Commentary Magazine


Topic: demography

What Does Iran’s Demographic Precipice Mean?

When Iran’s supreme leader speaks, Iranians listen. Deference is less a sign of respect than fear but, regardless, Iranians understand that the supreme leader runs the show. He sets the tone for the regime and is the only figure who can affect policy. One should expect nothing less from the self-declared “deputy of the Messiah on Earth.”

American policymakers notoriously focus on short-term issues. Within the State Department, Pentagon, and even the Central Intelligence Agency, the majority of staff are focused on the next week’s events and petty bureaucratic tasks rather than long-term strategy. Hence, in 2009, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to support the Iranian people rising up against Khamenei’s repression, because they feared that to do so would make less likely a response to the letter Obama had penned to the supreme leader. (In a subsequent November 3, 2009 speech, Khamenei mocked Obama’s letters.) Likewise, in recent weeks, the Obama administration in various briefings to Congress has argued that the Iran nuclear deal will make a nuclear breakout less likely in the next six months, even if the same deal might hasten Tehran’s breakout ability in the period that follows.

There is little U.S. consideration, however, about what Iran might or could be like in the coming decades. In short, however, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has, in recent months, increased his focus on demography. For example, in a speech earlier this autumn, Khamenei declared:

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When Iran’s supreme leader speaks, Iranians listen. Deference is less a sign of respect than fear but, regardless, Iranians understand that the supreme leader runs the show. He sets the tone for the regime and is the only figure who can affect policy. One should expect nothing less from the self-declared “deputy of the Messiah on Earth.”

American policymakers notoriously focus on short-term issues. Within the State Department, Pentagon, and even the Central Intelligence Agency, the majority of staff are focused on the next week’s events and petty bureaucratic tasks rather than long-term strategy. Hence, in 2009, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to support the Iranian people rising up against Khamenei’s repression, because they feared that to do so would make less likely a response to the letter Obama had penned to the supreme leader. (In a subsequent November 3, 2009 speech, Khamenei mocked Obama’s letters.) Likewise, in recent weeks, the Obama administration in various briefings to Congress has argued that the Iran nuclear deal will make a nuclear breakout less likely in the next six months, even if the same deal might hasten Tehran’s breakout ability in the period that follows.

There is little U.S. consideration, however, about what Iran might or could be like in the coming decades. In short, however, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has, in recent months, increased his focus on demography. For example, in a speech earlier this autumn, Khamenei declared:

You should consider the different aspects of this issue. You should see what things make our society lose interest in bearing children. This lack of interest in bearing children is a malady. Otherwise, one naturally likes to have children. Why do a number of people prefer to have only one child? Why do they prefer to have only two children? Why do women and men avoid – in different ways – having children? You should look at these issues and see what factors play a role in this. You should identify these factors and ask experts and thinkers to think about finding a cure for these pathological factors. I believe that these factors are pathological and problematic.

Simply put, Iranian families are shrinking. The person who has most followed the trend over time is Farzaneh Roudi, program director for the Middle East and North Africa region at Population Reference Bureau but, in short, the proportion of the Iranian population under five years old plummeted from 18 percent in 1986 to 10 percent a decade later. The Institut National d’Etudes Demographiques in Paris estimated that Iran’s total fertility rate fell from 6.2 children per woman in 1986 to just 3.5 seven years later. By 2000 it was 2.0, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1.

I have gone into this in a bit more detail for my monthly “Operational Environment Watch” analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office but, in short, while population changes might suggest that ordinary Iranians are embracing more Western attitudes about families and perhaps life in general, an aging population both bodes poorly for the Islamic Republic’s already teetering economy and suggests that the Islamic Republic seeks to shift from having a quantitative military edge to a qualitative military edge in the coming decades, notwithstanding any agreement Secretary of State John Kerry believes he has achieved.

If the Islamic Republic will face severe structural problems and strains in the coming years, then the last thing the United States or Europe should do is throw the current regime an economic lifeline. After all, the most stable outcome for the Middle East would be the re-emergence of an Iran which isn’t subject to clerical rule. That should be the long-term outcome for which the United States strives. That it is also the outcome most Iranians seem to prefer should cement the case.

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Do Demographics Point to a Permanent Democratic Majority?

The inevitable narrative after a presidential election is that the losing side is on its way to extinction. In 2008, the argument was that the GOP had become a regional party of white southerners. We’re seeing a variation on that this time around, with the claim that Republicans can’t win an election because minorities and women are eclipsing the white male demographic:

The Los Angeles Times is leading the charge with a story headlined “Obama’s reelection marks a turning point in American politics: With the growing power of minorities, women and gays, it’s the end of the world as straight white males know it.”

Even more than the election that made Barack Obama the first black president, the one that returned him to office sent an unmistakable signal that the hegemony of the straight white male in America is over. …

Exit poll data, gathered from interviews with voters as they left their polling places, showed that Obama’s support from whites was 4 percentage points lower than in 2008. But he won by drawing on a minority-voter base that was 2 percentage points larger, as a share of the overall electorate, than four years ago.

