What a changing population means for American politics

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Data from the 2020 census released earlier this month shows that the United States has become significantly more diverse and more urban in the past 10 years.

The populations of people who identify as Asian or Hispanic increased sharply, and the number of people who said they belong to more than one race doubled. The white population declined in raw numbers for the first time, although it is still by far the largest racial group in the country. Those trends were even more concentrated among young people. More than half of Americans under 18 identify as something other than white.

The data also shows that the U.S. population has become increasingly concentrated in cities. Nearly all the population growth across the country occurred in urban areas and suburbs, while most rural areas contracted slightly.

Collected every 10 years, U.S. Census Bureau data is used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives, how the districts within states are drawn up and where hundreds of billions in federal funding — for everything from schools to roads to hospitals — is distributed. In 2020, the Census Board faced the unprecedented challenge of reaching Americans during the coronavirus pandemic and had to navigate a partisan clash over the Trump administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question.

Why there’s debate

The diversification and urbanization of the U.S. population could have a substantial impact on American politics, many experts say. At first glance, the shift in demographics appears to offer an advantage for Democrats. People of color and city dwellers have been more likely to vote Democratic. Most of the fastest-growing states are in the South and Southwest, historically red regions but places where Democrats have become competitive in recent races. Narrow victories in Arizona and Georgia, for example, played a key role in helping Democrats flip the presidency and take control of the Senate in 2020.

But political analysts say the change in demographics doesn’t necessarily spell doom for Republicans. Although he lost the election, former President Donald Trump made notable gains among minority voters, particularly Hispanics. That trend, analysts argue, shows that racial identity is not the only factor that influences voters and that, with the right messaging, the GOP has the opportunity to increase its appeal with these groups. Others contend that the apparent growth of minority groups can at least partly be attributed to changes in the questions on the census form, which may as a result overstate the extent of the demographic shift.

Republicans also have structural advantages they can use to counteract the diversification of the electorate. The GOP controls the legislatures in several key swing states, which has allowed the party to pass a number of restrictive new voting laws that could make it harder for likely Democratic voters to cast a ballot. Republicans may also have the opportunity to use gerrymandering — a process that redraws legislative districts in a way that maximizes one party’s chances of winning a high number of seats — during the redistricting process that follows the census every 10 years.

What’s next

The census data sets off what is likely to be a heated partisan battle over how congressional districts are drawn throughout the country in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections. Some analysts suggest that the GOP could take back the House through redistricting alone. Congressional Democrats have put forward a voting rights bill that would ban partisan gerrymandering, but passing the bill would require amending the filibuster — something at least two moderate Democrats have said they oppose.

Perspectives

Democrats will benefit from a diversifying electorate only if they make the right choices

“Demography is not destiny, and Democrats should not think that it is. To win the support of minorities, Democrats must speak to their aspirations with relevant messages that connect with their optimism and connections to family.” — Maria Cardona, The Hill

Many obstacles could stop Democrats from profiting from favorable demographic trends

“Democrats face great challenges in translating favorable demographic trends into electoral success, and the new census data may prove to be only the latest example.” — Nate Cohn, New York Times

Racial identity is too flexible to predict what impact the shift will have on future elections

“The census may herald a more inclusive and harmonious future, or it may simply foreshadow yet another moment in American history when some borders shift while others remain closely guarded. But what the census cannot tell you is where lines of partisan identity will be drawn. It can tell you how Americans define themselves, but not how their politics flow from that definition.” — Adam Serwer, Atlantic

Procedural changes with the census have overstated the change in demographics

“If you dig a tiny bit, it’s pretty clear this isn’t really a question of fewer white people, so much as it’s a question of changing census questions. White people are surely decreasing in their majority because of immigration, but the claim that the white population is shrinking in absolute terms is not really true.” — Timothy P. Carney, Washington Examiner

Framing census data entirely around racial data fuels divisive politics

“The trap of seeing the drop in White population as the only, or even the main, story of the Census data reinforces our own insistence on seeing these transformations through a cynical lens. Pitting White America against hordes of threatening ‘colored’ people is part of a long, complex, and fraught history — one wherein changing definitions of ‘Whiteness’ both expanded and restricted the boundaries of citizenship. This fear-driven narrative also has tremendous policy and historical implications.” — Peniel E. Joseph, CNN

The GOP has the opportunity to expand its appeal beyond mostly white voters

“Whether the GOP will take the risk of trying to forge a multicultural course or continue down the track toward becoming an expressly white party is a huge question for the future of American politics. The Census figures make clear that the party has only limited time to make up its mind.” — David Lauter, Los Angeles Times

The GOP can capitalize on white resentment to tip the electoral system in its favor

“Hysteria over the pending loss of straight, white, Christian primacy has driven the tumult of the last decade and a half. Meaning, yes, the obvious stuff like the church massacre in Charleston, the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, the murder in Charlottesville and street violence against Asian Americans. But that hysteria is also at the root of outrages some might find less obvious. It’s why the GOP has withdrawn from basic democratic norms, why Donald Trump was elected, the Capitol was ransacked and state laws now suppress Black votes while restricting Black history.” — Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald

The risk of political violence is increasing

“The Census results … make me nervous. The data indicate that the white population of the United States continues to dwindle toward the days in which white Americans become a minority. I’m OK with this, but a lot of people aren’t, and some of them have guns, and those people have a network of politicians and an entire media ecosystem that encourages them.” — Charles P. Pierce, Esquire

The U.S. must embrace its diversity or risk stagnation

“We see in the new numbers a healthy indicator that the United States continues to evolve racially and ethnically, and a timely reminder to whites that the nation badly needs to welcome and integrate people with a range of backgrounds if it has any hope of remaining economically and culturally dynamic.” — Editorial, New York Daily News

American politics are likely to become even more fraught

“So the increasing diversification of the United States will give both sides reason to be angry: conservatives because they fear their continued decline, and liberals because they’re locked out of power commensurate with their numbers. This is a long-term problem, but it could be particularly acute in the next couple of years.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post

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