By Fareed Zakaria
WASHINGTON – More than 140 million Americans made their own personal decisions when they voted in this year’s election. Now, it becomes the unenviable job of the commentators to explain the “meaning” of those choices.
At the broadest level, it is fair to say that the vote was a repudiation of Donald Trump. Presidents rarely lose their bids for reelection – only five have in the past 125 years – and Trump seems on track to lose the presidency. And he will lose the popular vote by a larger margin than when Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford in the wake of Watergate.
And yet, it’s obvious that the country remains deeply divided. After an impeachment, a pandemic, and the worst economic paralysis since the Great Depression, Republicans overwhelmingly voted for their party, and Democrats did the same.
Polarization is now deep, tribal, and existential – largely unaffected by events or job performance. In fact, as when things get bad in sports, it seems to have become a greater test of loyalty to stay with your team.
Democrats are more disappointed because they had hoped that this would be an election that resoundingly repudiated Trump and realigned politics. Those expectations were fed by their success in 2018 as well as in recent polls, which seem to have been about as inaccurate as those in 2016.
The largest disappointment surely should be that in a year in which Democrats fully embraced ideas about multiculturalism and movements such as Black Lives Matter, Trump appears to have won a larger share of the minority vote than any Republican since 1960. He won the largest percentage of the Black vote since 1996 (though he still got only about 12% of the Black vote). One poll indicates he won 35% of the Muslim vote. What happened?
There are probably many answers. Partly, Democratic strategist James Carville is still right: It’s the economy, stupid. Many of these groups prospered during most of Trump’s presidency and seemed unwilling to blame him for the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic collapse. To the extent that Democrats got associated with lockdowns and Republicans with reopening the economy, COVID-19 may have helped Trump with some voters as well.
But my own interpretation of these results is informed by feelings I have always had about the Democratic Party’s ideology of multiculturalism. It lumps a wide variety of ethnic, racial, and religious groups into one “minority” monolith and approaches them from a perspective that does not fit us all.
The dominant Democratic approach is that minority groups face deep (systemic) discrimination and need to be protected with active measures by the government across a series of fronts. This idea is rooted in the experience of Black people, for whom it is entirely applicable.
America’s treatment of Black people has been cruel, with policies that have broken their families and treated them as either subhuman or as second class citizens. Historical, structural barriers have left a lasting imprint, and discrimination persists to this day.
Other immigrants – almost all of whom came voluntarily, not bound in chains – have had very different experiences. While we have also encountered discrimination and exclusion, we have found a country that on the whole has been far more open and receptive to foreigners than most other places.
That means an ideology born out of the treatment of African Americans will ring false to American immigrants and their descendants. For us, harsh treatment by white Americans is not the single searing experience that shapes our politics.
Some of us are socially liberal, others conservative. Some view themselves as self-reliant entrepreneurs, while others demand a more active role for government. Some seek to assimilate by distancing themselves from newer immigrants or Blacks. Some of the most racist Americans I know are themselves “minorities.”
Even African Americans vary much more widely on policy than one might imagine. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found that only 19% of Black Americans want less police presence in their neighborhoods, while 61% want the same amount and 20% actually want more. So slogans such as “defund the police,” pushed by the most woke activists on Twitter, might unwittingly turn off mainstream African Americans.
Let me give you a personal example to explain one minority mindset. Ever since I applied for a scholarship to colleges in the United States 39 years ago, I have almost always left blank the line on forms that ask for my ethnic or racial classification (except when it is legally required, as in the census).
I don’t feel right piggybacking on tragedies that have affected Black people, Native Americans and others who have truly faced discrimination. But most of all, to quote a great American, I have always wanted to be judged by the content of my character, not the color of my skin.
The Democratic Party should remember that, for many minorities, our greatest aspiration is simply to be regular Americans – treated no worse, but no better, either.
Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for the Atlantic.
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