Are two constants in the United States – demographic change and the enduring importance of our Canadian partner – on a collision course?
That provocative question was the starting point for a recent University of Ottawa conference in which I had the privilege of participating. It is a popular line of thinking that was most famously advanced by the late Samuel Huntington, which holds that Latin migration and population growth threaten to divide the United States into two distinct peoples with distinct values – and thus change its relations with the outside world.
I can happily report the answer is a resounding no – but that does not mean the U.S.-Canada partnership is free of potential hurdles.
The United States is in the midst of a historic demographic shift with important political implications. In 1950, non-Hispanic whites comprised 78 per cent of the U.S. population. Today that figure is 63 per cent and by 2040 it is expected to be less than 50 per cent.
And the demographic transformation is even starker in our electorate. Bill Clinton secured his second presidential term in office from an electorate that was 82.5 per cent non-Hispanic white. The electorate that returned Barack Obama to the Oval Office 16 years later was only 72 per cent non-Hispanic white, with Latinos representing 10 per cent of the national electorate.
That number will only increase because Latinos represent more than 22 per cent of U.S. citizens under the age of 18, including an astounding 51 and 48 per cent of underage citizens in our two most populous states, California and Texas.
Not only are Latinos becoming more influential, we are helping drive a progressive agenda. Second-generation Latinos are more likely to identify as Democrats, support marriage equality, and support abortion rights than their parents. Hispanics writ large are more supportive of the president’s health care reform and of the government doing more to help solve people’s problems than is the balance of our electorate.
That said, nothing suggests the rise of Hispanics will alter the U.S.-Canada relationship.
First, although our countries share a common Anglo heritage, our partnership is not built on racial or ethnic affinity. Instead, its bedrock is our deeply integrated economic partnership, which remains the world’s most important and dynamic trade relationship, with bilateral trade in 2011 topping $680 billion and Canada remaining the leading trade partner for 36 U.S. states.
Second, even if constituency politics mattered, there is no reason to believe Latinos in the United States have an appreciably different view of Canada or our countries’ partnership than does the rest of the population. This is, in part, because of the assimilative capacity of the United States – a cornerstone of the enduring success of the American experiment and a phenomenon Mr. Huntington and his disciples fail to fully appreciate. According to a recent Pew Hispanic Research study, fully 61 per cent of second-generation Hispanics view themselves as “typical Americans” and second-generation Latinos are similar to the overall U.S. population in terms of income, education, poverty, and other socio-economic indicators.
Third, although Hispanics place greater importance on Latin America than do other Americans, there is little reason to believe rising Latino political importance will shift the U.S. worldview markedly south.
This is primarily because domestic issues – immigration, economy, jobs, education and healthcare – predominate for Latino voters. Furthermore, President Obama’s agenda in the Americas – focused on partners such as Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Peru – complements, rather than competes with, U.S.-Canada engagement as it seeks to promote shared responsibility among the growing ranks of increasingly capable and globally engaged countries in the Americas.
Finally, and most importantly, demographic change does not alter shared values or interests. In recent years, to cite only two examples, the United States and Canada have stood shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan and in protecting the Libyan people from the late Moammar Gadhafi. The importance both of our countries place in the values of freedom and human dignity across the globe will not change as U.S. demographics do.
In fact, President Obama’s strategic reorientation toward partnership represents an enormous opportunity to strengthen U.S.-Canada ties in North America and beyond. Unless, of course, austerity intervenes.
The United States has entered a period of dysfunctional austerity born of the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to engage President Obama’s offer to craft a responsible, balanced approach to ordering our fiscal house. Left uncorrected, indiscriminate budget cuts (the “sequester”) will inevitably hamper implementation of aspects of the landmark “Beyond the Border” agreement crafted by President Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
As for Canada, the potential austerity challenge lies in the possible implications of tight budgets for Canada’s global engagement. If Canada withdraws from the world and from multilateral institutions in which it has long shared burdens and responsibilities with the United States, bilateral relations would almost certainly be adversely affected.
In short, those of us who value U.S.-Canada ties need to keep our eyes on budgets, not demographics, to ensure the vibrancy of our indispensable partnership.
Dan Restrepo, who served as President Barack Obama’s chief policy adviser on Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean for more than 3 years in the White House and through his two presidential campaigns, is an international strategic consultant.