There’s Only So Much Race Can Tell Us

Let’s focus less on demographics and more on political issues.

Democratic voters Davidson North Carolina
Democratic voters in Davidson, North Carolina listen to a speech, October 12, 2016 (Hillary for America/Alyssa S.)

American journalists continue to parse the November electorate, specifically the Latino vote.

Matthew Yglesias, formerly of Vox, has a good newsletter about Donald Trump’s gains with Latino voters in which he links to Harry Enten’s analysis for CNN. It turns out Trump didn’t appeal to just Latinos of Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan descent, who may have been alarmed by Democratic flirtations with socialism given the experience in their home countries; he did better with Latinos of all backgrounds compared to four years ago.

This is fascinating to political junkies like us, but having just moved back to the Netherlands, where the campaign for the general election in March is slowly getting underway, I’m reminded that this sort of demographic analysis is almost entirely absent in Europe.


Partly that’s because European countries are more homogenous than the United States. The Netherlands is 80 percent white and 75 percent ethnic Dutch.

There are a couple of parties that appeal to segments of the nonwhite population: Denk for ethnic Turks, BIJ1 for voters of African descent (often via Suriname). But they have won few seats. Their prospective voting blocs are small and many Turks (2.4 percent of the population) and Surinamese (2 percent) still vote for other parties — if they vote at all. Non-native Dutch turnout is low.

There are culture- and language-based parties in other countries. Basque and Catalan parties have seats in the Spanish Congress. German-speaking South Tyrol, in northern Italy, has its own political parties. So do Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in Belgium.

But even in those cases, there isn’t a single party for Basques, Catalans, South Tyroleans, Flemish or Walloons. Each group has multiple parties spanning the political spectrum.

Identity politics

Europe isn’t immune to American-style identity politics. Far-right parties appeal to white voters in much the same way Republicans do in the United States: by tapping into, and exacerbating, white fears of losing status. Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are the best-known propagators of white identity politics in Europe.

Of those, only Orbán is in power. That’s not just because he scapegoats minorities; he has made it harder for other parties to win by limiting their access to the media and gerrymandering parliamentary districts.

Le Pen won 34 percent of the votes in the second round of the last French presidential election, and that was after years of “detoxifying” the National Front from the antisemitic and racist legacy of her father. And still a third of her voters had backed a mainstream conservative candidate in the first round.

Salvini won the most recent Italian election with 37 percent support after running an anti-immigrant campaign, but his party has since left the government and fallen to 23-25 percent in the polls.

Wilders has never got more than 15 percent support in the Netherlands.

None of these politicians has anywhere near the 46-47 percent support Trump received in the 2016 and 2020 elections, and neither, do I suspect, would Trump have in a multiparty democracy. Not one in two Republicans voted for him in the 2016 primaries. But once he became the Republican candidate, the party largely unified behind him. His approval rating was in the low 40s for the duration of his presidency, no matter what he did.

It’s the scourge of the two-party system: it encourages parties to radicalize their supporters and conditions voters to think there are only two sides to any given issue.

Combine that with a weakening of other social bonds, due to declines in church attendance and membership of trade unions and other associations, higher income inequality and a widening rural-urban gap, and you end up with a tribal devotion to party in America that is rare in Europe.

Issues first

There has been ample analysis of the European far right, perhaps more than it deserves given its limited appeal in most countries. But that analysis is usually centered on issues: deindustrialization and globalization destroying well-paying working-class jobs; immigration leading to culture clashes and resentment. It is seldom grounded in identity: white Europeans voting for white nationalist parties. Or non-white Europeans voting for parties that defend multiculturalism.

Let alone how white Europeans of different national origins might vote differently and why.

The Netherlands has a 2-percent ethnic German minority. I have no idea how they vote. No one seems to care.

Every election, millions of Dutch voters fill out the StemWijzer, which tells them which party best matches their beliefs based on thirty questions.

Many Americans, by contrast, pick a party first and then decide what they believe.

Five years ago, most Republicans were for free trade and NATO and against deficit spending and Russia. Trump pulled out of trade agreements, disparaged NATO, added $7 trillion to the national debt and gave Vladimir Putin everything he wanted. Joe Biden is a multilateralist, has credible plans for spending and taxes, and takes a harder line on Russia. Yet few Republicans voted for him.

We in the media play a role in this when we prioritize demographic analysis over issues. When we constantly write that voters of a certain background or color vote for certain parties, we could make it harder for those voters to change parties.

Few voters read political manifestos or analyze past voting behavior to decide which party is best for them. They are more likely to look which party “people like them” vote for and then do the same.

Which can be a good proxy. If you’re a teacher and you learn that eight in ten teachers vote for a party of the left, there’s a good chance that left-wing parties have your interests at heart.

But that method becomes less reliable when we’re talking about ancestry or race, especially such broad groups as “Latinos” (which is only considered a separate racial category in the United States) or “whites”. American Latinos don’t all have have the same priorities, nor do whites. We need to stop treating them as blocs.

One comment

  1. Actually it has a lot to do with with identity and cultural issues. You can look at Richard Hanania at the cspi center and Eric Kauffman author of white shift.

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