Jackelin Alfaro, 4, in a t-shirt that reads “Don’t Depart my Dad” sits in the hall with family members outside the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. The committee hearing will discuss the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act. The committee in the Republican-led House is preparing to cast its first votes on immigration this year, on a tough enforcement-focused measure that Democrats and immigrant groups are protesting loudly. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Two stories of long-term political importance crossed the digital wires last week that were little remarked upon by the distraction machine that is the U.S. press. Taken together, they will rock the very foundations of the American political establishment because they describe, in the inexorable, inescapable logic of demography, how different the America of tomorrow will be and just how quickly it is getting here.
The first was the report that, during the 12 months following July 1, 2011, more White people died than were born for the first time since, well, the beginning of the country. Combined with immigration and the fact that most U.S. births today are recorded to Hispanic, Black and Asian mothers, this means that the non-Hispanic White population in America will begin to decline by the end of this decade and will be an outright minority nationwide by the 2040s.
This, of course, is not news as such, but rather a confirmation that the long-predicted transition to a so-called “majority-minority” country is proceeding apace. Indeed, the surprise is that it is beginning so quickly – mostly, say experts, due to the drop in U.S. births brought on by the 2007 recession and its lingering effect on Americans’ incomes and job prospects.
Already, “minorities” account for most U.S. births and children one year or younger, but with non-Hispanic Whites now dying faster than they are replacing themselves, the possibility exists that the transition to a majority-minority country could occur even faster — perhaps even by the mid-2030s if this new trend continues.
A new rural America
While some areas of the country are changing faster than others, rural America – normally a place where change only happens slowly and well after urban areas – may actually be impacted most dramatically. This is because of the second game-changing demographics story reported last week – that for the first time rural areas of the country reported a net population loss, again mostly driven by the poor U.S. economy and the dashed expectation of millions of retirement-age baby boomers who will have to work long after retirement age as a result of the 2007-08 housing bust.
Since rural America is also the oldest and Whitest part of the United States, this could mean a staggering drop off in population, relatively soon, in what are already America’s least populated areas. Unless rural America can somehow convince millions of young people to move to and set down roots in the countryside, the implications of this shift in relative population and racial and ethnic makeup will be enormous.
Consider, for instance, what will happen economically. Three metropolitan areas – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — already make up approximately 18% of total U.S. economic output. Throw in other large urban areas such as Houston and Atlanta, and you get a stark divide – urbanized areas overwhelmingly drive the U.S. economy whereas rural areas are net takers. Furthermore, since immigrants tend to flock to cities and contribute much to their economies, this taker- vs.-makers dynamic will only get more severe as rural populations shrink and their economies atrophy.
America, therefore, will increasingly be divided between a rich, prosperous urban core and a largely empty countryside that will be poorer, Whiter, older and shrinking in population. Innovation of any kind, let alone of the type the country needs, will not be coming from these places. Indeed, we should expect them to actually become more conservative in orientation as they make a desperate political effort to stave off their coming irrelevance.
Ceci n’est pas representative democracy
This is because while economies and culture ultimately adapt rather quickly to demographic shifts, politics usually takes far longer to catch up. This could mean that even as U.S. society radically shifts in racial and cultural makeup and economic orientation, its political system will at the same time fail to reflect the needs of America’s new, more diverse population.
Wyoming, after all, may become even more of a desolate, rural backwater, but it will still receive as much representation in the U.S. Senate as California – a state that by itself is the world’s sixth or seventh largest economy. With the power of the filibuster left intact, this could mean that states with a miniscule proportion of the U.S. population – less than 10% – could in the future block all legislation at the federal level.
The U.S. House of Representatives, which is meant to reflect population, is in theory supposed to make up for this glaringly undemocratic aspect of our Constitution. The reality, however, is that gerrymandering of House districts by state governments has solidified Republican control of the House until at least 2020, meaning that the party of rural America will likely control that body for the next several election cycles.
This sets up a situation in the United States where our political system will, if perhaps not be controlled outright, nonetheless be heavily influenced by a segment of the country that is not only unrepresentative of the country as a whole, but increasingly alienated and frightened by what the rest of the country will have become – a polyglot mixture of races and cultures intimately linked to and enriched by the rest of the world.
At the very least, it means that our political institutions are likely to be even less representative and effective than they are today.
Far from ending the liberal-conservative culture war that has dominated so much of American politics, that culture war will likely not only continue but intensify. Both sides can now see the endgame in the demographic death spiral that has rural America — and its political party — so firmly in its grip. This is why immigration reform, for instance, has become so onerous and intractable an issue – conservative Americans and their elected officials know that granting citizenship and the legal right to vote to millions of Hispanics will only hasten the demise of their political power.
It also explains why right-wing questioning of President Obama’s ethnic heritage and nationality, ludicrous as it is, continues years after his election as President. It is not simply racism at work, but fear of the new, multiracial, urban, tolerant, global cosmopolitanism the president represents. President Obama thus physically embodies what the country has become; it is a Blacker America, not “Black America,” that dwindling rural Whites fear and loathe so much. Black America can always be controlled, but a Blacker America represents a country that is utterly alien and has no place for them.
Faced with this nightmare situation it is little wonder that conservatives have gotten even more intransigent and crazy in their dealings with the president. It is also little surprise that conservatives also now favor rolling back voting rights or devolving power over economic decision-making to the states. It’s why they favor equating money with speech and support an overweening surveillance state that rigidly polices non-whites at every turn. Democracy, at least at the federal level, is simply something conservatives can’t win, so they are increasingly using undemocratic means to push their agenda, stymie reform, and lock in their power now while they still can. Their mantra is if you can’t win, cheat.
America’s acrimonious dysfunction is not likely to end anytime soon, and that’s a pity. On the one side is a thoroughly entrenched but ultimately doomed political movement while on the other is — literally — the future. It has been said that the modern conservative movement was founded by those with an impulse to stand athwart history, yelling stop. That may have made for pretty politics when the future, like a freight train, was still far away. Now that the train is nearly upon us, whistle blazing, its accompanying politics may soon turn ugly.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.