Wednesday, February 10 , 2016, 1:08 pm | Fair 74º

Tam Hunt: It’s Not Your Grandfather’s America Anymore

By Tam Hunt |

I tan pretty well but I’m white. I spent two and a half years in Hawaii while serving in the Army in the early 1990s. Hawaii was then, and is now, a state where whites are a minority. It wasn’t a big deal. Then I moved to California, where I’ve lived for 18 years, a state where whites are also now a minority and Spanish is an unofficial second language. It’s not a big deal.

So when I see that non-whites are increasingly shaping national and local political outcomes, I’m not threatened. Because I’m a progressive, I actually embrace this shift. But non-progressives should also accept that racial and ethnic shifts, and power changes along with these shifts, are to be expected in any real democracy that lives up to the “one person, one vote” ideal.

As anyone paying attention has surely learned by now: Mitt Romney lost the election, which should have been winnable due to ongoing economic malaise, because of demographics. Minority turnout actually increased over 2008 and minorities are an ever-increasing part of the electorate. Romney’s voters were 88 percent white, 6 percent Latino and only 2 percent black and Asian. President Barack Obama’s voters were 56 percent white, 24 percent black, 14 percent Latino and 4 percent Asian. The fastest-growing minority group is now Asians, and this group overwhelmingly voted for Obama — as did Latinos and blacks.

Slate magazine’s analysis of 2012 presidential election demographics.
Slate magazine’s analysis of 2012 presidential election demographics.

It’s important to look at historical trends to provide context for what just happened. Minority voters made up 28 percent of those who voted in 2012, up from 26 percent in 2008 and about 14 percent in 1988. Obama won 80 percent of these voters in both of his elections, providing a substantial edge in the national race in terms of the popular vote. More important, however, because of our strange and archaic Electoral College system of electing the president, it was a huge advantage over Romney. The final tally was 332 electoral votes for Obama to 206 for Romney, a whopping 24 percent advantage for Obama, compared to only a 3 percent edge in the popular vote.

(This gives rise to a prediction I’m willing to make: by 2020, the United States will switch to a popular-vote system for electing the president, and I predict it will be a coalition of conservatives and progressives who make this happen, driven for conservatives by a desire to remain relevant in presidential races and for progressives by a desire for better democracy.)

Pew Research Center analysis of changing electorate demographics.
Pew Research Center analysis of changing electorate demographics.


At the same time that minorities are becoming increasingly politically active, young people are turning out to vote in ever-increasing numbers. And the young’uns also overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

I’m dumbfounded by some of the conservative commentary on why Romney lost this race, typified by Bill O’Reilly’s (far from the most caustic of conservative commentators today) statement: “It’s not a traditional America anymore. People want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

This statement is incredibly demeaning to literally half of America and it’s simply wrong. Of course, O’Reilly is right about one thing: it’s not a traditional America anymore. What he and other conservatives apparently fail to recognize is that the shift away from traditional America — if we define “traditional” as white-centric political and economic power — is inevitable and positive. We are a nation of immigrants (on a personal note, I’m an immigrant from the United Kingdom, moving here with my family when I was 9 years old), many of whom are increasingly not white. We in the United States have pioneered racial equality in many ways, albeit too slowly, so it is entirely expected and desirable for minorities to assert their political preferences and to support candidates who work toward leveling the playing field.

O’Reilly’s comments about the electorate wanting “stuff” misses the far more valid picture about the majority of the electorate wanting to level the playing field through better policies — not to tilt it unfairly in the favor of minorities, as was the case for whites for far too long.

The most on-point comment I’ve seen so far from conservatives comes from Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush: “Trying to increase the share of a shrinking, dying demographic — old, white men — is not a winning strategy. The GOP has to recognize that demographics is destiny in politics. Time to wake up and smell the coffee.” Right.

