Return of the Sailer Strategy

For those unfamiliar with it, the Sailer (as in Steve Sailer) Strategy argues that Republicans should just ignore non-white voters, and go all-in on increasing their percentage of the white vote as the best way to win elections. Because the electorate is still so overwhelmingly white (among other things, because felons, non-citizens, and under-18-year-olds are a greater percentage of the non-white than of the white population), relatively small changes in the percentage of the white vote have a much bigger impact than relatively large changes in the percentage of the non-white vote. Plus the white vote is trending the right way (as it were) while the non-white vote (particularly the Asian-American vote) hasn’t. So it’s just an easier sell to follow the Sailer Strategy than to try to build a right-wing rainbow coalition.

Matt Yglesias has come around to concluding that some version of the Sailer Strategy is kind of inevitable:

I used to hold to the view that the growing non-white share of the electorate would, over time, tip elections to Democrats. I now think the system will remain near equilibrium and what we’ll instead see is white voters growing more Republican as Democrats are more and more seen as the party of non-whites. Mississippi and Arizona, after all, have very large minority votes but they’re hardly hotbeds of liberalism. Instead they’re hotbeds of very conservative white people. This does mean, however, that politics will become even more abstracted away from “the issues” and questions of identity will become even more central.

I’m glad he’s changed his mind, because any prediction that X, Y or Z factor is going to lead to tipping elections over time to the Democrats – or the Republicans – is questionable on its face. Every election should be a closely fought contest between two parties that are extremely skilled at optimizing their coalitions. If that doesn’t happen, that reflects some kind of structural breakdown (which, from one perspective, Jim Crow was an example of; it raised the costs of defection by whites so high that it effectively eliminated the possibility of real political competition).

That doesn’t mean that racial polarization is inevitable, though. Racial polarization depends on one of two propositions: (1) a genuine lack of common interests between two (or more) racial groups in a polity; or (2) an existing political “sort” that makes finding such common interests politically risky/expensive. It seems to me that the policy landscape, and how it is approached by the two parties, has some bearing on (1), and the choices of opinion-leaders have some bearing on (2).

Take a look at another post of Matt’s from today, about political instability in the Midwest. The Midwest has been the primary electoral battleground for several national cycles now. The Upper South, as it has gotten wealthier and more urban, and the Southwest, as it has gotten more Hispanic, have also been contested, but the primary battlegrounds have been over the big states of the Midwest, from Pennsylvania to Minnesota.

This is, as Matt notes, a region that is suffering from long-term relative decline. (And, to a certain extent, absolute decline.) And that’s an economic circumstance that you’d expect would lead to a high degree of partisan fluidity, as a frustrated electorate keeps electing a new batch of bums who don’t do any better than the old batch at fixing the region’s problems.

But my question is: does a genuine divergence of interests exist between white and nonwhite voters in these states? And are the white voters in these states particularly amenable to a racially-based voting appeal?

I’d like to see the data on the latter. My own guess, though, is: no, and no. And my reasoning is simple: these states have been relatively volatile lately, but they are not experiencing rapid demographic change. Wisconsin is 91% white. Missouri is 86% white. Ohio is also 86% white. The Hispanic population of the region is growing rapidly, but off an extremely low base (the only major Hispanic population center is Chicago, which is a big enough city to have its own dynamics independent of the behavior of the rest of the region).

In large and diverse states like California, Florida, Texas or New York, the racial mix is too complicated for the Sailer Strategy (or its opposite) to work. Are you necessarily going to get African-Americans and Hispanics to cooperate consistently against whites in California? Are you even going to necessarily get Cubans and Dominicans to cooperate consistently against whites in Florida? Rather, what I’d expect to see is the kind of recombining ethnic coalition politics that you’ve seen for generations (and not just in America’s big cities).

In the struggling Midwestern region, meanwhile, a volatile vote in general means a volatile white vote. And if the vote is volatile, that means it’s being driven by something other than racial identity politics. So where could the Sailer Strategy actually play out?

What’s left is the Deep South, which has always been racially polarized, Appalachia, and the Southwest. Appalachia has indeed been trending toward a kind of white identity politics, and it’s worth exploring why, because this is a region that was accessible to Democratic candidates long after the Deep South had switched to the GOP (Michael Dukakis, for example, won West Virginia in 1988). As for the Southwest, it does not strike me as implausible that Arizona, Colorado and Nevada come to experience voting patterns reminiscent of Alabama and Mississippi. Arizona in particular has a highly polarized population: the white population has swelled from the influx of relatively better-off retirees fleeing the cold of the Midwest, while the Hispanic population has swelled from mass immigration from Mexico. Economic and generational divides overlap very closely with the ethnic divide in this case, so there is a genuine divergence of interests between the two groups across a whole host of questions. But the fact that Arizona is the poster-child for a particular kind of politics doesn’t mean that kind of politics is a plausible winner on a national basis.

But even if it were plausible, Matt’s last point from the quote above remains the crucial one. The only people whose interests are served by identity politics are politicians, because when identity drives politics, politicians no longer have to work to win votes by delivering services or promoting economic development. If you are a partisan strategist – for either party – the holy grail is to assemble a stable coalition of voters who are not thinking about the quality of the schools or the crime rate or the unemployment rate, but instead about whether the candidate is “one of us.” Then all you have to do is bribe a handful of voters at the margins to win elections. But if you actually care about policy outcomes – whether you are on the left or on the right – that’s disaster. The very stability of our political system will prevent either coalition from materially moving the distribution of resources away from one “team” toward the other. What you have instead is an arms race, a great deal of energy expended to almost no result.

Think about my two possible drivers of polarization above. Either there is a genuine divergence of interests between ethnic groups – Arizona is a good example, because of the overlap between economic and generational divides with the ethnic divide. Or there are common interests, but the political system is organized to frustrate finding those common interests.

Now ask yourself: in whose interest is it to frustrate the citizenry from organizing around common interests?

It ain’t the citizenry’s.