Electoral Politics

In the winter of 2019, President Trump partially shut down the federal government for thirty-five days over his demand for nearly $6 billion to build a wall with Mexico—a dramatic example of Trump using immigration to rally support from his political base. Immigration, or should we say anti-immigration, was a central theme of his entire 2016 campaign and much of his presidency. Trump repeatedly and falsely portrayed undocumented immigrants as dangerous, violent criminals who must be kept out of the country at all costs. During his first full week in office, he placed a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries. Among his many other actions, he canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, instituted by President Obama’s executive order in 2012, that in the absence of court intervention, would have left hundreds of thousands of undocumented youths and young adults who grew up in the United States without the legal right to work and vulnerable to deportation; Trump also largely dismantled the country’s asylum system. In a White House meeting, he was widely reported to refer to immigrants from Haiti and Africa as coming from “shithole” countries.1 And this is just a partial list.

Trump’s rhetoric and policies are a dramatic example of immigration’s role in changing American electoral politics in the early twenty-first century. As Trump’s public speeches, tweets, and policies suggest, one change is the degree to which the massive immigration, and especially undocumented immigration, of recent years has become a subject of national political debates and campaigns. The remarkable centrality of anti-immigration policies in national Republican political campaigns and strategies in the Trump presidency along with the legitimation of anti-immigrant speech at the highest levels of government constituted a modern-day transformation in presidential politics.

That anti-immigrant politics became a central feature of Republican Party support speaks to another political change related to the growing ethnic, racial, and religious diversity created by the post-1965 immigration: the realignment of politically engaged Americans into partisan camps. Although changing national partisan coalitions are as American a tradition as can be found, each shifting realignment, in the past as well as present, has its own particular features and consequences.2 What happened in recent years is a reshaping of the Democratic and Republican Party coalitions, with a movement of Whites, especially those with low levels of education, and who hold less favorable views of racial and ethnic minorities, from the Democratic to Republican Party, while the increasing number of minority voters have become a more critical part of the Democratic Party electorate.3 In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, to a large and growing degree, the Democrats had become the party of minorities and White liberals, while the Republicans had become the party of White conservatives.4 These changes were in no small part a product of, and response to, the ongoing transformation of the country by contemporary immigrants and their children.5

A third political change involves ethnic succession, another longtime feature of US politics as politicians in new ethnic and racial groups are elected to office and replace those who came before, often using their ethnic community as a base of support to build on or begin the climb to electoral success. Ethnic succession, whether at the city, state, or national level, is not just about new faces in established positions. Elected politicians from recent immigrant groups have spoken for new interests, and in some instances, developed new coalitions and institutional arrangements in legislative bodies in ways that represent innovations in the political arena.

Looking ahead, the effects of immigration are likely to result in additional political transformations in the years to come, if only because of further shifts in the racial and ethnic composition of the electorate. Will the growing number of eligible voters descended from post-1965 immigrants, for example, lead to a new Democratic majority in the nation, and turn some purple swing states and perhaps even some currently red (predominantly Republican) states blue (predominantly Democratic)? Can we expect the Republican Party to adjust its positions on immigration to attract voters, including a greater proportion of those in ethnic minority groups, or continue on a more nativist path? In short, does the analysis of immigration’s role in the political arena in recent years provide any clues about the shape of the future?

Party Realignment and Coalitions

Perhaps no change in US electoral politics in the last few decades has been as consequential as the remaking of electoral coalitions and partisan allegiances. Large-scale immigration has been an important element in this transformation and so is a good place to begin.

This is not the first time that immigration has played a role in a major political realignment. Immigrants and their children were key players in the 1930s New Deal realignment, which reconfigured the party system as Democrats went from being a minority to majority party at the national level. Much of the base of support for the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s electoral coalition was the eastern, southern, and central Europeans who had arrived between the 1880s and 1920s in combination with their second-generation children. By the 1930s, large numbers of the US-born second generation were of voting age; more immigrants themselves could vote, and “more had good reason to vote and … a sense that their votes mattered.”6

They heavily backed Roosevelt. Like other Americans, immigrants were deeply affected by the crisis of the Great Depression; the Democratic Party and labor unions, in the steel and auto towns of Pennsylvania and the Midwest as well as the garment factories of New York City, took the lead in incorporating new Americans into electoral politics in support of Roosevelt’s measures to combat the Depression and create new social welfare programs. Northern White ethnics with recent immigrant origins together with the heavily unionized northern White working class and White South formed the three major pillars of the New Deal coalition that put FDR in the White House and Democrats in the majority in Congress. This coalition, although it began to fracture after World War II, continued to underpin Democrats’ control of the nation almost without interruption through 1968.7

The fracturing of the New Deal coalition stemmed in part from the civil rights movement and subsequent legislation in the 1960s, leading to a growing African American electorate and the end of the solidly Democratic South. Indeed, the civil rights–era changes provided a major impetus for what some refer to as a second realignment of the twentieth century: the massive movement of southern Whites from the Democratic to Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s.8 The willingness of Democratic leaders to support the civil rights movement’s demands to guarantee the vote to southern Blacks not only fueled growing African American support for the Democratic Party but also, and critically, a counterreaction that opened the White South to Republicans. (Remember that in the Deep South, a combination of poll taxes, literacy tests, economic pressure, and physical intimidation had long kept almost all Black citizens out of the voting booth so that as late as the 1950s, the electorate in the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana was nearly all White. In these five states, where Blacks made up a third of the voting-age population, only 4 percent of African Americans reported voting in presidential elections in the 1950s, and Blacks made up just 3 percent of voters.) By 1980, the once reliably Democratic South had become a Republican stronghold at the presidential level—1976 was the last year a Democratic presidential candidate won a majority of southern electoral votes—and later in state elections too.9

