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Demography Is Not Destiny

Democrats counted on a coalition of minorities to give them permanent electoral dominance. But no one asked the minorities themselves.

Francis Fukuyama

After Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, I and millions of other Americans who voted for him breathed a sigh of relief, not just because the country had avoided a mortal threat to its institutions, but because we would personally be able to move on from Trump and think about topics other than the latest outrageous thing he had said or done.

Little did I expect that nearly three weeks later we would still be fixated on Trump and his increasingly overt efforts to subvert the outcome of the election. Having failed to convince judges that there was massive fraud, he has fallen back on a blatantly authoritarian tactic of overriding the popular vote and having Republican legislators simply declare him the winner. As observers like Susan Glassman have noted, no one has witnessed anything like this before in American politics.

Trump’s uncanny ability to keep attention focused on himself has delayed a reckoning about the lessons to be drawn from the election. But if we are not to live under the shadow of Trump and Trumpism in the future, we need to have a clear-eyed view of what happened in 2020.

As we wait for more empirical evidence to come in, it would seem to me that one of the clear lessons for both Democrats and Republicans is that demography is not destiny. Many Democrats have counted on winning a permanent majority as younger voters matured, the white working class shrank, and minority groups continued to grow as a proportion of the population. Republicans, by contrast, have been terrified by the same trends, resorting to voter suppression and, now, to crazy claims of voter fraud to protect their power.

The impressive performance of Republican candidates in this year’s down-ballot elections indicates that the demographic moment has not yet arrived. Indeed, the election showed that larger percentages of African-Americans, Hispanics, and even Muslims voted for Trump this time than in 2016, despite all the disparaging things that he—the first overtly racist president since Woodrow Wilson—has said about them.

The mistake made by many Democrats was to think that identity categories determine political preferences.

For many people, racial, ethnic, gender, or other identities proved to be simply one of many factors determining their choices. This was particularly true for Hispanics, many of whom appeared to be more worried about the Democrats’ lurch to the left on economic policy than they were about Republicans’ attitudes toward immigration.

The willingness of recent immigrants to pull the drawbridge up behind them is a longstanding phenomenon that shouldn’t have surprised us. Indeed, my suspicion is that many immigrants don’t want to be pigeonholed into preexisting American racial categories, but instead want to assimilate into what they perceive as a non-racial American mainstream, and as fast as possible.

If this is so, the long-proposed Republican strategy of shifting the party to a more welcoming stance that favors assimilation over nativism—the strategy that Trumpism rejects—continues to make a lot of sense.

Conservatives would do well to look at British history after the passage of the 1867 and 1884 Reform Bills. The Second Reform Act of 1867 was pushed by Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli against the opposition of many fellow Conservatives, who called him a traitor to the class and feared that expansion of the franchise would forever prevent the Tories from winning another election. Instead, as Daniel Ziblatt argues in Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (2017), Disraeli’s decision was critical to the consolidation of British democracy: It undercut resentments about the limited franchise that many feared could eventually lead to a popular revolution. More important, it turned out that newly enfranchised middle- and working-class voters did not automatically vote for parties of the Left: Issues like nation and empire were more important to them than their class affiliations, and the Conservatives continued to win elections up to the beginning of the 20th century.

In short, British democracy thrived when Conservatives accommodated themselves to a changing demography.

In other countries, conservatives saw expansion of the franchise and fair elections as a mortal threat to their position. In Argentina, they shifted in an authoritarian direction by backing the military coup of 1930. They put their weight behind non-democratic routes to power rather than figure out new ways to appeal to a broader electorate, as the British Tories had.

Post-Trump Republicans will face a similar choice. The 2020 election shows that the Republicans can still put forward popular ideas—civil order, patriotism, fiscal responsibility, and the like. But Trump and his fellow conservatives have convinced themselves that if everyone voted, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” They have therefore pinned their hopes on anti-democratic strategies: voter suppression, gerrymandering, reliance on anti-majoritarian institutions like the Senate and electoral college, and, in this election, an overt effort to subvert democratic choice by making up charges of voter fraud.

Conservatives should have more faith in the power of their ideas. I personally do not support many of the party’s policies, but the strong Republican down-ballot performance in this year’s election indicates that Republicans have considerable electoral power. A future Republican Party, if it focused on contesting elections on the basis of ideas, could support universal voting, non-partisan districting, even electoral college reform—and still win elections. The dispiriting alternative is to move in an overtly authoritarian direction, as Argentine conservatives did in 1930.

Conversely, Democrats need to understand that their identity categories are not determinative of voter choices and that they, too, need to convince the electorate that they support good ideas. For better or worse, demography is not destiny.

Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose, directs the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

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With warmest thanks,

Jeffrey Gedmin, Francis Fukuyama, and the American Purpose team