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Derbyshire: How Race Continues to Shape Politics

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A Prime Minister of Singapore famously said: “In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.” Is this true in America?

The issue of race in politics is a modern one. The city-state of antiquity—the polis that gave us our word “politics”—was monoracial. The only multiracial states before the modern age were the big old bureaucratic-despotic empires of Egypt, Persia, China, etc. There was no politics in those states, only the whim of a strong ruler; or, in the event of a weak ruler, palace intrigues, peasant uprisings, and warlordism.

Speaking of city-states: Probably the most-quoted remark on the role of race in politics is the one made by the late Lee Kuan Yew, who was Prime Minister of Singapore through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in 2005, Lee said:

“In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.”

Lee was one of the most intelligent and successful politicians of the last century, so his opinion is worth considering. It should be said, though, that it also needs discounting to some degree because of the peculiar nature of Singapore. The place is very small and very new. It has an unusual racial mix (three-quarters Chinese, one-eighth Malay, the balance a mix of Indian and European) and an unusually high proportion of non-citizen residents.

In bigger and older multiracial and multiethnic countries, the tribal factor in electoral politics is always present, but is confused by historical and regional peculiarities.  

Brazil, for example, has a lively secession movement in the three southernmost states, which are also Brazil’s three whitest states. Politics is dominated by whites and near-whites: the candidates in the 2014 Presidential election can be inspected here. For contrast, see the cast list for City of God, a movie about the Brazilian underclass.   

So far, so Lee-ish. Still, race is not a major factor in Brazilian voting. Historical patterns of settlement and high levels of miscegenation have left the country with a continuum of racial types. Brazilian Portuguese has 136 different terms for skin color:  puxa-para-branco, for example—“somewhat toward white.” This makes tribal identification difficult; and big systemic problems of development, law enforcement, and corruption dominate voters’ concerns.

India’s biggest political party, the BJP, is explicitly Hindu-nationalist, with the unsurprising consequence that the one-eighth of Indians who are Muslims tend to shun the party.  In that country’s 2014 election, only eight percent of India’s Muslims voted for the BJP and its allies. Again, somewhat Lee-ish.

Still, 38 percent of Muslims voted for the center-left Congress Party, which is can’t-we-all-get-along nationalist, not tribal. Because of longstanding hostility between India and her Muslim neighbor Pakistan—there were dreadful inter-ethnic massacres at independence in 1947, and there have been three full-scale wars since—India’s Muslims know that separatist impulses will not be tolerated by the Hindu majority. They therefore—for the most part, with regional variations—suppress their tribal emotions and vote on general issues, like Brazilians.

So Lee Kuan Yew’s principle, while always applicable to some degree, needs qualifying for the particular circumstances of a country. How true is it of the United States?

There is some confirmation for Lee’s principle in American voting patterns. In last year’s presidential election, for example, blacks voted for Clinton over Trump by 88% to 8%. They were just about as keen on Trump as India’s Muslims are on the Hinduist BJP.  In the 2012 election they voted for Obama over Romney by 93% to 6%. That’s very Lee-ish.

Non-Hispanic whites were not so racially monolithic. Last year they went 58-37 for Trump over Clinton.  In 2012 the percentages were 59 to 39, Romney over Obama.

There are interesting variations by state, although the data here is incomplete as many states don’t conduct exit polling. In Georgia, which is 60% white, whites went 75-21 for Trump last November, while nonwhites voted 83-14 for Clinton.  In New Hampshire, on the other hand, a state that is 92% white, whites voted for Trump by only 48% to 46%; nonwhites for Clinton by only 58 to 33.

The pattern here, of states that are more white voting less tribally was seen more clearly in presidential voting when Barack Obama was on the ballot. I passed comment on these patterns in my Radio Derb podcast immediately following the 2012 election.

Blacks were of course solid for Obama at 93%. Hispanics voted 71% for Obama, Asians 73%. Whites went 59% for Romney.

When you look at the overall picture, however, we are still fighting the Civil War. That is to say, the contest was mainly between two huge groups of white people who don’t much like each other, with the non-white folk playing a marginal role. That’s how it was in the War Between the States, and that’s how it still is today.

In the state of Mississippi, for example, 89% of whites voted for Romney; in the state of Alabama, it was 84%. In the state of Maine, on the other hand, only 40% of whites voted for Romney; in Vermont, only 33%.

Barack Obama wasn’t re-elected by blacks, Hispanics, or Asians, though they helped at the margins; he was re-elected by Yankees.

There are a number of ways to interpret all this. In my mind it stirs an echo of a catch-phrase about American sectionalism that I recall hearing from older black Americans when I was doing menial work alongside them forty years ago: “In the South you can get as close as you like, but don’t get too big. In the North you can get as big as you like, but don’t get too close.”

You can also see in there a refutation of Contact Theory. This is the notion, put into play by psychologist Gordon Allport in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice, that group prejudices and stereotypes are a result of isolation and ignorance; that the more different groups get to know each other, the more we shall like each other. On those state-level results, it seems that in states like Alabama and Mississippi, where white Americans are best acquainted with black Americans, they vote more tribally than in Maine and Vermont, where there is less contact.

I don’t know the current status of Contact Theory among social psychologists, but there have been big academic studies refuting it.  Most notable was the 2006 study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century. Putnam’s results, from a very thorough study with an unusually large number of participants—30,000 Americans in 41 locations—showed that racial and ethnic diversity reduce social capital.  In his words: “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

Interesting questions for the future of American politics are: (1) whether whites, as their proportion of the electorate dwindles towards minority status, will vote more tribally, and (2) whether Hispanics will become a significant tribal force, perhaps with their own party.

The answer in both cases is: “To be determined.” Whatever the outcomes, though, I am sure that Lee Kuan Yew’s principle will never altogether disappear from our politics, or from the politics of any other multiracial nation.

John Derbyshire, a former columnist at National Review, is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.

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