And so we come to the more recent changes and new partisan divisions. The trend toward what political scientist John Sides and his colleagues call the racialization of partisanship that began after the mid-1960s, when President Johnson aligned the Democratic Party with civil rights for African Americans, intensified after the 1980s. By the early twenty-first century, the national-level Democratic Party’s core electoral base had become dominated by minorities as well as Whites with more formal education identifying as liberal, while the Republican Party now drew the great majority of its support from Whites, especially Whites with less formal education and conservative views on major social issues.10

As late as 1980, more Whites identified as Democrats than as Republicans. By 2010, it was the reverse: White Republicans substantially outnumbered White Democrats.11 At the same time, the Democratic Party has increasingly become a party supported by non-Whites. In 1980, a little more than a fifth of Democratic voters in the presidential election were non-Whites. By 2019, according to a Pew Research Center national survey, they made up 40 percent of registered voters who identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party; in contrast, the non-White share of Republican and Republican-leaning voters was much smaller (17 percent), although an increase from just 6 percent in 1994.12 Minority voters, to put it another way, have become an essential part of the Democratic coalition.

In addition to the racial gap, a remarkable diploma divide in party identification stands out among Whites. During the Obama presidency, White flight from the Democratic Party became heavily concentrated among those with less education—and turned into a broad national trend. From 1992 to 2008, according to Pew surveys, Whites who did not attend college were about evenly split between the two parties. Since then, the GOP has made decisive gains among Whites without a college degree, with much of the movement among those with the lowest levels of education. By 2019, White registered voters who had a high school diploma or less were 31 percentage points more likely to identify with or lean toward the Republican than Democratic Party (62 versus 31 percent); White voters with some college education but no four-year degree were 18 points more Republican (56 versus 38 percent). Meanwhile, many better-educated White voters have shifted toward the Democrats. In 1994, Whites with a college degree were significantly more Republican than Democratic, but in the last several years Democrats gained a substantial advantage among these better-educated voters, with a 12 percentage point edge in 2019.13

The Republican Party thus now not only draws its strongest support from Whites but also certain sectors of the White population, including those without a college degree as well as evangelical Protestants and other religious conservatives.14 Republicans get some support from minorities, of course. In the last four presidential elections, according to various polls, roughly 20 to 35 percent of Asian American and Hispanic voters went for the Republican candidate (John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Trump). Still, the lion’s share of Asian Americans and Hispanics voted for Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Joe Biden, who also got the overwhelming support (about 90 percent) of Black voters.

A number of factors have shaped the new partisan coalitions. Civil rights legislation, as I already noted, added huge numbers of African American voters in the South to the electorate, and affected Black and White support for the Democratic Party. If many Whites gravitated to the Republican Party because they found the expansion of rights to African Americans troubling and threatening, other social changes had a similar effect. These included changes in gender roles and family patterns stimulated by the women’s movement, the expansion of LGBTQ rights, and the development of a more religiously diverse and secular American society. On the other side, the Democratic Party, with its more liberal policies on social issues, drew support from those who benefited from or welcomed these social changes, among them racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, religious moderates and skeptics, and the better educated.15 Economic transformations in postindustrial America are also part of the picture; such trends as the globalization of economic markets, decline of manufacturing, technological change, erosion of organized labor, and rise in income and wealth inequality have heightened economic insecurity among many less educated Whites, and translated into greater support for a GOP that, among other things, promised a return to a pre-1960s and Whiter America. There is a geographic aspect to political polarization too. Whites living in rural areas that have suffered economic and demographic declines or stagnation, and who are relatively isolated from racial and ethnic minorities, seem to have been especially favorable to Republican anti-diversity messages.16

And of course, and of concern here, there is immigration, which has played an important role in remaking the two national party coalitions. In the last twenty-five years, the American electorate has become increasingly diverse as the share of ethnic and racial minority registered voters rose from 15 to 30 percent between 1996 and 2019.17 Immigration is to a significant degree responsible for this trend. The massive inflows from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean have added large numbers of new minority voters as a growing number of immigrants have become naturalized citizens, and along with their second-generation children (US citizens by birth), are eligible to cast ballots—which they do, in especially large numbers, for Democrats. Just considering the foreign born on their own, in 2020, 23 million immigrants—nearly double the number since 2000—or about 10 percent of the nation’s overall electorate, were eligible to vote, having gained US citizenship through naturalization; about two-thirds were Asian American or Hispanic.18

Immigration has also affected party coalitions through its impact on Whites. This has been particularly consequential in national elections since Whites make up a large majority of the electorate—nearly seven out of ten eligible voters at the time of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.19 Immigration has contributed to a backlash among working-class Whites or those without a college degree that helps to explain why so many defected to the Republican Party, which in a time of growing racial and ethnic diversity has remained a White bastion.

