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Biden, the Arab American Vote, and Identity Politics in 2024

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Author: Dan Sally
Created: 20 February, 2024
7 min read

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on the author's website and has been republished on IVN with permission from Dan Sally. Photo Credit: Suzy Brooks on Unsplash.

 

In late January, leaders from Michigan’s Arab American community rebuffed an invitation to meet with Biden’s campaign manager, expressing frustration that they hadn’t been given a voice in the administration’s policies towards Gaza.

The following week, 30 elected officials signed a pledge to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s upcoming Democratic primary in protest of the administration’s approach to the war.

Michigan is home to over 200,000 Muslim voters and 300,000 voters who claim ancestry from the Middle East and North Africa. While Biden won the state by over 150,000 votes in 2020, many in the Biden camp fear this could cost him in November, and have made overtures to the community in recent days to shore up their support.

Many would argue the time for listening to the Arab American community would have been before a humanitarian crisis emerged in Gaza, and that the concern over the loss of civilian lives should have been prioritized ahead of the concern over the loss of votes.

This being said, there’s another issue at play here.

As it stands, in November, Arab American voters will have to choose between a candidate they feel doesn’t factor their concerns into the nation’s policy towards the Middle East, and another who signed an executive order to keep people from the Middle East out of the country.

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While it’s unrealistic to assume we could find a candidate who’d make everyone in a county as large and diverse as the United States happy, it seems as if the choices should be better than being ignored or being persecuted. This is a much more dire version of the choice many of us will have to make in November, where we appear headed for a rematch between two candidates with favorability ratings in the low 40s.

It’s America’s somewhat unique system of elections that makes it uniquely bad at producing a government that’s responsive to voters. In looking at what the world’s most successful democracies have in common, we can find a solution.

Minority Representation: How America Gets it Wrong

In 2021, political scientist Lee Drutman published a paper entitled Elections, Political Parties, and Multiracial, Multiethnic Democracy: How the United States Gets It WrongIn it, he makes the case that the US has the worst possible system of elections for a country as large and diverse as ours.

Here’s why:

America’s system of elections is what’s known as majoritarian, meaning the party with the most votes wins. It sounds fair enough - until you realize the party with the least votes gets zero representation.

This raises the stakes in elections, as being on the losing side means having your concerns go unheard until the next election cycle.

In a system like this, candidates and parties build their majorities by targeting specific identity groups, rather than focusing on issues that appeal to a broad cross-section of voters. In short: finding the dividing lines in society and amplifying them is a more effective tactic than trying to appeal to the majority.

This often leads parties to compete along ethnic and religious lines because, as Drutman puts it, “Few people identify themselves primarily by the money in their bank account, but many people identify themselves by their race, their ethnicity, their religion, and the relative status of their groups in society.”

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But there’s a second part.

These differences are only valuable if a group is large enough to tilt an election, meaning the issues of importance to racial, ethnic, and economic minorities are ignored.

Drutman cites how Black voters were disenfranchised under Jim Crow, but the issue of civil rights didn’t enter the public sphere until the Great Migration when the Black vote in northern states became large enough to change the outcome of elections. Following this, both parties competed for the Black vote until the late 1960s, when the Democrats - the party that invented the Confederate Flag and had a former Grand Cyclops of the KKK in the Senate at the time - won the group over with their full-throated support of civil rights legislation.

At this point, Black voters were no longer winnable, so the Republicans shifted their focus to white Southern Democrats by appealing to their social conservatism on issues like abortion and playing on anxieties over racial unrest via their “law and order” message.

This also allowed Democrats to take their foot off the pedal when it came to issues that mattered to Black voters, as their only alternative was to vote for the party that was actively recruiting the pro-segregation crowd.

Much like the Arab American vote in Michigan, the Democratic Party has grown increasingly concerned over a drop in support amongst Black voters, leading the party to invest $35 million to reach voters of color.

This isn’t a phenomenon restricted to race and ethnicity, either. Working-class voters in the Midwest were a reliable voting bloc for Democrats, despite the fact they had ignored this group’s concerns over the impact global trade agreements had on the region. It was only when these voters flipped for Trump in 2016 that their issues made it to the front of the line.

So, you could argue the US electoral system is responsive to the needs of minority populations, but only after they’ve festered into larger problems, like the decades of disenfranchisement and segregation in the South or the slow hollowing out of America’s industrial Midwest. If we’d prefer to be a country that’s slightly more proactive in addressing these issues, Drutman has an idea.

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From Majority to Proportional Rule

For the last eight years, the United States has been designated a “flawed democracy” in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. This report found that in the US, along with other nations, there was a decline in support for democracy, and recommended governments could remedy this by “delivering on the issues that matter to the electorate.”

In short: people support democracy when they see democracy supporting them.

The same countries have occupied the top 10 spots in recent years, and 9 of the 10 have one thing in common - they all use a system of proportional representation.

(It should be noted that number 10, Taiwan, uses a system that has elements of proportional representation mixed with those of the system we use in the US).

Unlike elections in the United States, where a voting bloc representing 20% of the population can see itself getting 0% representation in Congress, proportional systems award seats in government in proportion to that group’s share of the popular vote. This means that 20% of the population can get 20% of the seats in the House, as opposed to having to work with a larger, less attentive coalition.

In his paper Electoral Systems for Divided Societies, political scientist Benjamin Reilly cites how Northern Ireland implemented a system of proportional representation known as single transferable vote, or STV, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.

STV replaces the single-member district with winner-take-all elections with multi-member districts where ranked-choice voting is used to award seats in proportion to a candidate’s share of the popular vote.

Where parties were once incentivized to gerrymander districts to their advantage and take hard-line positions that appealed to their identity group, STV favored candidates who could win the second and third-choice votes of those outside their core group - meaning moderate candidates stood a better chance of winning than more extreme candidates who might alienate certain voters.

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The result was the election of a “pro-peace” government where Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists shared power.

Apocalypse Maybe?

Replacing a long tradition of single-member districts with a system like that used in Northern Ireland is no small feat, much less in a country that can’t seem to decide whether or not it wants to default on its debt every few months.

In his book, Breaking the Two-Party Doom LoopDrutman cites how political dissatisfaction during the Progressive Era led to a wave of significant reforms, including the direct election of senators and the passage of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. While still nascent, growing movements to change America’s system of elections are gaining steam.

In 2021, the Fair Representation Act was introduced to Congress, which proposed changing America’s system of elections to one modeled after the world’s healthiest democracies. While this bill died, organizations promoting proportional representation at the state and federal levels are still working in the background.

Despite the effort involved, America is now past the point where we can depend on elections not resulting in violence.

Northern Ireland switched to proportional representation to end a civil war. Drutman and many others argue that implementing that system in the US could stop one.

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