Opinion: Shifting demographics change face of politics in Washington, beyond

Last week, New York Democrat Rep. Charles Rangel filed suit against Speaker John Boehner. Rangel alleges that the Republican, along with six other lawmakers, improperly convicted him of ethics violations in 2010.

Rangel’s charges reflect bitterness among members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who complain that white members of Congress are given much more deference when it comes to suspicion of wrongdoing.

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Racial attitudes on Capitol Hill are setting off alarms in the immigration debate, too. The all-white House GOP continues to resist immigration reform; Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) recently called Latino workers “wetbacks.”

Meanwhile, Republican antagonism in the House toward the first black president is no secret. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) scored points with the far right by publicly calling President Obama a liar as he delivered an address to a joint session of Congress in 2009. Republicans in the Senate continues to filibuster and obstruct the first president of color to the point of political paralysis.

Last week, the Aspen Institute symposium on “The State of Race in America” at the Newseum offered a new look at the racial fights erupting in politics.

The meeting, sponsored by Comcast, used demographic data from Pew Research Center to look at how racial change is transforming religion, entertainment media and America’s youth.

But the Pew numbers also opened the door to discussion of the emergent trend whereby minorities are pushing back against the power that white conservatives have held — and in many ways continue to hold — over Congress and the White House.

Paul Taylor, Pew’s executive vice president, cited changing racial demographics in arguing that it looks hard for the GOP to win the White House in 2016, even without the excitement generated among minorities by Obama.

Taylor, who heads the social and demographic trends project at Pew, contends that Hispanic and Asian voter turnout currently lags behind their percentage of eligible voters. In his words, they are “punching below their weight.”

Looking at the high rate of Latinos turning 18 every year – about 800,000 – and likely increases in Latinos choosing to become naturalized and eligible to vote, Taylor sees the potential for sharp increases in minority-voter participation in 2016 and beyond.

That forecast fits with Pew’s estimates for growth in the overall Hispanic and Asian population, alongside a decline in the white population.

Hispanics, who now make up 16 percent of the population, will reach 19 percent by 2020, according to Pew’s charts. Asians will increase to 6 percent of the overall population.

By 2030, Hispanics will be 23 percent and Asians 7 percent, while whites will continue to decline as a percentage of the population. Blacks are seen as holding steady at 13 percent of the population going forward to 2030. At that point minorities will be 43 percent of the population.

In this changing picture of America’s demographics, it is important to separately note changes among the people who vote.

Among Americans turning 18 – and thus becoming eligible to vote for the first time — the rising power of minorities is even more evident. In 2011, Pew found 21 percent of Americans turning 18 were Hispanic, 15 percent black and 4 percent Asian.

In combination with blacks, the growing Hispanic and Asian vote will claim a hold on the majority of votes in the Electoral College and make it nearly impossible for the Republicans, if they remain the party of older white voters, to win any race for the White House.

In a forthcoming book, Taylor writes the following about the rising influence of young, minority voters:

“Had the [2012] election been held only among voters ages 30 and older, Romney would have won by 2 million votes instead of losing by 5 million. Had it been held only among men, he would have won by 4 million votes. Had it been held only among whites, he would have won by 18 million votes. Had it been held in 1988, when George H.W. Bush carried whites by the same 20-point margin that Romney won in 2012, it would have produced an Electoral College landslide of 426 –to-111 for the Republican candidate. Instead, it resulted in an Electoral College drubbing of 332-to-206. In short, whites mustered 220 fewer Electoral College votes’ worth of clout in 2012 than in 1988. Aha.”

With minority populations growing in states with the biggest number of electoral votes, that trend is likely to continue. The GOP effort in 2012 to insist on voters having identification and limiting hours for voting opened the party to charges of voter suppression. But apparently those tactics did nothing to slow the turnout of racial minorities in the voting booth.

Some Republican analysts have argued that the problem in 2012 was really lower white turnout. “Three million Republicans, mainly white voters, didn’t vote…” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show the day after the November election. “This election was not the result of a demographic shift. The Republicans didn’t get their vote out. Pure and simple.”

In fact, Pew’s study finds white turnout has gone down as a share of the electorate in the last two presidential elections. But that decline occurred even as whites made up 72 percent of the vote, exceeding their 71 percent of the overall population. The decline in white votes as a percentage of the electorate is likely to persist.

If Pew’s numbers are on target, the racial divisions reflected in politics on Capitol Hill — on immigration, budget priorities and taxes as well as Rangel’s bitterness – are about to get even larger.

Their importance can hardly be overstated.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.