The very presence of millions of immigrants from the Global South, who have moved all over the United States in recent decades, has stimulated fears and anxieties among a significant segment of White America about whether the newcomers will undermine the basic foundations and identity of the nation. Latino immigrants are a special focus of these anxieties partly because of their sheer number: 44 percent of all immigrants in 2019, or almost twenty million people, reported having Hispanic or Latino origins.20 Also, Latinos are associated with undocumented immigrants, whose numbers have soared since 1990, and who are a target of so much unease and hostility. Although the majority of Latin American immigrants are authorized to live and work in the United States, a large proportion of the roughly eleven million undocumented, more than seven in ten, are from Latin America, and about half are Mexican.21 In the imagination of many Americans, Mexican or Latino has become synonymous with unauthorized immigrants, whom they see as undeserving criminals.22 They often make invidious comparisons between today’s undocumented and their own “legal” European ancestors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forgetting or unaware that Europeans at that time faced few restrictions on immigration.23

A Latino threat narrative, promulgated by a substantial sector of the media as well as many politicians, falsely portrays Latino immigrants as prone to violence, and unwilling or incapable of integrating and becoming part of the national community.24 To note just one analysis, of more than forty-two hundred stories in newspapers in four southern states between 2002 and 2013, immigrants were characterized negatively in about a third of the stories on immigration, with the perceived criminal tendencies of Mexican and Latino immigrants frequently mentioned.25

The economic and cultural threat many Whites feel from immigrants reflects their sense of marginalization in an increasingly ethnically and racially diverse country, and their racial fears about the loss of Whites’ dominant status. Many Whites who supported Trump, as political scientist Ashley Jardina observes, feel that the benefits they have enjoyed because of their race and status atop the racial hierarchy are in jeopardy.26 Something else seems to be involved too, as sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s research in the archconservative Louisiana bayou country suggests. The working-class Whites she met expressed resentment that immigrants, refugees, and beneficiaries of affirmative action were “cutting in line”—“sailing past the Statue of Liberty into a diminishing supply of good jobs” at the expense of White men and their wives.27 Racialized economics is what Sides and his colleagues call it: “not ‘I might lose my job’ but, in essence, ‘People in my group are losing jobs to that other group.’ ”28 Instead of pure economic anxiety in the face of the loss of “good”—well-paid and secure—blue-collar jobs in the wake of technological change, globalization, and economic restructuring, working-class White Trump supporters commonly express their economic anxiety, at least in part, through racial grievances: the belief that other, non-White and often immigrant groups are making gains in America’s economy and society at their expense, receiving preferential treatment from the government and getting ahead while they are being left behind.29

For Whites worried or alarmed by the changes wrought by immigration and racial change, the Republican Party has provided “a natural home.”30 They find the more pro-immigrant stance of the Democratic Party, and its celebration of ethnic and racial diversity along with immigration, disturbing, and are distressed by the growing number of high-ranking Democratic ethnic and racial minority elected officials, the most prominent, of course, being Obama, the nation’s first Black president, who represented a powerful symbolic threat to Whites’ political power.31 To many conservative and noncollege-educated Whites, the Republican Party is a kind of safe haven. Whereas many working-class White voters have felt abandoned by a Democratic Party that seems to them to favor African Americans and immigrants, many Republican candidates for office in recent years—who are overwhelmingly White—have stood against affirmative action and a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and have used appeals to White resentment of ethnic and racial minorities to win over sympathetic voters and lure Democrats into their camp.32 In this regard, it should not come as a surprise that only a minority of Republicans (38 percent) in a 2019 Pew survey agreed that immigrants strengthen the country compared to the great majority of Democrats (83 percent), and that half of the Republicans saw immigrants as burdening the country by taking jobs, housing, and health care.33

Trump took the appeal to White resentment to a new—explicit and overt—level, whipping up fears about immigration and alleged White victimization, initially to win over Republicans in the 2016 primary campaign to become the party nominee, then to broaden his appeal in the general election against Clinton, and still later, throughout his presidency, when his popularity remained low with the general public, to solidify support from his core constituency, a base of religiously and socially conservative and less educated Whites. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), emblazoned on red hats worn by his supporters, was a not-so-subtle reference to an America before large-scale immigration that was Whiter and less racially and ethnically diverse than it is today—as well as a promise to protect and restore Whites’ status, power, and resources.34 He followed through with a host of measures to reduce immigration, and mandate harsher treatment of asylees and the undocumented. Although immigration was less central in Trump’s 2020 campaign, in which he focused more on “law-and-order” issues and opposing racial-justice protests, he continued to use anti-immigrant rhetoric to fire up his base in rallies, social media ads, and tweets. As before, he twisted facts and told outright lies about immigrants as well as native minorities to tap into and further stir up fears of White voters and capture their support. Immigration, in short, became a key element of Trump’s electoral and governing strategy, and in the process, an even more powerful basis for and symbol of the country’s partisan divide.

Anti-Immigrant Politics and Public Discourse in the Trump Era

Closely intertwined with the new partisan alignments in national party politics is another set of changes that are directly connected to the post-1965 immigration: the increased focus in mainstream politics on anti-immigrant themes and policies, and the ramping up and indeed legitimation of anti-immigrant discourse at the presidential level during the Trump era.

The United States of course has a long history of nativism. Whenever the country has experienced sharply rising and sustained large-scale immigration, an anti-foreigner reaction against newcomers has ensued based on perceptions of economic, cultural, political, racial, and religious threats. Xenophobia, writes historian Erika Lee in her book America for Americans, is a defining feature of American life: we are not just a nation of immigrants, but a nation of xenophobia in which fear, hatred, and hostility toward immigrants are long-standing elements.35 Throughout American history, writes historian A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, “alarmists have tried to stir up hostility against immigrants whom they warned would destroy our traditions, radicalize our body politic, mongrelize our population, wreck our economy, or balkanize our culture.”36

Since the mid-nineteenth century, such sentiments have periodically underpinned and bolstered concerted efforts in the mainstream political arena to limit immigration and restrict immigrants’ rights. In the antebellum decades in the 1800s, the huge Irish Catholic immigration triggered virulent anti-Catholicism that found political expression in the Know Nothing movement (formally known as the American Party), whose national agenda included a twenty-one-year residence requirement for naturalization and the exclusion of foreign-born Americans from holding public office. This agenda was not achieved, but in the 1850s, the party at its peak achieved astonishing electoral success, including more than a hundred members of Congress, eight governors, mayors of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and dozens of other local elected officials.37

