E Pluribus Unum

Today it appears that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected as President and Vice President of the United States. They will have a difficult time governing in a country which has expressed such hostility towards inclusive government. In the long term, however, Biden and Harris need to govern for the future: an America which is plural in all ways, with no majority–white or otherwise. This is the future which America declared as a promise: a union whose strength is its plurality.

California has not had any demographic majority since the beginning of the century. Since 2014, the largest single group has been Latinx (now 39.4%), so the Census classifies California as an “Hispanic plurality state,” based on the largest group in the state. White non-Latinx constitute 36.3%, and are an aging population with a lower birth rate. Anglos continue to hold a preponderance of political and economic power in the state, as a legacy of greater opportunities than other groups. The moral and political hazard which California faces is that it might become a “White-minority government,” which is a term we used to use for Rhodeisa and Apartheid-era South Africa. Such a fate would be disastrous and permanently destructive.

Political logic immediately changes in a plural society. First: there is no majority. So the concerns about majoritarian/minoritarian democratic conflicts are replaced with concerns about representation of multiple interests. Second: none of these demographic distinctions align consistently with political interests. Latinx are not a unitary bloc in any way: not racially, not culturally, not politically. This is also true of the 14.8% of Californians who are Asian-Americans: large proportions are of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, and Pacific Islander ancestry. Even the Anglos are not unitary: San Franciscans and the “Hollywood Left” contrast sharply with rural and suburban Whites, and we include Italian-Americans (like me), Armenian-Americans like George Deukmejian, and Austrian-Americans like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What sets us apart as a country is especially apparent in California: we are not a nation insofar as “nation” means a country associated with one race, one culture, one religion, one history. Most countries are nation-states, but we are not. We are held together only by the political agreement on the Constitution and its promises: equal treatment under the law, tolerance of disagreement and real difference, no inherited elite class. How does such a society function together? We do not have a lot of comparative lessons to learn from, not in the past nor even today: Cyrus’ religious tolerance, the late Roman Republic, the Inka Empire, the Ottomans, and Hindustan under Mughal Emperor Akbar. In most of these cases, plurality was possible because government was extremely autocratic. In recent decades South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have made major strides, some of which Americans can really learn from. So we are not completely unique, but we are part of a very rare fellowship of countries committed to strength through plurality.

True plurality means Whites need to find our place again as members of a society in which we do not dominate. Joe Biden understands this: he explicitly credited Black Americans in South Carolina with propelling him towards candidacy in 2020, and it appears that non-Whites made the difference in getting him elected. So the fact that he is White does matter, but at least as important is the fact that his political success is based on a very new, truly plural political logic.


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