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Demographic Anxiety and the US Election

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The shifting demographics of the United States loomed large over UK television coverage of last Tuesday's presidential election. Noting overwhelming Latino and African American support for the president, many pundits and panelists observed that white Americans will soon become a minority in the country as a whole and that the GOP needs to take this fact seriously if the party is to remain competitive. On Fox News discussion of changing demographics brought about hysterical predictions regarding the end of the world. Bill O'Reilly claimed that an Obama victory would ensure that "it's not a traditional America anymore". According to O'Reilly, the re-election of the president meant that "the white establishment is now the minority". He went on to accuse African Americans, Latinos, and women of naked opportunism, claiming that many voters supported the Democratic ticket because "people think that they are entitled to things". The underlying assumption here is that white men vote out of love for country while everyone else votes in their own self-interest.

Inherent in this anxiety over future minority status, is the assumption that white America is somehow the unchanging cultural norm. That it is America's default ethnic setting. The hysterical manner in which conservative pundits such as Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs have reacted to Latino migration over the last two decades is based, in part, upon a suspicion that Hispanic culture is somehow antithetical to mainstream American values and political traditions. Not only is such a position completely unfounded, it also betrays a total ignorance of, or disregard for, the immigration history of the United States.

O'Reilly's sentiment would not have been out of place among the nativists who objected to the arrival of waves of Italian, Irish, Polish and Jewish migrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Strangely, the legacy of this period of American immigration history factored in the sole 2012 vice presidential debate. The moderator, Martha Raddatz, commented on the historic nature of the occasion as it marked the first time that both participants were Catholic. She then asked the candidates if their faith influenced their views on abortion. Each man's boringly familiar response (Republican Ryan: yes certainly, Democrat Biden: it's complicated) undermined the supposed 'historic' nature of the occasion, revealing that a national confrontation between two senior Catholic politicians on the topic of abortion looks very similar to any number of past debates between WASP candidates.

The underlying point here is that the boundaries of 'whiteness' in America have always been in flux and that white ethnicity, as we understand it today, is a relatively new construction. All of this talk of Irish-American/Catholic otherness may seem academic in 2012, but it is important to remember that prejudice against these groups was commonplace within living memory. As late as 1960, lingering anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment remained an obstacle for Kennedy in his bid for the White House. Thirty years earlier, Al Smith's catastrophic 1928 presidential race was unsuccessful largely because a proportion of the electorate viewed his Catholicism to be subversive and ultimately incompatible with the office of the presidency.

It is within the context of a resurgent nativism that the reactionary obsession among the self-proclaimed 'minutemen' and from within some quarters of the Tea Party movement must be understood and confronted. Anxiety about what will happen to the country when whites become a plurality at some point in the 2040s is baseless. Various white Americas have faced their demise over the last three hundred years. Benjamin Franklin saw the 'Boorish' Germans of his adopted Pennsylvania to be a threat to the colony's stability decades before the founding of the country, while thousands of Irish immigrants arriving in eastern ports - including, presumably, O'Reilly's ancestors - were often greeted with hostility if not violence during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet the country and the republican experiment set into motion by the founders survives intact.

Despite its ability to assimilate new groups over time, whiteness remains at its core an exclusive category that forever bars at least one group, African Americans, from membership. This makes the fact that some on the right link whiteness with both republican civic virtue and American social values all the more sinister. The assumption that white America is somehow both culturally and politically the 'real' or 'traditional' America is absurd. White America as some unchanging monolith does not exist. It never has.