Only a few decades later, the Chinese, who had begun to immigrate in significant numbers to California and the American West in the 1850s, were specifically targeted by restrictive immigration legislation. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred the entry of Chinese laborers and prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. By 1917, Congress had banned the immigration of many other Asian groups as well, and the naturalization rule was extended through a series of court decisions to other immigrants from East and South Asia.38

Another triumph of nativist politics was the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which was designed to drastically cut immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The act established a national origins quota system, with each nation assigned a quota equal to 2 percent of the number of its nationals in the United States based on the 1890 Census—or what some called the “Anglo-Saxon” census because it came before the period of heaviest eastern and southern European immigration.39 The legislation fulfilled the aims of those who fashioned it, playing a critical role, in combination with the Great Depression and World War II, in ending the massive influx from eastern and southern Europe that had brought millions of eastern European Jews and southern Italians to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the Trump era, xenophobia once more became a feature of national politics, shaping political agendas and policy decisions by the Republican Party at the highest levels of government. In many ways it is a case of new wine in old bottles. Even Trump’s xenophobic focus on the undocumented and Mexican immigrants has strong echoes from the past. Animosity to Mexicans is nothing new, going back to the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, when after defeating Mexico, the United States annexed its northern portion; during the campaign in the mid-1950s known as Operation Wetback to remove undocumented Mexicans (pejoratively referred to as “wetbacks”), border patrol agents and local officials used military-style tactics to round up and send back to Mexico several hundred thousand Mexican immigrants.40 We also should not forget that the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, under presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, witnessed the increased militarization of the US-Mexico border to deter undocumented immigration, and that the Obama administration dramatically raised the number of deportations.41 The rise of Trump and his ascendancy to the country’s highest office, however, intensified anti-immigrant politics, and made them more central in the Republican Party’s campaigns and appeals for voter support to a degree not seen in national politics in recent memory. This represented a real change.

This change developed in the context of the new political party alignment that encouraged Trump to focus on appeals to his base through White identity politics and fear of foreigners to the virtual exclusion of bipartisan approaches. In a kind of feedback loop, the positive and indeed enthusiastic response of his core supporters to campaign promises for a more restrictive as well as punitive immigration system—including most famously building a “giant wall” with Mexico—led to further emphasis on these policies to energize and mobilize his following. No sooner had Trump taken office then he placed a travel ban on individuals from several Muslim-majority countries. Within the same year, he ended the DACA program established by Obama’s executive order, which enabled around eight hundred thousand eligible undocumented young adults who had arrived in the United States as children to receive work permits and protection from deportation. The program was only kept alive by court rulings during Trump’s presidency. His administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that involved separating Central American parents and children seeking asylum at the southern border was part of a goal to reduce Latino immigration, and show his strongest supporters that he was being tough in pursuing it even as the policy was harshly criticized by much of the public and media.

The centrality of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies during his administration—publicly backed by virtually the entire Republican congressional delegation—was heightened by his norm-shattering governing style and use of the media, which put immigration in the spotlight in a way that did not happen with his predecessors. Before Trump, politicians generally hewed to a basic rule: wanting as much positive and as little negative news coverage as possible. Trump was not immune to this approach, but to a significant degree he upended it. As political commentator Ezra Klein put it, “His realization is that you want as much coverage as possible, full stop. If it’s positive coverage, great. If it’s negative coverage, so be it. The point is that it’s coverage—that you’re the story, that you’re squeezing out your competitors, that you’re on people’s minds.” Trump dominated news cycle after news cycle, in a reality-show style, with outrageous, offensive, and often false statements, frequently about immigration. His tweets—of course a modern invention—came to be considered official statements of the president. In his first three years in office, according to Washington Post fact-checkers, Trump made an incredible twenty-four hundred false or misleading claims about immigration—more than on any other issue. In his attention-creates-value approach, he set the tone and terms of many debates, and kept immigration, or more accurately anti-immigration, in the news.42

What Trump said about immigration upended existing norms. His openly xenophobic and racist statements in his widely covered campaign rallies, presidential speeches, and tweets were far more explicit than the racial and ethnic appeals of Republican presidential candidates in modern times. In the early twentieth century, to be sure, openly racist statements were not unheard of from leading national politicians, including those elected president. In his 1902 A History of the American People, Woodrow Wilson referred to Blacks as an ignorant and inferior race; in a 1925 column, Franklin Roosevelt wrote that “the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results.”43 Nearly a century later, Trump, overtly and in fact proudly, defied an etiquette about race and ethnicity that had prevailed in public discourse in post–civil rights America. In challenging what he called a culture of political correctness that made it impossible to “tell it like it is,” he legitimated blatant anti-immigrant and racist appeals at the highest level of American politics and society.

Trump’s overt xenophobia and ethnic slurs took on a particular tone and meaning precisely because they followed several decades after the civil rights movement, which had ushered in a new climate and understanding about what was acceptable to say in public about race and ethnicity. By the 1970s and 1980s, as historian Lawrence Fuchs wrote, candidates for high office and public officials could not disparage or even tolerate the disparagement of any ethnic, racial, or religious group without suffering severe and widespread condemnation.44 In an atmosphere of greater public tolerance, more subtle means were used to cast aspersion on racial and ethnic groups. Instead of egregious racial epithets or slurs, code words were used to refer to negative characteristics of minorities as well as dog whistle politics—that is, sending messages about racial minorities in coded language that might appear to mean one thing to some in the general public but had a different resonance for a target audience.45 In his 1980 campaign for president, Ronald Reagan told stories about Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps; Reagan did not need to mention race because he was blowing a dog whistle. The Willie Horton ad used in the 1988 presidential campaign of George Bush Sr. is another example. In attacking Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime for supporting his state’s “weekend pass program,” the ad played into racial stereotypes. It linked crime to Black men and stoked fears about Black crime by featuring the mug shot of convicted African American murderer Horton, who had been able to escape during a weekend furlough, and then later raped a woman and stabbed her fiancé.46

