ENG United States

The US 2020 Presidential Election (1/3): The Social & Racial Issue

The 2020 US presidential election will probably be remembered as one of the most tense electoral contests in the nation’s history. Not only because it happens amid a global pandemic to which Americans paid a heavy human and material price. Political and social polarization is arguably at its highest level in the Land of the Free. There are many topics that deserve attention but we will focus on three main issues: Social and racial justice, Climate Change and the US-China relationship.  In this first post, we will discuss the social and racial justice issue.  

Let’s start with the social/racial justice debate. There as been innumerable studies showing the widening income inequalities between the top and the bottom of the American social scale. The idea of the American Dream – that you can move yourself from rags to riches and that your children will most likely have a better social condition than you – which has hold together the United States since the Post-war period has gradually been fractured over the last thirty years. Ironically, it took three French economists (Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez) who achieved most of their academic credentials in America to bring the debate about income and wealth inequalities in the US to the centre stage. The Great Financial Crisis of 2008 was a moment of reckoning and brought widespread recognition to the trio and even Rock star popularity to Thomas Piketty following the publication of his Capital in the XXIth century. Others contend their results. A lot of questions about inequality actually come down to seemingly technical details.

Source: Piketty T., Saez E., Zucman G., Distributional National Account, Quarterly Journal of Economics (2018)

In a state of affairs where there are increasing social barriers, identity politics take the centre stage. This explains why culture wars have replaced class wars.  This is not particularly the sign of a healthy nation. More than 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on the position of black people in American society today, and there is some skepticism, particularly among blacks, that black people will ever have equal rights with whites, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center carried over in January-February 2019. Roughly two-thirds say it’s become more common for people to express racist views since Trump became president and About six-in-ten Americans (58%) say race relations in the U.S. are generally bad, a view that is held by majorities across racial and ethnic groups. 

The WASP America of the 1950s – the one idealized in the sitcom TV series Happy Days and sarcastically depicted in the 1985 science fiction film Back to the Future – does not exist any more. But the shift toward siloed communities and neighbourhoods, divided alongside ethnic and cultural lines, has exposed the shortcomings of the American Melting pot. In a series of articles published in the Washington Post in 1998 (!) more than two decades ago, William Booth already debunked this myth. According to the aforementioned survey by the PEW Research Center, about three-quarters of black adults (74%) say being black is very important to how they think about themselves. About six-in-ten Hispanics (59%) say being Hispanic is extremely or very important to their identity, and 56% of Asians say the same about being Asian. The United States has the second highest concentration of Spanish speakers in the world, after Mexico. There are now more people speaking Spanish in the U.S. than Spain (47 million speakers). By 2050, the United States is expected to have 138 million Spanish speakers, making it the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world

As reported by the PEW Research Center in an article about the changing racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. electorate, Between 2000 and 2018, Hispanic voters have come to make up increasingly larger shares of the electorate in every state. These gains are particularly large in the Southwestern U.S., where states like Nevada, California and Texas have seen rapid growth in the Hispanic share of the electorate over an 18-year period. During the same period, the share of non-Hispanic White eligible voters declined in all 50 states, with 10 states experiencing double-digit drops.

From 2000 to 2018, the nation’s eligible voter population grew from 193.4 million to 233.7 million – an increase of 40.3 million. Voters who are Hispanic, Black, Asian or another race or ethnicity accounted for more than three-quarters (76%) of this growth. Hispanic eligible voters were the largest contributors, accounting for two fifths of the nation’s increase of eligible voters. They made up 13% of the country’s electorate in 2018 against 7% in 2000. making them the largest minority group among U.S. voters in 2020 for the first time in a presidential election. Nationwide, non-Hispanic White voters still make up the large majority (67%) of the U.S. electorate. However, their share shrunk by nearly 10 percentage points over the last twenty years. California has experienced an even sharper decline in the White share of the electorate, the latter dropping by 15 percentage points since 2000. This has resulted in California changing from a state where White voters represented a comfortable majority (60%) of the electorate in 2000 to a state where White voters now represent less than 45% of the electorate, though they still are the largest racial group.

These trends are particularly notable in the so-called “battleground states” or “swing states” – such as Florida and Arizona – that are likely to be crucial in deciding the 2020 election. In Florida, two out of ten eligible voters are now Hispanic, nearly double the share in 2000. In Arizona, Hispanic adults now make up about one-quarter (24%) of all eligible voters, up 8 percentage points since 2000.Florida and Arizona saw the third- and fourth-largest declines in the shares of non-Hispanic White eligible voters. The White shares of the electorate in those states each stood at about six-in-ten in 2018, down from about three-quarters at the start of the century. 

Amid all this gloom there remains a silver lining. The aforementioned PEW Institute Survey on Racial Attitudes shows that across all racial and ethnic groups, the majority of all surveyed individuals pointed to their own hard work than to any other attribute, including their race, their gender, the people they know or their family’s financial situation, as something that helped them get ahead. The American dream might be shattered but it is still alive.