Commentary: Shifting US demographics will affect more than politics

The State (Columbia, S.C.)November 26, 2012 

While some at home will roll their eyes — and with good reason — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s stock rose nationally even as voters dealt Mitt Romney and the Republican Party a solid defeat in the last week’s presidential election.

Gov. Haley and Republican contemporaries such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico — add Charleston Rep. Tim Scott to that lineup — all became bigger commodities in the national GOP as it ponders its future.

While the accomplishments and true potential of these politicians are mixed, this isn’t just about what they’ve done or even their conservative or tea party leanings. This is about demographics: America is becoming more brown and female. Include the young vote and voice, and you’ve got a changing America that will require new and broader coalitions as well as new ways of thinking to build a winning formula in national — and in some areas state and local — politics.

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Many assailed Sen. Lindsey Graham when he insisted, “We’re not going to be the party of angry white guys,” but the fact is that Republicans can’t count on the white vote — driven mostly by men — to consistently deliver as they have in the past. The country’s white population — and voting strength — is shrinking while its minority population and voting strength are increasing. White population fell from 68 percent in 2004 to 63 percent in 2012; whites represented 76 percent of voters in 2004 but dropped to 71 percent in 2012.

Mr. Romney won the white vote, as Republicans have in every presidential election since 1964, but it wasn’t enough. Exit polls suggest Mr. Romney garnered 59 percent of the white votes while Mr. Obama received 39 percent. Meanwhile, about 80 percent of minority voters chose Mr. Obama, including 93 percent of African-Americans, 71 percent of Latinos and 73 percent of Asian-Americans.

The Nov. 6 results, which included Republicans losing seats in the Senate, sent the GOP scrambling for answers. Some believe that all the GOP needs to do is tweak a few things and talk about issues such as abortion and immigration in less threatening or sinister tones.

But I believe pundits are right when they say the shifting demographics require more than just a tonal tweak or a bit of tinkering. A change must come; the party must be more inclusive and even modify some of its stances, moving center right. To that end, some Republican leaders are scrambling to identify ways to retool the party and reach a broader cross-section of Americans.

They have little choice: President Obama’s momentous victory serves as a harbinger of things to come if Democrats, who still have work to do themselves, manage to lock down the minority vote long term.

Frankly, I’ve wondered whether the tea party and birther movements, the multi-state voter ID push, attempts to paint President Obama as a foreigner and other such efforts were simply attempts to postpone the effects of the shifting demographics. Just like the tea partiers, those who rail against taxes of any kind and pledge to shrink government to a size that they can drown it in a bathtub are largely white.

And on Nov. 6, they were rebuffed by a majority of voters.

So, all eyes are on the GOP as it undergoes some introspection. But this isn’t just about the GOP. Corporations and governments and leaders in practically every sector of our society need to consider what the demographics mean to the overall health and welfare of our country.

For years, many people of reason and good will have promoted diversity and inclusiveness as not only right but good for business. But there is another, more urgent reason: It is necessary for the survival of our governments, businesses and communities.

Women and people of color make up the majority of America’s workforce. They are in line to assume many of the positions and responsibilities long dominated by white men. If those future workers and managers and CEOs aren’t properly educated, trained and empowered, we could see considerable cracks in America’s political, governmental, economic, cultural and social infrastructure.

Business, civic and governmental leaders across the country would be wise to respond to the changing demographics by investing more in educating and training all workers and citizens. That’s particularly true for minorities, who tend to make up a greater share of the least educated. In South Carolina, that means not only pursuing industry to bring good jobs to the state but also making sure our public school system offers high-quality education to all children, regardless of where they live, so that they are employable. It also means black and Hispanic children, parents and communities must make education a priority.

Despite many advances over the years, many organizations — whether in the private sector or government — have done too little to assemble a diverse workforce or leadership team. There remain glass ceilings and other barriers holding women and minorities back.

The demographics suggest that can continue only so long. The sheer numbers — both in vacancies and in minorities looking for opportunities — will shatter those glass ceilings. America will depend on more and more women and minorities to not only supply the workforce but lead companies, universities and government.

As Bill Clinton would say, “This is just math, folks.”

Minorities are fast becoming the majority in the United States: The Census Bureau expects minorities — whose numbers surpassed 100 million for the first time in 2006 — will account for at least half of U.S. residents sometime between 2040 and 2050. The nation’s white population, about 85 percent in 1960, will drop to about a half or lower over that time.

Whites are in the minority in a dozen counties in South Carolina. Richland and Sumter counties are about 50 percent white. The shift is going on all across the country, with nearly one in 10 U.S. counties having a minority-white population.

We’ve known of the coming change for years, but haven’t done enough to prepare. Hispanics, blacks, Asians and other minorities now account for more than 50 percent of children born in this country. Are we prepared to educate and train them? If we aren’t, we will face a serious workforce and leadership vacuum in the decades to come.

While we don’t know the future, this past election shows the kind of influence the changing demographics can have on our political system. We must consider what is in store for the rest of American society. The future we don’t know depends on it.

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