Dog whistle politics hardly disappeared under Trump. What was different was his use of unambiguous insults and smears not only against African Americans—he essentially launched his political career by promoting the racist “birther” myth that Obama was not born in the United States—but also a virtual drumbeat of attacks against immigrants. His three presidential predecessors waxed eloquent about America as a nation of immigrants, drawing on a narrative that by the 1960s had become widely and popularly used as a celebration of the United States. In speeches, George W. Bush referred to “immigration [as] … not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future”; President Clinton spoke of how “more than any other nation on Earth, America has constantly drawn strength and spirit from wave after wave of immigrants”; and Obama stressed that “we are and always will be a nation of immigrants.”47 Trump painted a different, dystopian image.48

In framing immigrants as a threat to the United States, Trump changed the national conversation about immigration, and stood out, as journalist Thomas Edsall comments, for his “willingness—indeed his eagerness—to openly and aggressively unleash the forces of ethnic and racial hostility that Republican elites had quietly capitalized upon for decades.”49 During the 2016 campaign and afterward, including State of the Union addresses, he raised the specter of an immigrant crime rampage and repeated grisly stories of violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, even though statistics show immigrants having lower crime rates than the native born. Among his better-known statements, Trump said that a Hispanic judge could not be fair in the fraud case against Trump University because “he’s a Mexican.” In summer 2019, he attacked four minority members of Congress—American citizens all, with three born in the United States—by saying they should “go back” to the countries they came from. Trump, in short, went where other politicians and certainly previous presidents in the modern era dared not go in their rhetoric, shifting the bounds of acceptable public discourse about immigration in the process, and giving nativist and racist demagoguery the presidential seal of approval.50 Whether or not leading Republican politicians who follow Trump will retire this rhetoric is a major question for the future.

Ethnic Succession

Yet another way that immigration has changed electoral politics is through ethnic succession as politicians of recent immigrant origin have begun to win contests for political office. This is the “new faces in old places” phenomenon that I noted in the last chapter. Whether in popular culture or politics, ethnic succession is not just a matter of new personnel in familiar roles; it may lead to deeper and sometimes even quite dramatic changes. In the political sphere, new ethnic politicians and officials often represent different interests than those who came before them; may give rise to new coalitions; and may support, and sometimes help create or implement, new measures, policies, and institutional arrangements.

This is a timeworn story in urban America, perhaps nowhere more striking than in New York City, where the history of ethnic politics and succession has been recounted in scholarly studies as well as become the stuff of city lore.51 The Irish, arriving in massive numbers in the mid-1800s, were “masters of the art” of ethnic politics, able to infiltrate and take over the helm of New York City’s Democratic politics by mobilizing the ethnic vote and turning Tammany Hall into a powerful political machine. Under Celtic tutelage, as political scientist Steven Erie puts it, Tammany, a now-defunct New York political organization, ran the city, with minor exceptions, from 1874 to 1933.52 It naturalized and registered immigrants, and got them out to vote. In its formative stage from the 1840s to the 1880s (and before more restrictive naturalization laws), Tammany churned out new voters through running “its naturalization mill full blast”—and rewarded the faithful with patronage jobs and social services.53 “Tammany is for the spoils system,” explained George Washington Plunkett, Irish American Tammany ward chieftain in 1905, “and when we go in we fire every anti-Tammany man from office that can be fired under the law. It’s an elastic sort of law and you can bet it will be stretched to the limit.”54

Many turn-of-the-twentieth-century Jewish and Italian politicians, too, initially won local office in New York in large part by wooing coethnic voters, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of ethnic politics. Whether it was the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish politicians, whose political priorities were patronage and prestige, or mid-twentieth-century Jews, who aimed for protection from discrimination and reforms to provide more equal access to jobs and power, shared ethnicity was a way for aspiring leaders to mobilize their base, attain political representation, and contend to be part of the governing coalition, all the while shifting old alliances and creating new ones.55 And it still is. The era of strong political machines is over, and much else has changed about the structure of urban politics facing ethnic minorities today, yet ethnic politics is still very much part of the political scene.

Typically, ethnic succession in New York City has begun with efforts to displace incumbents in local districts where the new populations have been rapidly growing, and later—usually considerably later—winning power at the mayoral level. Although Jews and Italians had become a huge part of the city’s population by the first decade of the twentieth century, New York did not elect its first mayor of Italian heritage until 1933 (La Guardia) nor have another until 1950.56 La Guardia, an anti-Tammany machine reformer who served three mayoral terms until 1945, “was the son of Italian immigrants, but raised Episcopalian, born of a Jewish mother, and married to an American of German-Lutheran descent.… He was a balanced ticket all by himself and he campaigned in the city’s polyglot neighborhoods in a half-dozen languages,” actively working to win the votes of Italians and Jews.57 New York City’s first full-fledged Jewish mayor, Abraham Beame, was elected in 1973, and African Americans, who arrived in large numbers from the South between World War I and the 1960s, did not elect their first mayor, David Dinkins, until 1989.58 So far, New York has had no mayor with roots in the post-1965 immigration, although by 2019, the fifty-one-seat city council had fourteen elected members of recent immigrant origin. In that year, three of the city’s US congressional representatives were from new immigrant communities: a Dominican immigrant and two members of the second generation, one with parents from Jamaica, and the other’s parents from Taiwan. In 2021, a fourth, the daughter of Greek and Cuban immigrants as well as the lone Republican in the city’s congressional delegation, joined this list.

