U.S. Demographic Transition Expected To Influence Politics

In these last several days of 2013, Morning Edition is having conversations about the future. Steve Inskeep talks to Vanessa Cardenas, vice president of Progress 2050, a project of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, about election demographics.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The end of this year is a good moment to reflect on what lies ahead, so we're talking about the future.

GREENE: Rather than big predictions, we're seeking realistic assessments of where we stand and where we're going. Today we explore America's changing demographics and what that means for our politics.

INSKEEP: Vanessa Cardenas works for the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. She's part of a project called Progress 2050, a year when America is expected to look much different.

VANESSA CARDENAS: Well, by 2043 the U.S. Census projects that the majority of people in the United States are going to be people of color.

INSKEEP: A majority minority country.

CARDENAS: That's right. But, you know, we will not have to wait till 2050 to see that change or even to 2043. Today kids under one are majority kids of color. So the question for us moving forward is, you know, are we making the investments that we need to actually create the ladder of opportunity for the next generations of Americans.

INSKEEP: Let's try to understand who would compose that majority minority. First, I guess, we should say white people would still be the largest single group.

CARDENAS: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: African-Americans have been in large numbers of the United States for centuries. Hispanics are growing but that's not the only thing that's happening, right?

CARDENAS: No, it's not. The Asian-American community is going to grow from three percent to five percent. The group that's going to grow the fastest is actually mixed race, right? Because we're seeing an increase in mixed marriages and just kids of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

INSKEEP: Now, you said that this change is most pronounced right now among one-year-olds...

CARDENAS: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: ...who are not voting in large numbers, to say the least. But the electorate is already changing, isn't it?

CARDENAS: Yes, it is. Very much so.

INSKEEP: So how much have things changed, even if we look from 2008 when there was a presidential election to the 2012 presidential election?

CARDENAS: Well, I think you can see the change in many states. You know, states like Texas, states like Florida, I mean this growth is not just happening in sort of the usual gateway states, but you're also seeing it in Virginia, in North Carolina, in Georgia, where you see the growth of big groups like the Latino community and the Asian-American community.

INSKEEP: In between the 2008 and 2012 elections, your organization, the Center for American Progress, put out an interesting study saying that because groups like Hispanics vote more Democratic than Republican...

CARDENAS: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: ...and because those groups are growing, that President Obama's side of the argument would have an extra two or three percentage points added onto his vote total, even if nothing else changed between 2008 and 2012, in one election cycle. Which is a significant advantage in a divided country like this.

CARDENAS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Is that going to happen again between 2012 and 2016?

CARDENAS: Well, I think that is a really important question. I don't think you can take Latino voters for granted and state that they are going to be in the progressive side of the question for the long-term. It is a mistake to consider the Latino community a monolithic community.

You know, even in my own family, you know, we came here in the late '70s, early '80s and you can see the spectrum of political views. I have family members who are business owners and the message of entrepreneurship really resonates with them. I have members in my family that are in the military. You know, they're former Marines and they're definitely on the defense point of view.

So we cannot assume that they are all going to sort of embrace the message that the Democratic Party brings, but I think the issue that really unites everybody is the immigration issue. Because immigration reform is to the immigrant community what voting rights is to the African-American community.

INSKEEP: So you think that Republicans, those who are advocating some kind of immigration reform, are politically smart. If they can get that off the table, there actually is an opportunity for conservatives to appeal to a lot of Hispanics.

CARDENAS: I think their being politically smart, and I think that we should've forget that in 2004, 44 percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush versus the 27 percent that voted for Mitt Romney. So there is a huge difference and there is an explanation, and I think immigration reform is a large part of that explanation.

INSKEEP: When you survey Latinos or interview them individually, do they as a group see their identities as Americans any differently than other groups, see the future of the country in any different way?

CARDENAS: I will tell you this. Latinos are definitely more optimistic about the American Dream than the majority of Americans. They still believe in the government in the United States. They still believe that it can work. And I think that moving forward that vision is really important because I think that that's what really makes America exceptional, the belief that you have that this is the best country on Earth, that here you can actually achieve your dreams if you work hard.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people you have a point of view here. I think you'd rather Democrats continue to get the lion's share of the Hispanic vote, but we're looking out over the long-term and you're reminding us that that is not guaranteed. What's your nightmare scenario?

(LAUGHTER)

CARDENAS: My nightmare scenario. Well, I'll tell you this. In my own family, you know, as I mentioned, we have many conservative voices. My sister-in-law doesn't support the Affordable Care Act. She's hardcore Catholic. My mom is also not very progressive, to put it mildly.

I think my worse-case scenario is that Republicans will make inroads with Latinos on the dysfunction of government. I think that it's key that the Affordable Care Act works for this community because that's will be a very tangible example for Republicans if that doesn't work.

INSKEEP: You're saying this is a group that believes in government, which means they have a belief that could be taken away from them. They could be persuaded not to believe in government.

CARDENAS: Exactly. Exactly. I think that's one short-term thing that I think would turns minds around. And I also think that, you know, hopefully immigration reform will happen soon, right? But I think that if they don't see that the president and Democratic leaders are doing everything they can, it will disappoint them greatly.

INSKEEP: We've been talking with Vanessa Cardenas of Center for American Progress. Thanks very much.

CARDENAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And tomorrow we explore the future of the fight against climate change.

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