The president built his winning coalition on a series of election-year initiatives and issue differences with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In the months leading up to the election, Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, unilaterally granted a form of limited legalization to young illegal immigrants and put abortion rights and contraception at the heart of a brutally effective anti-Romney attack ad campaign. 

The result turned out to be an unbeatable combination: virtually universal support from black voters, who turned out as strongly as in 2008, plus decisive backing from members of the younger and fast-growing Latino and Asian American communities, who chose Obama over Romney by ratios of roughly 3 to 1. All of those groups contributed to Obama’s majority among women. (Gay voters, a far smaller group, went for Obama by a 54-point margin.)

There are two ways conservatives can respond to this analysis. One is to devolve into a Buchananite frenzy that the White Male is under siege and the country is being hijacked by minorities and women who are fundamentally at odds with the Republican Party. Not only is that unhelpful, it also buys into identity politics in a way that runs counter to the conservative and American message.

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The inevitable narrative after a presidential election is that the losing side is on its way to extinction. In 2008, the argument was that the GOP had become a regional party of white southerners. We’re seeing a variation on that this time around, with the claim that Republicans can’t win an election because minorities and women are eclipsing the white male demographic:

The Los Angeles Times is leading the charge with a story headlined “Obama’s reelection marks a turning point in American politics: With the growing power of minorities, women and gays, it’s the end of the world as straight white males know it.”

Even more than the election that made Barack Obama the first black president, the one that returned him to office sent an unmistakable signal that the hegemony of the straight white male in America is over. …

Exit poll data, gathered from interviews with voters as they left their polling places, showed that Obama’s support from whites was 4 percentage points lower than in 2008. But he won by drawing on a minority-voter base that was 2 percentage points larger, as a share of the overall electorate, than four years ago.

The president built his winning coalition on a series of election-year initiatives and issue differences with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In the months leading up to the election, Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, unilaterally granted a form of limited legalization to young illegal immigrants and put abortion rights and contraception at the heart of a brutally effective anti-Romney attack ad campaign. 

The result turned out to be an unbeatable combination: virtually universal support from black voters, who turned out as strongly as in 2008, plus decisive backing from members of the younger and fast-growing Latino and Asian American communities, who chose Obama over Romney by ratios of roughly 3 to 1. All of those groups contributed to Obama’s majority among women. (Gay voters, a far smaller group, went for Obama by a 54-point margin.)

There are two ways conservatives can respond to this analysis. One is to devolve into a Buchananite frenzy that the White Male is under siege and the country is being hijacked by minorities and women who are fundamentally at odds with the Republican Party. Not only is that unhelpful, it also buys into identity politics in a way that runs counter to the conservative and American message.

Instead, why not challenge the notion that people vote primarily based on their allegiance to an identity group, rather than their individual interests? It’s supported by the statistics. While immigration is an important issue for Hispanic voters and can have a big influence on their vote, their biggest individual concern in 2012 was jobs and the economy. The same goes for women voters and abortion. 

Just look at the Jewish vote. The overarching issue that connects American Jews is Israel, but as a bloc they vote reliably for the party that has a weaker record on Israel because it is liberal on social issues.

The point is, people don’t always vote based on their primary identity interest. There are, however, group sensitivities that need to be considered. A Democratic politician who sounds like Tom Tancredo isn’t going to win over Hispanic voters, just like Jewish voters aren’t likely to support Charles Barron, no matter how liberal he is on abortion and welfare programs. 

It was these sensitivities that Obama exploited. He was able to use his presidency to indulge identity groups in small but concrete ways, while arguing that Romney would set back their interests if he were elected. Hence, the executive order on immigration, the “evolution” on gay marriage, the birth control insurance mandate, the auto bailout, and so on. This was helped along by Romney’s hard line on immigration during the primary, Romney’s inability to support gay marriage, controversial comments from Republicans about abortion, and Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout.  

But that strategy isn’t going to be as easy for Democrats in 2016. First, the Democratic candidates won’t be able to distribute these handouts before the election. And second, Republicans aren’t likely to give Democrats as many opportunities to demagogue them on immigration and women’s issues (at least not if they learned any lessons from this year).

Rather than pander to different groups, it’s more helpful to find common ground between identity groups and broader national interests. For example, the GOP isn’t going to become a pro-choice party anytime soon, and it doesn’t need to. The majority of Americans support restrictions on abortion to some degree — just not in cases of rape and incest. Pro-life politicians would be smart to focus on the former and steer clear of the latter. Even if they personally oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest, there’s no need to bring those controversial personal views into the policy debate. 

Tone is just as important here as policy. It didn’t matter that Romney wouldn’t have governed as a hardliner on immigration; Democrats were able to use his comments from the primary to portray him as anti-immigrant. And it didn’t matter how many times Romney’s campaign insisted he wouldn’t support an abortion ban — Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock set the tone for the entire party.

The only way the Democratic Party can keep its identity-based coalition together in 2016 is if Republicans give them enough fodder to do it.

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