Politics & Policy

Why Demographics Don’t Favor the Democrats

The American melting pot works against special-interest groups.

Democrats, and journalists, talk a great deal about how demographic changes are inexorably shifting the American electorate to the left. But they’re wrong.

The Democrats have founded their political fortunes on special-interest groups for more than 150 years — since at least the late 1850s, when Tammany Hall (the Democrats’ New York City political machine) was taken over by Boss Tweed, who began to use its political influence to support (and pander to) Irish immigrants (in particular), in exchange for votes. The Irish were the largest immigrant group in the country, and an increasingly powerful voting block. Thanks to Tweed and company, they became a voting block that invariably voted Democratic. The Irish continued to constitute the largest or second-largest immigrant group each year until the end of the 19th century, and you would have been forgiven for predicting that they would help deliver a permanent electoral advantage for the Democrats.

Starting with the 20th century, Irish immigration was eclipsed by Italian. Italian immigrants quickly began receiving Democratic patronage, and became a new core of the Democratic electorate. Italians continued to be the largest or second-largest immigrant group each year until the Second World War. Throughout that period, you could rely on Italians to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

But then, in the 1960s, Italian-Americans started splitting their votes evenly between Republicans and Democrats. These days, the Irish-American vote is a reliable 50-50 split too. Why? Because the Irish and the Italians stopped being special-interest groups. After their initial isolation, the Italians and the Irish stopped being easily divisible from the average American. They didn’t want custom-tailored treatment, they just wanted the same shot at the American dream that everyone else had. They’d been assimilated. They stopped being primarily Irish or Italian and became, first and foremost, American. And that meant that Democratic pandering didn’t work anymore. There was no more distinct group to pander to.

When was the last time someone talked seriously about courting the Italian vote, or the Irish, in a national election? Kennedy–Nixon in 1960? “Italian” and “Irish” are no longer considered in pollsters’ demography. They melted into a pre-existing electoral block, ineptly called “white voters.” Pollsters talk a lot about the “white vote” — but what they really mean is the Italian-Irish-Polish-Hungarian-Romanian-Jewish-Russian-Swedish-Norwegian-French-Dutch-Scottish-Welsh-English vote. That’s the nature of the American melting pot.

And before too long, that ethnically indistinct pot will include Latin-Americans too — Latin-Americans being the immigrant group that, after WW2, supplanted Italians as the largest. I don’t buy the idea that Latin-Americans are going to be separated by skin color. The fact is, the skin color of the average Hispanic is no more different from that of the average “white” American than the average Italian’s was in 1900. Remember that, just a few hundred years ago, the only thing a Swede or an Englishman named John Doe needed to be called “John the Black” was tan or tawny skin. Sometimes black hair was enough. The average “white” American’s skin tone has been moving from a British complexion toward the Mediterranean for 200 years.

#related#Obviously, African-Americans have had an entirely separate experience, qua immigration. But I don’t see that Hispanics have. Sure, there has been, and is, plenty of anti-Hispanic bigotry. There was also anti-Italian bigotry, anti-Irish bigotry, anti-Polish bigotry, anti-Jewish bigotry, anti-German bigotry, and so on. Hispanic immigration is the latest chapter, but it’s part of the same story. Before long, Hispanic-Americans will overwhelmingly speak English as their mother tongue, prefer fast food to their ancestral cuisine, and talk about the Minutemen at Lexington using the pronoun “we.” Many do already. The melting pot works fast.

And that means, before long, the Democrats will — once again — have to find a new core constituency.

Josh GelernterJosh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.


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