Demographic Change Is Not Enough

Much has been made since last year's election of demographic shifts in America and their effects on our politics.  Pollsters, pundits, and politicians have all pointed out that the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of America is evolving.  Soon whites will be just one of a number of minority groups, bringing an end to the politics of fear and resentment on issues of race, sex, gender, and secularism, which has been used so successfully by conservatives to resist economic egalitarianism.  While angry white males and cultural conservatives still retain much political power, especially in Congress, and while they appear hell-bent on maintaining that power by disfiguring democracy through vote suppression and electoral college manipulation, the power of demographics in the long run is like the power of flowing water to wear away rock.  It thus appears that reactionary politics may have peaked, with the worst now past.  Progressives can be hopeful that the changing face of the country will lead to positive policy change in the long run. This is undeniably a good thing.

Political change is often demographic, when growing aspirations and influence by marginalized demographic groups lead to demands for inclusion, as the civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQ movements have been demonstrating for the last 40 years.  One kind of demographic change that is very important is generational change, when an influx of young people into politics generates new ideas, new energy, and new political will for reforms to ensure their future.  Youth movements have been critical in creating political change since the second half of the 20th century at least, with the protests of the 1960s the most famous example.  History is full of other examples of political reform or revolution triggered by generational change, including America's own founding generation; today, youth movements are a key part of the Arab Spring, of protests in Eastern Europe, and of demands for change in China.

I hope that the demographic shifts in America do ultimately lead to real political change, especially on climate change, for American political institutions have become so sclerotic that they seem thoroughly resistant to any other force for change.  They are not responsive to the will of the people: no matter what happens in our national, state, or local elections the same bad basic policies and processes continue unimpeded.  Polls for years have shown that while people have bought into the conservative media's dislike of the term "liberal," on most matters of substance they support liberal positions.  Furthermore, they want good government, meaning that they want politicians to implement effective policies for the public good, and to do so in an effective and timely way; the fact that they are not getting this is the source of our political legitimation crisis. So this demographic trend is positive, for it seems that America cannot change any other way.

But that itself is a problem.  Progressives should not get too comfortable with demographics alone.  Despite the positives of the current trends, change should not come this way only, for the fact that it does is undemocratic and slow.  There are several problems with reliance on demographic change: 1. It is contingent, a product of arbitrary historical forces.  What if the demographic trends were going in the opposite direction.  Would liberals be happy then?  2. It is not a result of democratic choice; change is coming about because of social forces, not deliberation.  3. While it is true that in political systems rapid or revolutionary change can easily go awry, our system has gone too far in the other direction: it is thoroughly unresponsive to any real change, especially democratic, electoral change.  Politcal change should come through elections that reflect the experience and deliberations of the public, and which result in really new and different policies, if the public so wills it.  4. Demographic and generational change is too slow: having to wait for a new generation to exert its influence allows injustices to persist.  In the past mass numbers of African-Americans, women, LGBTQ persons, and other groups have endured oppression and exclusion for their entire lives while waiting for the political system to grant the rights and inclusion that they were due.  As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.  Additionally, the glacial pace of political change in our system is far to slow for the environment to bear: we must act soon on climate change in order to avoid catastrophe.

In short, while demographic trends are going in a positive direction, the discussion of them in the media highlights the dysfunctional sclerosis on our system, and relying on generational change prolongs injustice and is likely to be too little, too late for the biosphere.  Instead, we should insist time and again that our political institutions be altered to make them more responsive and democratic until that sinks in to both the public at large and the elite.

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