The Other Side of the Demographic Sword

One of the consistent themes coming out of the constant analysis over what Newsweek is calling “The Obama Conquest” (a fitting last election cover) is rapid demographic change. And well, that’s pretty undeniable at this point. Women, minorities, young people, educated people, etc. are all increasing in number and all more likely to vote for the generic Democrat over the generic Republican. When the choice is between a passionate, articulate, political legend of a Democrat and a slick-haired ex-frat boy of a Republican, this demographic effect is naturally magnified. Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that “the America of today asserted itself,” and indeed it’s an old complaint in progressive circles that the most dependable voters are always the most conservative. Hence why we celebrate elections like this, when we can get that demographic coalition in order and to the polls for resounding victories across the country.

But there is another side to this that progressives must immediately start working on reversing if we want to cement that new America as permanent fact: demographic  segregation. The people over at Pew recently released a study documenting increasing residential segregation by income. And while income is only one variable for measuring someone, any political scientist will tell you that people who make more tend to be whiter and vote Republican more often. They often tend to live next to people like them. The same can be said for poorer citizens, who tend not to be as white and vote for the Democrat more often.

Think of this in terms of Congressional districts and what the current House of Representatives looks like. Republicans managed to hold on to a decent majority despite the progressive surge of 2012. House districts are the smallest elective federal districts in the country, and as such the most segregated by demographic, and when they undergo redistricting every ten years their natural polarization from demographic trends only increases. Increasingly white, conservative districts elect increasingly white, conservative representatives, and the same thing holds true for more liberal districts.

When we as progressives consider how to deal the final blow to the tea party and permanently wipe them from the footnotes of history, this local demographic “whitening” presents just a little bit of a problem. While progressives are nationalizing and scoring victories on a larger scale, tea party activists are localizing and looking to undermine our work by controlling enough small districts to hold a permanent veto pen over the head of our movement.

For those of us concerned about politics in between elections, for the gains we make as a result of the 2012 election to hold into the future we have to remember the local component of our movement. While many progressives celebrate (or lament) the theory that our previous victories were the result of the Obama war machine, that’s not how it is, that’s not how it should be, and I’m willing to bet that’s not how the president wants it. We should use the fuel from our national victories on the ground, promoting local advocacy in areas traditionally considered enemy territory, like those whitening districts.

Let’s face it—when you win an election, everyone looks to you for what to do next, even people who didn’t vote for you. It’s a natural human response to look to their leader to move the country forward right after an event like an election, or a missive hurricane, or an economic crisis. These are brief periods where the minds of the nation’s citizens are open to new ideas. While we work from Washington to turn our victory into law and substance, we must also advance as local activists into the places that didn’t vote for our guy and, for that brief period when they look to their leader, invite them to join us. We don’t need all of them, at least not yet, but we have to start talking to them now.