This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at:

Monday, July 16, 2018

How Important is Demography in American Politics? Part Two

One of the emerging issues in the increasingly polarized politics of the United States is the demographic divide being created by where people live. In the current configuration of the Republican and Democratic parties, Republicans tend to live in the suburbs and in rural areas, whereas Democrats tend to live in or near central cities. In theory that shouldn't matter when it comes to election time, but this week's Economist provides a civic lesson reminding us that the founders of the U.S. Constitution set up a system that effectively gives greater per-person electoral power to people living in less densely settled areas.
The source of this discrepancy is that Democrats will win their seats with big majorities in fewer districts, whereas Republicans will prevail by narrower margins in a larger number of districts. In 2016 Democrats who beat Republican opponents won an average of 67.4% of the two-party vote in their districts, whereas Republicans who defeated Democrats received an average of 63.8%. This imbalance is partly due to deliberate attempts to create districts that provide such results, and partly just down to the fact that Democrats tend to live more tightly bunched together in cities. Together, these two factors put up quite an obstacle. According to our model, the Democrats need to win 53.5% of all votes cast for the two major parties just to have a 50/50 chance of winning a majority in the House.
If this imbalance were limited to a single chamber of the legislature, or a single election cycle, the Democrats’ frequent carping about a stacked electoral deck might sound like sour grapes. All electoral systems have their oddities. But changes in where Americans live and contradictions in their constitution—a document designed to work with many weak factions that has instead encouraged and entrenched an increasingly polarised two-party system—have opened gaps between what the voters choose and the representation they get in every arm of the federal government. In recent decades these disparities have consistently favoured the Republicans, and there is no reason to think that trend is going to change on its own.
There are three underlying issues here. First, the Senate is deliberately set up so that each state has the same number of senators in order to keep the heavily populated states from dominating that chamber in the way that they can the House of Representatives. That aspect of the system is unlikely ever to change, even though a senator from Wyoming (the least populous state with scarcely more than a half million people) represents fewer than 300,000 people whereas a senator from California (the most populous state with almost 40 million people) represents 20 million persons.

Secondly, with respect to the presidential election, we have this strange thing called an electoral college system:
In all the world’s other 58 fully presidential democracies—those in which the president is both head of state and head of government—the winning candidate gets the most votes in the final, or only, round of voting. But due to the “electoral college” system that America’s founders jury-rigged in part to square the needs of democracy with the demography of slavery, this does not hold true for America. States vote in the college in proportion to their combined representation in both houses of Congress. This set-up means that a candidate who wins narrowly in many small and smallish states can beat one who gets more votes overall, but racks most of them up in big majorities in a few big states.
This could be changed, at least in theory, as could the third issue--gerrymandering of districts for the House of Representatives (as well as for many state and local issues). There has been a lot of action on this front, although most recently the Supreme Court has punted

Sunday, July 15, 2018

How Important is Demography in American Politics?

This week's Economist has a lengthy special report on American politics, focusing especially on the identify politics that have emerged in the widening gulf between Republicans and Democrats in this country. And how could I resist not talking about this article when the author's acknowledgments include being in debt to several prominent demographers whose names have appeared in my book and blog: Bill Frey, Steve Murdock, and Dowell Myers. Indeed, Bill Frey and Dowell Myers were featured in my blog post just a week ago

The article picks up on the fact that many observers over the years have assumed that as racial/ethnic diversity increases in the U.S. the Democratic Party would benefit more than the Republican Party because the assumption was that Democrats had a political agenda more to their liking. Indeed, there has been a lot of speculation that these kinds of analyses helped to spur on the fears of losing "power" among non-Hispanic whites, helping to propel Donald Trump to the presidency. As I noted last week, Dowell Myers has suggested that the old race-ethnic categories that most of us have been using forever hide the fact that a lot of intermarriage has been going on that has led to people identifying themselves as "white" even though they may indicate on a census questionnaire that they are of more than one race. And, of course, this kind of discussion always reminds me of the very interesting article by Mara Loveman and Jeronimo Muniz: "How Puerto Rico Became White: Boundary Dynamics and Inter-Census Racial Reclassification." American Sociological Review 42(6): 915-939, (2007). Sadly, after Hurricane Maria there were a lot of people on the mainland who didn't even want to acknowledge that Puerto Ricans were Americans, much less white Americans...

Of particular interest in the Economist article is that one of their story lines is that "Demography is not Destiny." This is actually an about-face for a magazine that has probably used the phrase "demography is destiny" more than any other that I know. In this case demography refers to the population characteristic of "race-ethnicity" and the discussion is about the extent to which our self-identified race-ethnicity determines how we think about the world. The best answer is that this is complicated. Race-ethnic categories are social constructs, in the first place, and the whole idea of the American experience is--as the Economist author ends the story--e pluribus unum: out of many, one.