Throughout the country, Hispanics and Asian Americans have made headway at the polls, with Hispanics especially successful given their large numbers, heavy concentration in certain regions and cities, and significant proportion with a long history in the United States. Altogether in 2019, there were a little over 6,800 Hispanic elected officials in the nation as a whole, including 85 state senators and 245 state representatives.59 In the same year, two central cities in the ten-top metropolitan immigrant gateways, Los Angeles and Miami, had Latino mayors. Miami, a heavily Cuban city, has morphed from having a power structure dominated by an Anglo elite to a political order governed by Cuban émigrés and their offspring.60 Since 1985, Miami has had a string of Cuban American mayors, with the most recent being Francis X. Suarez, elected in 2017 with a whopping 86 percent of the vote; he followed in the footsteps of his Cuban-born father and namesake, who was a several-term mayor of the city, first elected in 1985. On the West Coast, in Los Angeles, where Mexicans far outnumber other immigrants, in 2005 the city elected its first modern Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, whose father was a Mexican immigrant. The paternal grandfather of his successor, Eric Garcetti, was born in Mexico (his maternal grandparents were from Russian Jewish immigrant families). By 2010, 4 of the 15 city councillors in Los Angeles were Latinos, whereas there were none in 1980.61

The composition of the US Congress reflects recent immigration as well, even though Hispanics and Asian Americans are still underrepresented compared to their proportion of the total population.62 As of January 2020, the 116th Congress (2019–21) included forty-three Hispanic representatives in the House and four Senators; fourteen Asian Americans were US representatives along with three senators.63 After the 2018 midterm elections, the first Muslim women were sworn into Congress, Somali-born Ilhan Omar representing a district in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib, a second-generation Palestinian from Detroit. Among the other firsts are Stephanie Murphy, the first Vietnamese American woman to win a seat in Congress (from central Florida) in 2016, and in 2020, the first Korean American women—three in all—elected to Congress, two from California (Young Kim and Michelle Steel), and one from the state of Washington (Marilyn Strickland). While the great majority of Asian American and Hispanic congressional representatives and senators are Democrats, the Republican delegation has been diversifying too. In fact, two of the female Korean American representatives elected in 2020 are Republicans. Some of the leading lights of the GOP are of immigrant origin. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both second-generation Cubans and among the best-known senators, sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and are talked about as future contenders. Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, former governors of South Carolina and Louisiana, respectively, are children of Indian immigrants who have risen to national prominence, with Haley often mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate.

Certainly, the changing of the guard in many elected offices has brought benefits to new immigrant groups. The ability to attain highly esteemed and powerful positions as a mayor, city councillor, or member of Congress is in itself a significant achievement. Seeing people like themselves voted into office can be a source of great pride for those in immigrant communities as well as for elected officials themselves. And electoral success can bring tangible rewards since elected politicians, for example, often can influence hiring for public offices that are exempt from civil service regulations—patronage, in other words, or the spoils of electoral victory.

Ethnic succession has also played a role in institutional change: the growing number of Hispanics and Asian Americans in Congress has led to the formation there as well as in many state legislatures of new officially organized coalitions linked to ethnoracial groups. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was founded in 1976 to advocate for issues important to Hispanics through the legislative process; in 2019, after the midterm elections, it had grown to thirty-nine Democratic members. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, founded in 1994, had twenty members in the 116th Congress. By that time, the so-called Tri-Caucus, which also included the fifty-five-member Congressional Black Caucus, had over a hundred members and worked together on many issues.

A critical question is whether ethnic succession, involving the replacement of former elected officials with those from newer immigrant groups, leads to substantive changes in political debates and official policies. To put it in political science terms, does descriptive representation—the degree to which a group’s representation in political positions reflects its population share—pave the way for substantive representation, or the reflection of a group’s interests and concerns in political decision-making? Or to pose the question somewhat differently, does ethnic succession produce genuine policy and legislative change?

This is not inevitable. For one, we cannot simply assume that politicians from a particular background will represent the interests of their group of origin; indeed, their electoral success may depend on distancing themselves from their roots. By the same token, progressive non-immigrant White politicians may at times better represent the interests of minority and immigrant origin groups than coethnics.64 Indeed, even White politicians who are not themselves immigrants or especially liberal may adopt a pro-immigrant stance, or avoid taking anti-immigrant positions, if they represent districts and cities where the immigrant vote is substantial, and obtaining it is important for election. When Rudolph Giuliani was Republican mayor of New York City, he praised immigrants and supported policies to reduce the difficulties facing the undocumented; this is not surprising given, among other things, the city’s large and growing immigrant population at the time, and rising number of voting-eligible citizens with recent immigrant origins.65

That said, the election of politicians of recent immigrant origin can have positive policy impacts for immigrant communities. It is not just that they bring experiences and perspectives into legislative bodies and political offices that might not otherwise be represented there. In giving officials from longer-established groups insights into the concerns of immigrant minorities, they also may be able to have some influence on them. More directly, newly elected ethnic politicians often advocate as well as vote for policies that will help members of their group, or ward off those with potentially negative consequences; they may be able to influence the allocation of public resources such as public contracts; and they may serve as spokespeople for their group’s concerns.66 To come back to New York City, immigrant-origin politicians have been especially likely to champion pro-immigrant measures, partly for pure political reasons—they are usually dependent on the immigrant vote, or parts of it, to gain and maintain office—and also because they tend to closely identify with immigrants and their problems. Although immigration has not been a top priority for New York’s city council, the presence of a growing number of immigrant-origin councillors has played a role in the adoption of such immigrant-friendly measures as a language access law requiring city agencies to provide direct services for the translation of commonly distributed documents in the top-ten citywide languages and the creation of a municipal identification card that undocumented immigrants can receive.67

