 people. Trump won the Electoral College by successfully navigating rural-urban balances in key swing states, taking small areas by large vote margins.

The report–replete with multi-colored graphs– is well worth studying. It also describes the demographics of those Trump and Clinton counties, noting that when they are classified by income,  the least well-off households are over represented in Trump counties and the most well-off households are underrepresented.

Generally, Trump counties are least likely to be home to those with “urban” attributes. Only about one in five foreign-born residents live in these counties, compared with a much larger share of the United States’ native-born population (49 percent) that calls these places home. Fewer single than married persons are Trump county residents. Especially sharp divides are seen by race and ethnicity. Less than one fifth of all Asians and less than one third of all Hispanics and blacks live in counties carried by Trump.

I have written previously about the increasing urban/rural divide, and the Brookings research adds considerable data confirming that divide.

Still more confirmation is contained in an article from the Atlantic, titled “Red State, Blue City.”

The article begins by underscoring the decidedly progressive politics of cities, and the growing numbers of people choosing to live in them, but it also makes an often-overlooked point:

If liberal advocates are clinging to the hope that federalism will allow them to create progressive havens, they’re overlooking a big problem: Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city.

City folks in Indiana are painfully aware of that reality; Indianapolis is the economic generator in a state that barely  pretends to allow municipalities any self-determination. There’s no meaningful “home rule” in Indiana. The article also points out that most state-level policymaking is conservative:

That’s partly because Republicans enjoy unprecedented control in state capitals—they hold 33 governorships and majorities in 32 state legislatures. The trend also reflects a broader shift: Americans are in the midst of what’s been called “the Big Sort,” as they flock together with people who share similar socioeconomic profiles and politics. In general, that means rural areas are becoming more conservative, and cities more liberal. Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.

There is no love lost between these progressive cities and the rural areas surrounding them.

In most states, agriculture is no longer king. Rural areas are struggling, while densely packed areas with highly educated workforces and socially liberal lifestyles flourish. In turn, rural voters harbor growing resentment toward those in cities, from Austin to Atlanta, from Birmingham to Chicago….

By and large, though, cities hold the weaker hand. It makes sense that these areas, finding themselves economically vital, increasingly progressive, and politically disempowered, would want to use local ordinances as a bulwark against conservative state and federal policies. But this gambit is likely to backfire. Insofar as states have sometimes granted cities leeway to enact policy in the past, that forbearance has been the result of political norms, not legal structures. Once those norms crumble, and state legislatures decide to assert their authority, cities will have very little recourse.

An important lesson of last year’s presidential election is that American political norms are much weaker than they had appeared, allowing a scandal-plagued, unpopular candidate to triumph—in part because voters outside of cities objected to the pace of cultural change. Another lesson is that the United States is coming to resemble two separate countries, one rural and one urban.

Only one of them, at present, appears entitled to self-determination.

The Youth Vote

If demography is destiny, the handwriting is on the wall.

Many years ago, I had an enlightening conversation with friend active in Libertarian politics. He was trying to recruit candidates who would appeal to Republicans who were becoming disenchanted with the culture warriors who had seized control of the GOP. He saw a window of opportunity for the Libertarians–if they could moderate some of their positions just a little, they could take advantage of that window and substantially increase their share of the vote. The problem was, the party’s core–the absolutists–were unwilling to move even a little toward the middle, and keeping their pro-gun, pro-gold-standard, anti-public-schools base was critical to any electoral success. So the window closed.

Today’s GOP finds itself in an analogous position. The party has come to depend upon an aging, angry base that repels not only women, immigrants and minorities, but increasingly, younger Americans.  It’s caught between that same rock and hard place that has kept the Libertarians from achieving mainstream status.

The party’s establishment has now realized the problem, but solving it is going to be another thing entirely.



The Long Game

I rarely watch daytime or weekend television, but I caught a really thought-provoking discussion earlier this morning. “Up with Chris Hayes” had a panel discussing–what else?–the recent conventions. This discussion was a bit different, however; it began with Hayes’ observation about a shift in the tone of Americans’ interminable “culture war.”

Hayes noted something that had struck me as well: whereas in previous election cycles, the Republicans had been the “aggressors” on culture war issues and the Democrats had largely been defensive, this year the roles were reversed. Whatever their message to the rabid base, in public Republicans ran away from the rhetoric of folks like Scott Akin, pooh-poohed the notion that they were anti-contraception (personhood amendment? what personhood amendment?), barely mentioned same-sex marriage, and tried to obscure their position on immigration by highlighting their most prominent Latino, Marco Rubio.

The Democrats, on the other hand, mounted a pretty full-throated defense of reproductive rights, trumpeted their platform’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, and even featured a young speaker who personally benefitted from the President’s “Dream Act Lite” Executive Order.

The turnaround, when you think about it, was pretty extraordinary.

It would be nice to think that Democrats’ willingness to champion these issues was evidence that the party has grown a spine, but let’s get real. I can guarantee that each of these decisions was based upon extensive polling and focus group results–just as the GOP’s decision to soft-pedal and obscure their own views undoubtedly was. These decisions reflected profound changes in public opinion, as Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster on the panel, confirmed. The Democrats have pretty much won the culture wars. (When my generation dies off, the victory will be complete.)

This discussion elicited a really interesting observation from one of the panelists, who described the Democratic strategy as long-term, and the GOPs as short-term. The Republicans are arguing that their candidate is more competent to manage the economy. Even if they are able to win this election with that argument, their next candidate may be viewed as competent or not–it’s an argument that will have to be made “from scratch.” The Democrats are arguing that they are the party better able to manage America–the party that will better reflect the economic and social needs and beliefs of women, immigrants, GLBT folks and the middle class. If they maintain that image, it is an identity will serve the party into the future.

They are playing the demographic long game.

Republicans know the demographics are against them–at least, against what the once Grand Old Party has become.

If this is, as many pundits insist, a “base” election, the election of 2012 will come down to turnout, and the Democratic base is already much larger than the Republican base. Hence the almost frantic efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters and constrict voting hours. Hence the gazillions of dollars being poured into the Presidential and Congressional campaigns. Those tactics might work this time, although I’m increasingly inclined to think they won’t, but   the culture is moving fast and in a direction that makes future victories unlikely in the absence of a move back toward the political center.

Of course, a Romney reprise of the George W. Bush Administration can do a lot of damage in the short term.