Do America's Changing Demographics Impact Politics?

Michele Norris talks with Ron Brownstein of National Journal about how the changing U.S. demographics are shifting the political landscape for 2012.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And those patriotic images evoke an all-American ideal: baseball, picnics, apple pie. We've been thinking about that term all-American, and we're going to spend some time this week exploring what it means at a time when this country's demographics are changing so quickly.

The phrase is often shorthand for a certain idea as in all-American values or a clean-cut all-American boy. In fact, the phrase has its origins in athletics. Back in the 1880s, a sports writer created a hypothetical all-America football team.

Dr. DOUGLAS NOVERR (Michigan State University): These were the best players in all of America.

NORRIS: Douglas Noverr is an American studies professor at Michigan State University. He says the all-America team was supposed to represent the best and the toughest players from around the country.

Dr. NOVERR: You had the celebration of this cult of rugged manliness.

NORRIS: But by the 1930s, Noverr says, there was a new standard bearer.

(Soundbite of radio show, "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy")

Unidentified Man #1: Jack Armstrong.

Unidentified Man #2: Jack Armstrong.

Unidentified Man #3: Jack Armstrong.

Unidentified Man #4: Jack Armstrong. The all-American boy.

NORRIS: For the millions who tuned into that popular radio show, the globetrotting boy wonder Jack Armstrong personified...

Dr. NOVERR: Resourcefulness, quick thinking, quest for adventure.

NORRIS: As decades went by, the all-American ideal spread through advertising and entertainment. It was held up as the iconic manifestation of the true American way of life. And underlying all this was a subtle affirmation of the majority culture.

Dr. NOVERR: You also had a very reaffirming, almost comfortable reassurance that this in fact was a Caucasian-dominated term.

NORRIS: But that reassuring term, all-American, is colliding with fast-changing demographics. According to the 2010 census numbers, Asians made the biggest jump in all groups in population growth, and over the next decade, Hispanics are expected to grow to 50 million strong. America is on its way to becoming a majority minority nation.

We asked Ron Brownstein, columnist and editorial director for the National Journal, what, if anything, these changes might mean for the 2012 election.

Mr. RON BROWNSTEIN (National Journal): America is in the midst of what is probably the most profound demographic change since the turn of the 20th century, and the census report, I think, was like a postcard from the future. It showed that the rate and pace and extent of change was not only deeper and faster than we expected but more widespread.

You know, we think of growing diversity primarily historically we thought of it as a phenomenon of a few big states and a few big cities, and what the census really showed us was that only is the country becoming more diverse than we thought but more places are being affected by it.

It's not only a phenomenon of Phoenix and Dallas and Miami. Iowa, Utah, Nebraska are seeing substantial increases in their minority population, particularly their Hispanic population. And all of these changes are most concentrated and forceful among the young.

Today, the census tells us almost 47 percent of Americans under 18 are minority or non-white. Under 18, our youth population, will be majority minority by the end of this decade. And it kind of begs the question we're going to have to - we may have to come up with some new terminology once we are in that America.

NORRIS: There are a series of gaps in terms of what the census numbers show or indicate and what we actually see in terms of how politics is practiced right now in America, and I want to quickly tick through some of these.

The first is this chiasm between a fast-growing minority - and for now, we'll still use that term - population that will be interested in services and public investment in education, health care, infrastructure, all kinds of things, and then, on the other side, a shrinking and aging white population that doesn't necessarily warm to the idea of using taxes to pay for those investments. Will that chasm continue to grow over time, and what does that mean for public investment?

Mr. BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I think that is the fundamental political tension that is baked in to our society for the coming decades. I've called this phenomenon the brown and the gray.

You have, as we've said before, an under 18 population, a giant millennial generation that is heavily non-white, soon to be majority non-white, and by and large, those families believe they need public investment, particularly in schools and health care, to help their kids ascend into the middle class.

On the other side, you have a aging baby boom generation that is preponderantly white. Eighty percent of American seniors are white. That proportion isn't going to change much in the coming decades because we essentially cut off immigration into the country between 1924 and 1965. That aging white baby boom has grown increasingly skeptical of government, increasingly resistant to paying taxes to fund government services.

And so you have each political coalition - I mean, this really is the core or the anchor of each political coalition now. The older white population is at the absolute center of the Republican coalition, especially the non-college, working-class part of it. Democrats are increasingly dependent upon the votes of minorities.

About 40 percent of President Obama's vote in 2008 came from minorities, compare to only about 10 percent for John McCain. So you kind of look at these two blocs in the society with very divergent views about the role of government in particular, and you see this conflict, I think, playing out not only nationally but in states.

I think a lot of what we've seen in Arizona, in Texas, in Florida, these are states where there are the biggest gaps between the demography of the under-18 population and the over-65 population, what Bill Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution, has called the cultural generation gap.

NORRIS: The demographic shifts that we've been talking about, how did that play out in terms of the sort of coded language of American politics when people talk about things like Joe Sixpack or, you know, taking the country back or what it means to be all-American?

Mr. BROWNSTEIN: Well, I have felt, until recently, that in general, American politics today was less racialized than it was in the '70s and '80s. There were a series of very racially overt issues - affirmative action, bussing, crime, welfare - that really served to polarize the country along racial lines and lead to this realignment.

But in the '90s, under Bill Clinton, the welfare issue was largely taken off the table. The mend-it-don't-end-it reduced the toxicity of affirmative action as an issue. And crime went down nationally. George W. Bush did not really play in these waters, either. And so I kind of felt that, you know, roughly from say '92, post-Willie Horton, to 2008, we were in a less I think racially incendiary or explosive kind of political environment.

I think that is beginning to change again. It is moving or transmuting into this debate about the role of government, and I think many of these debates are now re-acquiring a kind of racial content to them, even if there is no racial language.

And I can point to one empirical fact on that. You know, we do a quarterly poll here called - at National Journal called the Heartland Monitor. The last one, we looked at how Americans feel about the changing diversity. And there is no question that whites who say they are troubled by the pace of racial change express conservative views on a whole series of other issues, particularly the role of government.

These kind of perspectives are intertwined and are interconnected, I think, to a degree we haven't seen since the 1980s. I think we are seeing attitudes about race and broader ideological attitudes kind of reconnecting in a potentially powerful way.

NORRIS: Ronald Brownstein is editorial director and a columnist for the National Journal. Ron, thanks so much for making time for us.

Mr. BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Tomorrow we continue our conversations about what it means to be all-American in light of the country's changing demographics. We hear from Asian-Americans trying to break what's known as the bamboo ceiling in corporate America.

Unidentified Woman: In an organization, you do need to understand how to promote yourself to get ahead. And I think if you talk to most of the Asian individuals who are working in these organizations, most of them are uncomfortable with that because they didn't grow up with that as something that was valued.

NORRIS: That's tomorrow in our series that explores the evolving term all-American.

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