The second major trend I want to highlight, which is arguably more important than the demographic trends discussed above, is the growth in direct democracy throughout the nation. Direct democracy today comes generally in three forms: initiatives (also known as propositions), which allow the electorate to vote directly on a proposed law; referendums, which allow the electorate to reject a law already adopted by the legislature or to approve a constitutional amendment already approved by the legislature; and a recall vote, which allows the electorate to fire an elected official.

Fully half of the states now allow initiatives of some kind and these are increasingly being used to decide major issues. What used to a crazy Western state idea — the people directly voting on laws — is now becoming mainstream throughout the country.

Most historically, three states approved gay marriage through popular ballot measures in 2012: Maine, Maryland and Washington. This was a first in the United States, where states that currently allow gay marriage have done so through judicial or legislative action. It seems to me that social issues like gay marriage, abortion, drug legalization, etc., are issues particularly suitable for a popular vote. Amazingly, California is not on the list of nine states that now have legalized gay marriage. We’re losing our bleeding-edge image.

A number of other states also passed referenda against implementation of Obamacare. I view this, too, as a positive development because I am generally a states’ rights-kind of guy: power should be devolved (localized) as much as possible given other considerations. Whether health care is properly a national issue is a topic for another essay.

This is the real story in terms of the longer arc of history: direct democracy is on the rise, and with it — eventually — better democracies overall.

Ballot measures in many states are increasingly being used to decide key political issues — as should be the case in real democracies. California has long been criticized for its ongoing experiment in direct democracy through ballot measures because of a disconnect between what people want as public goods and what they’re willing to pay for government more generally. The cure, however, for the problems of direct democracy is more direct democracy, not less. A key problem with California’s system is that so many signatures are required to qualify for the ballot that only well-financed efforts can qualify.

This leaves the process open only to major corporations, wealthy individuals or unions. Direct democracy can be further democratized, however, by reducing the barriers to entry in terms of the cash required, allowing instead good ideas to fend their own way. Finland, for example, is pioneering a non-corruptible (or at least less corruptible) model of direct legislative democracy through its new online ballot measure voting system. The new Open Ministry allows literally any Finnish citizen to propose legislation. If the proposal gets 50,000 online or paper votes (whether in favor or against) within six months it must be voted on by the Finnish parliament, the Eduskunta.

There is no reason why the next step in this online experiment won’t be to allow citizens to vote on implementation of the laws themselves, with appropriate judicial review, as is the case with ballot measures historically.

I’ve written previously about “wiki democracy,” which I define as the evolution of direct democracy through modern technology like the Internet and mobile computing. The rise of traditional direct democracy in the United States, and the increased tendency to put major issues to the people for a vote, is a key first step in implementing wiki democracy. And this is the bigger wave of history that is now rolling over us.

This wave will take us from a strange system of democracy, where voters occasionally check in on politicians by voting them in or out of office, but moneyed interests really hold sway in most aspects of political life, to a system where voters are daily participants in governance on a wide variety of issues and moneyed interests have much less influence.

In other words, what is arguably more a plutocratic system than a democratic system will, over time, become truly democratic. More to come on this exciting trend in my next essay.

— Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney.

» on 11.11.12 @ 11:35 AM

Here’s a quote from an old white guy.
    “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

» on 11.11.12 @ 01:30 PM

sandflea, how is voting for conservatives who promise tax cuts different than what you’re suggesting as a negative aspect of our current democracy?

» on 11.11.12 @ 01:58 PM

Tam, I have no problem voting for Conservatives or Democrats who want to cut taxes (remember JFK?). The only power I have over politicians is my vote. The only money politicians have is that which they confiscate from me and you.
    The thing I really don’t like is one group of people voting to increase taxes on another group, think Prop 30. I don’t like the Gov. taxing cigarettes so much that they make more money off them than the “evil” tobacco companies. Conflict of interest?
    Make the tax code simple so politicians can’t cherrypick favored groups to sprinkle our tax money on.
    I have seen the Gov screw up so many things I am very leery of sending them more and more of my hard earned money only to see them ask for even more.