On the national stage, the Congressional Hispanic and Asian Pacific American Caucuses have been active in promoting legislation directly affecting their communities, ranging from pro-immigration measures to health care and education policies in support of working-class and minority families that tend to help immigrants. In early 2019, for example, the Hispanic Caucus led two oversight trips to the Mexican border, and introduced a resolution to reaffirm that US Customs and Border Protection must provide basic standard humanitarian and medical care to all individuals in custody. Studies of the workings of Congress show the impact of Latino legislators too. According to an analysis of all bills sponsored during the 109th Congress (2005–7), individual Latino representatives sponsored significantly more Latino-interest bills than their non-Latino counterparts. Moreover, Latino representatives were particularly devoted to the concerns of Latino constituencies, and especially willing to advocate openly and actively on their behalf. In the 111th Congress (2009–11), Latino House members were more active in cosponsoring bills on the high-salience issues of immigration, education, and labor than were non-Latino members.68

A poignant illustration of the impact of substantive representation for immigrant-origin groups takes us back to the late 1980s and passage of a bill granting compensation to Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. The bill’s principal advocate in the Senate was Spark Matsunaga, a Japanese American from Hawaii who “almost wept as, recalling the suffering of internees, he related the story of an elderly man who crossed a fence to retrieve a ball for his grandchild and was machine-gunned to death.” Matsunaga, it should be noted, was elected to the US Senate in 1976, which did not have any Asian American member until 1959.69

The Shape of the Future

Looking ahead, we can expect ethnic succession in electoral politics to proceed apace. More elected officials will trace their origins to the post-1965 immigration as additional immigration and naturalizations augment the number of immigrant citizens, and as the adult second and third generations grow. Not only will they be able to vote and thus provide a potential base for coethnic politicians, but some will seek influence, prestige, and power through winning elected office as they climb the social and occupational ladder.

But how will ethnic succession, and much more important, the growing number of eligible voters descended from post-1965 immigrants, affect party alignments and schisms as well as electoral strategies and outcomes in the years ahead? Is it inevitable that the Democratic Party will emerge as the new majority in the US Congress and White House? Will the forces producing the current divisions into partisan camps, including increasing ethnic and racial diversity in American society, persist over the short and perhaps medium term?70 Will Trump’s impact on the Republican Party’s immigrant politics and political rhetoric outlast his presidency? Or will Republicans shift their strategies to capture more of the immigrant minority vote?

As these questions suggest, predicting the future is not an exact science. We need look no further than fifteen or twenty years ago when some policy analysts were forecasting that “the rising Latino tide” of voters swelled by the enormous immigrant inflows would help to realign the nation in a decisively Democratic direction, leading to the dawn of a new progressive era.71

This has not yet happened. It is the Republican Party that gained the presidency and control of the Senate in 2016, and despite losing the 2020 election, Trump expanded his support among Hispanics by nearly 10 percentage points, according to Latino Decisions election eve polls.72 Still, the increasing number of Hispanic voters in particular has benefited the Democratic Party given that Hispanics as well as Asian Americans have been leaning strongly Democratic in recent years, with about two-thirds or more supporting the Democratic presidential candidate. This development has helped turn several states that had often voted Republican in presidential elections, such as Nevada and Arizona, into swing or battleground states. Both went for Biden in 2020 and may become more securely Democratic in the future. And there are the lessons of now blue state California, which gave us Reagan and voted Republican in presidential elections in all but one year between 1952 and 1988. Since then the state has consistently supported the Democratic presidential candidate; after the 2018 midterm election, all but seven of the fifty-three members of the House of Representatives from California were Democrats—the first time the state had a single-digit Republican representation in Congress since the 1940s. The growing Latino population helped make California a Democratic stronghold, with some assist from the backlash against the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, which had it not been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, would have denied public services, including education, to undocumented immigrants. Republican support for the anti-immigrant ballot initiative turned many Latinos away from the Republican Party, which was tainted by association with Proposition 187 and the GOP governor, Pete Wilson, who championed it. The Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck has mused about the possibility of Texas becoming more California-like in the next decade given the growing Hispanic population—40 percent of the state in 2019, up from 26 percent in 1990—and Hispanics’ increasing share of the state’s electorate.73

Changing demographics may help Democrats in other ways too. If the nation is becoming more racially diverse, it may also be poised to become more socially liberal as the rapidly aging White population declines and the base of the Republican Party shrinks. Not only are younger Americans increasingly racial and ethnic minorities—by 2018, 45 percent of the nation’s population under age fifteen was Black, Hispanic, or Asian American—but according to a Pew Research Center survey in the same year, Generation Z young people aged thirteen to twenty-one and millennials aged twenty-two to thirty-seven had more liberal views than older generations on a range of issues. Among other things, those in the two younger generations were more accepting of racial and ethnic diversity; even the Republicans in Generation Z were much more likely than their older GOP counterparts to say that increased racial and ethnic diversity is a good thing for the country.74 How much these attitudes will persist as the millennials and Gen Zers age is unclear, but the opinions formed in their younger days will likely continue to play a role in shaping the views of many of them as they move into or further along in adulthood.

