For Republicans struggling to understand their defeat at the polls, the most chilling statistic in this week’s presidential election was this: Mitt Romney won the biggest share of the white vote that any Republican White House contender ever has — and he still lost.
In an election battle that was defined as much as anything by race, Mitt Romney won the support of 59 per cent of whites, but just 27 per cent of Latinos, 26 per cent of Asian-Americans and 6 per cent of African-Americans.
Thirty years ago, being unpopular with ethnic minorities would hardly have stopped a white establishment candidate like Romney from trouncing Barack Obama. But back then, whites accounted for almost 90 per cent of voters. Now they make up just 72 per cent of the electorate, and that figure is shrinking by the year.
Tuesday’s election showed a large turnout by Hispanics, who constituted some 10 per cent of voters — more than ever before. With 71 per cent of them voting for Mr Obama — notably in a handful of crucial swing states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada, where they turned out at the polls in unusually high numbers — Hispanic voters gave the President his winning margin.
In other key states, such as Ohio, pundits said a strong showing by Hispanic and black voters together ensured an Obama victory.
The Republican party, said one pollster, ‘will be doomed if they lose black and Latino votes by these same margins in the future’.
He’s not exaggerating. As the election highlighted, white America is dying — and in a quite literal sense.
The evidence of this demographic timebomb, which is likely to alter the face and character of the U.S. far more fundamentally than any number of elections, was made plain in the summer in a new report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
It revealed that for the first time in American history, ethnic minorities now account for more than half the babies born in the U.S.
Of the four million children born in the year to July 2011, 50.4 per cent were ethnic minorities — black, Asian, mixed-race and, above all, Hispanic.
It was a long-expected milestone on the road to an America in which, according to experts, within 30 years whites will no longer be the majority.
Rather, the U.S. will boast 130 million Hispanics, more than the current population of Mexico. Among under 18-year-olds, whites will become a minority as early as 2019.
For a country founded by British colonists on British traditions and, for half its history inhabited almost entirely by white Europeans (if you discount the slaves, as the nation’s leaders did), it signals a seismic cultural transformation for the world’s sole superpower.
Given that immigration has become the country’s single most divisive issue, predictably some Americans have been punching the air for joy at the decline of a white majority, while others are bereft at what they see as the leaching away of their nation’s traditional character.
Liberals wedded to a multi-ethnic future insist it will be an opportunity to reinvigorate the U.S., creating a more diversified, open-minded and 21st century country.
At the other extreme are conservatives who believe the ‘death’ of white America spells cultural, economic and political doom for their country, and an end to the values of self-sufficiency that made their country great. And in between the two extremes are most rank-and-file Americans, who understand that the U.S. needs new blood if it is to avoid Japan and Europe’s economic nightmare of an ageing population, but who are worried by the implications of what has been dubbed the ‘browning’ of the U.S.
As they sit on a bus or train listening to Mexican Americans chat away in Spanish, they may wonder if their country’s famous ability to assimilate all newcomers is going to work in the next century.
Conservative thinker Pat Buchanan, a senior adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, is an outspoken critic of recent immigration. For him, ‘white America is a dying tribe’, and the ethnic minority tribes that are jostling to fill the gap are simply not up to the task of competing against the rising power of China.
When, 14 years ago, President Bill Clinton told students in Oregon that it would be better for America when everyone was a minority, Buchanan waspishly observed that those students would one day ‘have to spend their golden years in a Third World America’.
Unlike in the past, it isn’t black Americans who are the greatest political concern for the defenders of ‘old’ America, but Hispanics from Mexico and Latin America — the legacy of four decades of economic migration by millions who have come north looking for a job and a chance to find the American Dream.
The problem, in the eyes of many conservatives, is that compared with the generations of Irish, Germans, Jews, Poles and Italians before them, pitifully few Hispanics have yet found that dream. Most Hispanics — two-thirds of whom originate from Mexico — continue to be stuck limpet-like at the bottom of society, a quiet, often overlooked army doing the most menial jobs such as picking fruit, washing cars, toiling in restaurant kitchens and cleaning offices.
Thanks to the sweeping away of immigrant quotas, the immigrant population has quadrupled since 1970, with nearly 14 million entering the country between 2000 and 2010 alone.
Mexicans are by far the biggest group — of the 12 million now living in the U.S., about half are there legally. (It is sobering to learn that the U.S. population of around 226 million in 1980 has now increased to more than 314 million.)
America’s struggling economy and toughened border controls have put a brake on immigration, but the problem for those upset by the country’s changing demographics is that whites — while still constituting 72 per cent of the population — aren’t having enough children.
The fertility rate for Hispanic women is 2.4 children, compared with 2.1 for black women, and only 1.8 for whites. Latinos don’t just have more children — already more than a quarter of all babies — but they are also much younger. While the average age of American whites is 42, for Hispanics it is just 27.
In much of America’s south-west, there is growing tension between richer but increasingly beleaguered older white people and younger, poorer Latinos.
Earlier this year, a Texas pizza chain called Pizza Patron drew a storm of protest from conservatives after launching a promotion to give free slices to anyone who could order in Spanish. (In 2007, the company’s bosses even received death threats after they started accepting Mexican pesos as another stunt.)
Pat Buchanan told me that white Middle America feels it has been abandoned. ‘They watch on cable TV as illegal aliens walk into their country and are rewarded with free healthcare and education for their kids, take jobs away from U.S. workers and carry Mexican flags while marching in American cities to demand U.S. citizenship: they sense that they are losing their country, and they are right,’ he said.
He insisted there are increasingly ‘two Americas’: white and northern Asian-Americans from China, Japan and South Korea, who have higher incomes and far better educational qualifications than the other half of the divided nation — the Hispanic and African-Americans.
In this, at least, his opponents will concede he has a point. America — like Britain — desperately needs a well-qualified workforce to compete in the world, but just 13 per cent of adult Latinos have a college degree, compared with 18 per cent of blacks and 31 one per cent of whites.
Buchanan believes Britain, with the rest of Europe, faces the same fate as the U.S. under the relentless logic of a dwindling white population and growing minorities.
‘There’s nothing the British can do because they’re not reproducing,’ he said. ‘They’re getting older, they’re going to die and someone’s going to come in and take it over. I think Europe is finished.’
Liberal demographic experts such as Bill Frey at the think-tank the Brookings Institution dismiss doom-mongering about Hispanics as the irrational fear of a generation who — owing to a dearth of immigration between the Thirties and Seventies — never had to grow up with an influx of newcomers. Americans were just as scared of Italian immigrants when they arrived in the early 20th century, he argues. He says Hispanic immigrants bring ‘enthusiasm, energy and inventiveness’ to America — qualities you can’t measure by the size of their bank account or their number of degrees.
What’s more, he says, while it always takes about three generations for immigrants to start moving up through society, surveys show Hispanic immigrants really do want to become ‘mainstream Americans’. They ‘just’ need government help — education, housing, social services, English lessons — to give them a leg-up.
With this touchstone issue set to dominate much of America’s social and political debate in the coming years, the Republican Party is left to wrestle with the issue of how it can attract voters who are not wedded to the traditional values it espouses.
The sensible response for the party will be to turn to its strong line-up of young, ethnic minority figures — particularly charismatic Cuban-American Marco Rubio, a Florida senator — who are waiting in the wings as future leaders.
If instead it chooses another candidate like Romney in 2016, it may be doomed to failure again.
‘Harsh rhetoric about Hispanics is for some Republicans rather like smoking — you know it will kill you, but you do it anyway,’ says party pollster Whit Ayres.
If those in the leadership don’t ‘break the habit’, he says grimly, the Republican party is finished.