In an age of diminished resources, the United States may be heading for an intensifying confrontation between the gray and the brown.
Two of the biggest demographic trends reshaping the nation in the 21st century increasingly appear to be on a collision course that could rattle American politics for decades. From one direction, racial diversity in the United States is growing, particularly among the young. Minorities now make up more than two-fifths of all children under 18, and they will represent a majority of all American children by as soon as 2023, demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution predicts.
At the same time, the country is also aging, as the massive Baby Boom Generation moves into retirement. But in contrast to the young, fully four-fifths of this rapidly expanding senior population is white. That proportion will decline only slowly over the coming decades, Frey says, with whites still representing nearly two-thirds of seniors by 2040.
These twin developments are creating what could be called a generational mismatch, or a "cultural generation gap" as Frey labels it. A contrast in needs, attitudes, and priorities is arising between a heavily (and soon majority) nonwhite population of young people and an overwhelmingly white cohort of older people. Like tectonic plates, these slow-moving but irreversible forces may generate enormous turbulence as they grind against each other in the years ahead.
Fast forward to this week and Jonathan Chait captures an example of the turbulence in action. Apparently a student asked Romney what he would do to help make college more affordable to those who are struggling to pay for it. Here's Romney's response:
“It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that,” he said, to sustained applause from the crowd at a high-tech metals assembly factory here. “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”
Chait notes not only the audiences enthusiastic response to this pretty brutal answer from Romney, but its inconsistency.
Romney does not take this position toward all government services. Like the Republicans in Congress, he maintains that Medicare must be maintained untouched for all Americans 55 years old and up – he constantly attacks Obama for being “the only president in modern history to cut Medicare benefits for seniors.” But he proposes to eviscerate the rest of the domestic budget, even more than the enormous cuts in the House budget, slashing tuition assistance, poverty programs, and the like on an unprecedented scale.
And then he reaches this conclusion:
The glue holding together the contemporary Republican agenda – the fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly, the equally fierce opposition to welfare spending on the young, the backlash against illegal immigration, the nationalist foreign policy, the cultural traditionalism – is ethnocentrism. Republicans are defending the shared cultural prerogatives of a certain group of people...Their conception of us versus them can work for a while – it worked quite well with the anomalously old, white 2010 off-year electorate – but the them is rapidly outnumbering the us.
One final piece to add to this puzzle comes from something Ron Brownstein wrote today.
White and gray.
That's the clear pattern for turnout in the Republican presidential race over its first two months.
After Super Tuesday, exit polls have now been conducted in 14 states from all regions of the country. In all 14 of those states, white voters, and voters over 50, both comprised a significantly larger share of the electorate in this year's GOP primary than they did in the 2008 general election. In many cases, the gap on each front has been enormous.
These patterns underscore the extent to which the modern GOP coalition revolves around white voters-and increasingly, as the graying baby boom moves right, older white voters.
All of this once again points to the reason we're seeing the vitriol that is exploding in our politics these days. Our country is in the midst of a huge transition. The "old guard" is feeling threatened and defensive as the inevitable happens. Folks like Romney are playing on people's fears and divisions in an effort to gain power. We can't let that happen.