The GOP, which since the 1970s has relied on white voters to win elections, is currently running the largest number of non-white candidates for Congress. Mainstream outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have noted that, since at least some of these candidates are likely to win their races, they will create the most diverse GOP congressional delegation since Reconstruction.
These candidates come from racial and ethnic groups not typically associated with the GOP. For example, there’s Anna Paulina Luna in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which encompasses St Petersburg and the surrounding area. Luna is a Latina and a conservative, critical of what she calls “illegal immigration” (though her comments are considerably less virulently racist than some of her Republican counterparts, including Lauren Boebert, who recently endorsed her). Wesley Hunt, a black man running in Texas’s 38th Congressional District in the Houston metro area, favors what he calls “border security” and supports “our men and women in blue,” who must be defended against “radical liberals in Congress.”
Of the 435 Republicans running for the House of Representatives, sixty-seven are people of color. This number doesn’t reflect the racial demographics of the United States. But it does represent a significant effort on the part of the GOP to diversify their candidates and their party.
Our legislative bodies should, of course, be more diverse. It isn’t just morally correct; more elected officials of color can make our governments better at advancing progressive priorities. But Democrats too often treat racial, gender, sexual, and other representation as if it were a final victory. Which, for many of them, it is: the party has sought diverse faces in high places to carry out an agenda that leaves the miserably unequal status quo untouched.
Voters of color aren’t stupid. They’ve realized this approach is hollow at best, a multiracial cover for political misdeeds at worst — which has helped lead to a situation in which the GOP, pursuing an agenda that is dangerous to the working class, immigrants, queer and transgender people, black people, the environment, and much more, doesn’t seem like such a bad gamble.
The GOP’s goal in nominating a more diverse set of candidates is to challenge a key Democratic strategy in the US electorate. Winning an overwhelming majority of the black vote has been crucial to Democratic electoral victories for several decades, particularly in cities and metropolitan areas where black people and people of color in general disproportionately live in the United States. Even in regions where these groups are minorities, carrying 80 to 95 percent of the black vote can catapult a Democrat to victory. When this turnout is less than expected or hoped, Democratic victories become chancier or impossible.
This is one of the many double binds the mainstream of the Democratic Party has put itself in: it not only relies on the support of black voters but is simultaneously trying to poach more conservative white voters from Republicans. When the Republicans respond in kind, trying to entice more people of color to their side, mainstream commentators get confused: this is not supposed to be possible.
For years, mainstream commentators heralded a coming “demographic wave,” when people of color would be the majority in the United States and white people a plurality, making the country “majority minority.” If you’ve convinced yourself that demographics equal destiny and people of color “naturally” vote for the Democrats, Democratic victories appear inevitable. This argument was everywhere during the Trump administration, reassuring Democrats that their eventual return to permanent power was settled social scientific fact.
This narrative has proved to be both misguided and racist. First, it relied on the assumption that Latinos — the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States — would always identify as Democrats — something that isn’t borne out by the data.
Second, it assumed that the GOP wouldn’t, or couldn’t, offer any kind of alternative to the mainstream of the Democratic Party that people of color would support. This has also proven false. While people of color still vote disproportionately for Democrats, the 2020 election revealed that rule to be as malleable as any other. Donald Trump actually gained ground among minority voters during his reelection campaign, despite four years of racist fearmongering, political violence, and his alliance with the far right.
These essentialist assumptions fall into precisely the kind of racist tropes that the Democrats claim to oppose, assuming a kind of static, intrinsic, across-the-board progressive bent to voters of color. But like all essentialist assumptions, this is wrong.
For example, while black voters in the United States have moved left on the issue over time, a majority of them still find abortion to be “morally unacceptable.” Another supermajority of black voters, the highest proportion of all racial groups polled, said that gender was permanently determined by ones’ assigned sex at birth, squarely at odds with both trans rights activists and the position of the Democratic Party. A majority of Hispanic voters in Flordia support conservative governor Ron DeSantis’s racist actions against undocumented immigrants, which saw the state government intentionally lie to a group of immigrants and put them on a plane to Martha’s Vineyard in an arguably illegal political stunt.
The coalition that currently votes for Democrats in the United States is contingent and malleable. The GOP can win over members of that coalition in their favor — perhaps especially if Democrats continue pursuing a politics that treats racial representation as if it were the full extent of their program for racial justice.
Another clear example of this inadequacy is the ascension of Rishi Sunak in the United Kingdom, the country’s first ever prime minister who is not white. President Joe Biden and other commentators have hailed his election as an historic moment but have neglected to mention that Sunak’s being of South Asian descent or being the descendant of immigrants doesn’t mean that he or his party will support freedom of movement or the provision of increased rights for migrants. In fact, it seems that his government is poised to enact the same kinds of reactionary policies that previous Conservative governments have throughout the UK’s history.
Even the extreme right wing, which in the United States has always been deeply tied to white supremacism, has in countries from Brazil to India been accompanied by very different politics of race and ethnicity. The Brazilian Integralist Action, Brazil’s fascist party from the 1930s, had many non-white members and also several regional leaders who were black, even as it was aligning itself with European fascists. And recently defeated Jair Bolsonaro fared surprisingly well with non-white voters in Brazil despite his open racism. In India the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization deeply connected to both the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and to networks of far-right militants, espouses a form of nationalism and racism that is focused on religious sectarianism rather than whiteness. Even the Italian National Fascist Party originally avoided the antisemitic policies that obsessed the Nazis, only later adopting them when pressured by their allies.
A politics of empty racial representation that does not actually advance any sort of substantively progressive politics and leaves out the basic, material issues affecting the lives of Democrats’ most important and most oppressed constituents presents the Right with a golden opportunity — one that Republicans are currently seizing.