» on 11.11.12 @ 02:18 PM

I am kind of ambivalent about the initiative process in California. I like the “direct democracy” aspect of it, but it is too capricious and corruptible. Not only is getting something on the ballot “open only to major corporations, wealthy individuals or unions”, but once an initiative makes it to the ballot the public can be so easily led astray by those deep-pocketed groups, and one you didn’t include is churches.

I think the main reason we don’t have legalized same-gender marriage is because of the huge influence of the Mormon Church. They threw red herrings all over the place in the recent Prop 8 campaign because they could afford to, much of their money coming from out of state.

» on 11.12.12 @ 12:44 PM

What an obnoxious example of liberal/progressive racism. This election wasn’t about race or ethnicity but you divide and concur white wealthy elite racist liberals sure defined it that way and the GOP is guilty of being stupid enough to allow you obnoxious liars to get away with it. Most democrats have nothing in common with religious, family centric Hispanics but they turned the ILLEGAL immigration issue into and anti immigration issue and the GOP, those idiot oligarchs who had the temerity to run a Wall Street fat cat as a candidate, let them.

The GOP is dead in my mind. They are hopelessly wedded to second status and far too comfortable staying there. The democrats will self destruct as their divide and concur strategy turns into a massive faction war as the various factions they love to create start fighting over what’s left of the wealth Wall Street and the government are dividing up.

Of course no one is interested in making wealth any more and why would they be. Half the country believes success equals greed and should be punished and failure is celebrated and rewarded.

» on 11.14.12 @ 10:51 AM

Somebody just tossed their spaghetti-os on the floor. Divide and concur? Interesting malapropism, sir.

» on 11.14.12 @ 03:00 PM

noleta, I agree that big money will always be an issue in politics, whether it’s direct or indirect. But a key benefit of the kind of wiki democracy I advocate is that far more people will become directly engaged in politics and policy issues, immunizing them, at least partially, from moneyed interests propaganda. “Intellectual self-defense” is a term I like. As we become more empowered we will naturally become more educated and further immunized from the distorting influence of big money. Just look at how much more educated people are today than they were two hundred or even fifty years ago. And then extrapolate that trend into the future a few decades.

» on 11.15.12 @ 01:50 AM

Tam I certainly hope the recent election results are evidence of the immunization from the toxic distortion of big moneyed self-interest. The internet has definitely enabled more people to become educated and engaged in democracy, and naturally the extremes among us are more visible as well. That’s just part of the whole picture I suppose.
Thanks for another interesting and well constructed article.

» on 11.15.12 @ 04:08 PM

Noleta, you kidding right? The California Teachers Association union was the biggest campaign spender. The top public service unions out spent their “big moneyed self interest” in the private sector 6 to 1 and boy you lefties bought the propaganda lock stock and barrel, proving once again that allowing every idiot on the planet to vote guaranties the lowest common denominator outcome.

Think about what you just did. You guarantied that a union, taking by force member union dues and spending on buying elections will now run unopposed in the state and have a lock on the treasury. How utterly stupid can you be. Did you really think this was about educating your children?

This was a bought election by a corrupt and powerful union that wanted no opposition to raiding the treasury which means your wallet and you numb nuts handed it to them, gladly with a stupid smile on your face. The one word that apply sums it up is “sucker”.

As for your other comment.

Divide and conquer:
3.  A combination of political, military and economic strategies that aim to gain and maintain power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into chunks that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy.
4.  (as imperative, proverb) In order to rule securely, don’t allow alliances of your enemies.

Multiculturalism is the best example of this strategy as it increases distrust and creates a more divided and disjointed social order. People tend to become more isolated and less interested in the “public good”, thus forcing government to be more forceful in its application of public service entitlements. A more homogeneous society is one where people are far more likely to give to public entities and trust government and each other more.

You can stick your head in the sand for so long but eventually that monster you are trying to not see will eat your ass.

The interesting malapropism, sir is your use of the word.

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