The United States continues to struggle with persistent racial gaps. There are large gaps between blacks and whites in terms of income, political representation, treatment in the criminal justice system, upward mobility and wealth. And the illusion of a postracial society, particularly in the younger generation, is hindering efforts to reduce these gaps. While Democrats say they are trying to alleviate racial gaps by increasing the ladders of opportunity for people of color, Republicans continue to pretend these gaps do not exist.
In their study “Racial Winners and Losers in American Party Politics,” political scientists Zoltan Hajnal and Jeremy Horowitz examine the two parties’ claims that their policies benefit racial and ethnic minorities. According to Hajnal’s and Horowitz’s research, Republican policies predominately benefit the richest white Americans. An oft-repeated defense of this fact is that Republicans make the pie bigger for everyone while Democrats work to redistribute wealth to the poor and people of color. The evidence demonstrates that, on the contrary, Democrats make the pie bigger for everyone, while Republicans redistribute income toward the rich and whites. (See chart below.)
The popular criticism that both parties are the arms of a corporate America also misses the granular changes that shape income distribution. As political scientist Nathan Kelly has shown (PDF), Democratic governments don’t just shift the income distribution with explicitly redistributive programs; they change pretax income distributions to favor the wealthy through what he terms market conditions such as regulation. Sociologists David Brady and Kevin Leicht find the same effect from right-wing governments, both before and after taxes and transfers. The changes combine to dramatically improve the income distribution under a Democratic president.
Hajnal and Horowitz looked at available data for changes in income, poverty and unemployment under every president since 1948. The authors lagged the data by one year since presidential actions take time to trickle down. For example, a decrease in black poverty in 2009 would be credited to George W. Bush’s administration. As shown in the table below, all racial and ethnic groups appear to benefit economically more under Democratic administrations than Republican ones.
||Avg. annual change for blacks (1948-2010)
||Avg. annual change for Latinos (1970-2010)
||Avg. annual change for Asians (1988-2010)
||Avg. annual change for Whites (1948-2010)
Source: Hajinal and Horowitz, 2015.
Although they still benefit significantly more from a Democratic president, the gap between the two parties is the smallest for whites. Hajnal and Horowitz estimate that black poverty declined by 38.6 percent under Democratic leadership, while it grew by 3 percent under Republicans. From 1948 to 2010, black unemployment fell by 7.9 percentage points under Democrats and increased by 13.7 points during Republican administrations. Black income grew by $23,281 (adjusted for inflation) under Democrats and by only $4,000 under Republicans.
“Put simply: However measured, blacks made consistent gains under Democratic presidents and suffered regular losses under Republicans,” the authors said. While there’s limited data, the findings hold true for Latinos and Asians.
It appears at first glance that Republicans actively transfer income to whites through government. Of course, there could be another explanation for this phenomenon. In a study published last July, Princeton economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson found that from 1947 to 2013, gross domestic product, employment, corporate profits and productivity grew faster under Democrats than Republicans. The authors also noted that unemployment and deficits shrank and the economy climbed out of recession in less time under Democrats. (See chart.)
Average values of selected economic indicators
Source: Blinder and Watson, 2014.
Blinder and Watson attribute half these benefits to productivity shocks, consumer expectations and favorable economic conditions. They leave the other half unexplained, but studies suggest that liberal policies increase growth by boosting wages and perceptions about income security. By contrast, Republican policies slow growth and immiserate the population. The researchers also found that the economy grew even faster when Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the presidency.
It might appear that Democrats are better at managing the economy. However, as Hajnal and Horowitz point out, economic growth alone is not enough to explain racial gaps under the two parties. In fact, the results remain unchanged even after controlling for factors such as inflation, the size of the labor force, the price of oil and GDP. They found that black incomes grew by $1,000 more each year under Democrats, while poverty fell 2.6 points faster and unemployment dropped by 1 point more.
Black income growth stalls when a Democratic president is paired with a Republican Congress. Furthermore, the longer Democrats are in power, the stronger the economic gains for blacks. By contrast, blacks fare worse when Republicans are in office longer. There are similar racial gaps in the criminal justice system. Black and white incarceration rates fell dramatically (a net of 61 fewer arrests per 1,000 residents) under Democratic presidents, while they increased (36 more arrests per 1,000 residents) under Republican leadership.
Last place aversion
This raises questions about why whites largely lean Republican in elections and who benefits from Republican control of our government. The answers are intertwined. As Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels explains, economic growth is shared far more equally under Democratic presidents than under Republicans. (See chart below.) Contrary to popular belief, the incomes of the very rich increase more under Democrats than they do under Republicans. While pretax and transfer incomes are rather similar, the main shift occurs posttax and transfer.
Income growth under Democratic and Republican presidents, 1982-2013
Source: Larry Bartels analysis of Census data, 2015.
Similarly, in absolute terms, whites do better under Democratic than under Republican leadership. But that doesn’t really matter. People weigh their well-being relative to those around them. There is strong evidence that whites often oppose actions against inequality because of “last place aversion,” the desire to ensure that there is a class of people below oneself. Among white voters, racial bias is strongly correlated with lower support of redistributive programs. For example, research shows that opposition to welfare is driven by racial anger. Approximately half of the difference between social spending in the U.S. and Europe can be explained by racial animosity.
Democrats enjoy a broad-based support among the American electorate. But they lose elections because of enthusiasm gap, which is attributed to the party’s inability to rally a diverse coalition of educated, working-class whites, people of color and unmarried women. By contrast, the Republican base is easy to mobilize, allowing them to turn the government into an efficient patronage machine for whites and the top 1 percent of U.S. earners, using what Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, calls the “submerged state” — subtle tax breaks and benefits such as marriage subsidies and the mortgage interest deduction.
All in all, those who claim that Democrats have abandoned the middle class or failed blacks are missing a larger story. While the Democratic Party has been imperfect in responding to the policy demands and preferences of blacks and low-income voters, it has done a far better job of improving their condition than Republicans have. Conservatives’ attempts to rebrand themselves as beneficial to the working class or people of color will succeed only if voters remain unaware of their actual record.