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Demography is Destiny--But It Is Complicated

Politicians tend to think in terms of what will happen as far as the next election. Demographers think in decades. But in the long run, demographers win. Thomas Edsall wrote another interesting column on political demography published yesterday in The New York Times. In it he notes that the fear that the United States will become a majority-minority nation sometime in the next few decades is something that scares the daylights out of many rural white Americans and causes them to vote for Donald Trump because they think he will stick his finger in the dike.

What also bothers them is the fact that before too long, the majority of working people will be minority and the majority of retirees will be white. Social Security does not have a giant pot of money from which current retirees are paid. There is a modest trust fund, but basically current workers are paying for current retirees with their current FICA contributions. If the workers are mostly minority and the retirees are mostly white, at some point the workers may stop liking that deal and elect politicians who change the law to drastically cut Social Security benefits, leaving the white retirees stranded. This makes them very nervous.

Another demographic change under way is the domestic migration from blue states in the Northeast and Upper Midwest to the South, giving the Southern states more House seats and electoral votes. This may at first appear to help the Republicans, and that is true up to a point. But the folks moving often pack their old political views with them. This domestic migration has made Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona purple, and if it continues, they may become blue states in a few years. Even Texas and Florida could flip eventually. The migrants tend to be much younger than the current residents of the recipient states, which may accelerate the process.

Another demographic trend that will help the Democrats in the long run is that death rates in red states are higher than in blue states. This is partly due to the opioid crisis, resistance to public health measures (vaccinations and masks), obesity, and increasing lack of medical care as doctors are fleeing the red states due to new laws they are afraid of. In the long run, higher death rates translate into fewer House seats and electoral votes.

Working the other way is the declining labor force participation by noncollege men. In 2022, 78% of men with college degrees had jobs vs. 66% of noncollege men. The noncollege men are finding it harder to support families, which makes them bitter. According to Paul Krugman, the decline in jobs for noncollege men is due to technological change. American farms produce 5x more food than 75 years ago and do it with one-third as many farm workers due to better seeds, better machinery, better fertilizers, and better pesticides. Eighty percent of former coal miners are out of work now while coal production has doubled due to newer mining techniques. Manufacturing jobs have moved to Mexico and Asia.

Meanwhile, the sorts of new jobs available in the 21st century tend to require a college education. You can't turn an unemployed coal miner into a database administrator or AI programmer. Becoming obsolete destroyed these men's dignity, since they think of themselves as hardworking "real Americans," more so than degenerate city dwellers. However, the economy thinks otherwise. The worse their economic prospects are, the more these men become angry and turn to demagogues like Donald Trump for hope. But Trump can't stop technology, even if he wanted to, which he doesn't. On the whole, this kind of technological change helps the Republicans because the Democrats are increasingly catering to the preferences of college-educated voters.

A related demographic issue is that lower-status women don't find these unemployed men to be good marriage material. This may reduce their fertility rates. On the other hand, affluent well-educated couples with good jobs don't want large families, so poor rural families may still win the fertility race. In 2017, households with an income under $10,000 had a birthrate of 66 children per 1,000 women while households making over $200,000 had 44 children per 1,000 women. But separate from income, deeply religious women tend to have larger families than secular women, which also helps the Republicans. In short, it's really complicated. (V)

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