Some commentators predict that Republicans will moderate their tactics, scaling back hard-edged racial appeals and stands on immigration in attempting to attract a younger, more diverse audience, and make greater inroads into the racial and ethnic minority population, whose share of the electorate continues to grow. Former president George W. Bush, after all, tried to garner greater support from Latinos, and received 40 percent of their votes in 2004, when he advocated for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, although in the end, the bill died in the Senate when it came up three years later. Whatever Bush’s positions in the past, Trump’s hard-core base, as opinion writer Greg Sargent observes, will not have outsized political influence forever.75

Forever is of course a long time, but at least in the near future there is a quite different set of countervailing possibilities. One issue is that the percentage of non-Hispanic Whites may not be shrinking as fast as recent Census projections have suggested because many people with one White parent sometimes identify, and are identified by others, as White or partly White, have friends who are White, and live among Whites. It is possible that many will vote like Whites as well, including some as relatively conservative Whites.76

Even using existing Census classifications, non-Hispanic Whites will still have considerable voter clout for some time to come. According to one projection, 59 percent of eligible voters in the 2036 national election will be Whites, and 34 percent will be noncollege-educated Whites.77 There is also the issue of relatively low voter turnout among Latinos and Asian Americans; in the 2016 presidential election, 48 percent of eligible Latino voters and 49 percent of their Asian American counterparts voted, compared to 65 percent of non-Hispanic Whites and 60 percent of Blacks.78

Moreover, Hispanic support for the Democratic Party, while hardly likely to disappear, could weaken so that the slippage reported between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections might be a sign of things to come. Republicans could increasingly appeal to many Hispanics on the basis of conservative cultural, religious, or social values on such questions as abortion and gay marriage as well as an ideology of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and a small-business orientation that many Hispanic men in particular may identify with. Republicans are bound to run more Hispanic as well as Asian American candidates, and many Hispanics and Asian Americans might become more conservative as they advance economically.79

At the same time, the structure of the American political system gives Republicans built-in advantages. The US Senate is a less than entirely democratic institution, giving residents of small states a lift because every state, regardless of population, has two senators. This has been a benefit to Republicans, who are dominant in many states with small populations; four of the five smallest states—Alaska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas—strongly tilt Republican. In terms of Senate representation, Wyoming, the least populous state with fewer than six hundred thousand residents, has the same representation as the nearly forty million people in California.80 Klein puts it bluntly: “As a Californian, I think the fact that my state gets exactly as much representation as Wyoming is insane.”81 Senatorial inequality is not going away. In 2040, according to one prediction, about 70 percent of Americans will live in the fifteen-largest states; they will have only thirty senators representing them, while the remaining 30 percent will be represented by seventy senators.82

Republicans have also benefited from the electoral college system, which can overturn the popular vote in presidential elections, as it did in 2000 when Al Gore lost despite more than a half-million popular vote lead over Bush and in 2016 when Trump won with three million fewer votes than Clinton. The electoral college skews elections by giving a structural advantage to small states. Each state receives a number of electoral votes equal to the number of US House of Representatives members, apportioned by population, from that state plus two for its number of senators. These additional two votes effectively triple the voting power of the smallest states that have only one congressional representative. Reliably Republican Wyoming has one-sixty-sixth of California’s population, but with its three electoral votes, it has one-eighteenth of California’s fifty-five electoral votes.83

Also important is that many Republican-controlled states have used various types of voter suppression to reduce the Black and ethnic minority vote through such measures as restrictive voter identification laws and laws making it harder to register and stay registered. In some states, for example, voters must present a government- or college-issued photo ID in order to vote, and a few states have canceled registrations of voters because they have not voted recently and failed to return a mailed notice.84 Gerrymandering has helped Republicans, too, because of their greater control in recent years over state legislatures, which oversee redistricting after the decennial Census. The resulting drawing of congressional district maps with pronounced partisan slants has significantly improved Republican chances of winning seats in the House of Representatives. Although Republicans in Texas, to mention a particularly egregious case, were half of the votes in the state’s 2020 congressional elections, they ended up controlling twenty-three of the state’s thirty-six seats, and underrepresenting Hispanics and African Americans in the political process.

Nor is it a sure thing that Republicans will significantly alter their anti-immigration strategies and racial appeals, at least in the short run, to improve their standing with minorities. The forces producing polarization in the American electorate, political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues, are far from spent. Republicans risk deeply offending large segments of their base if they take steps to expand the party’s appeal to ethnic and racial minorities and socially liberal Americans—something that few Republican elected officials may be willing to do. It is not hard to see many Republican candidates in the near future exploiting the politics of White racial resentment and White racial identity as a winning strategy.85 In one worrisome scenario put forward by political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal, the Republican Party “continues to fuel a white backlash against immigrants and minorities, an increasingly anxious and aggrieved white population fights against the rising tide of minority voters, they in turn flock in ever larger numbers to the Democratic Party, the racial divide in US party politics expands to a racial chasm, and the prospects for racial conflict swell.”86

Ultimately, however, the choices that future political leaders make will be shaped by a broad range of social, political, and economic circumstances that are hard to predict. On one side, the choices have the potential to sustain or even increase political polarization along racial and ethnic lines, but on the other, they could reduce it. Whether future Republican presidents will follow Trump’s path and style, making issues of race and immigration central in their appeals, and continuing to exacerbate and legitimate anti-immigrant and racist sentiments to the degree that he has done—or alternatively, seek to welcome others, find common ground, and even heal the country—remains an open question.87 So too is much about the course a Democratic president will take, although it is a safe bet that a Democrat in the White House will not follow Trump’s lead and will be much more supportive of immigration. As the election of Biden has already shown, a Democratic president is virtually certain to be more open to diversity than a Republican; avoid, and indeed condemn, inflammatory anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric; and give more support to humanitarian protections and legal permanent immigration.

In looking to the future, one thing is guaranteed: as more immigrants arrive and naturalize, and especially as more members of the second and third generation reach adulthood and can vote, the effects of immigration on the country’s electoral politics will continue to be felt in the years to come. The result is likely to be additional and often unexpected political changes.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!