America's Divides Aren't Just Partisan

Elaine Thompson / AP

The cul­tur­al and demo­graph­ic gulf between the Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic elect­or­al co­ali­tions can now be meas­ured not just in space, but in time.

Today, the two parties rep­res­ent not only dif­fer­ent sec­tions of the coun­try, but also, in ef­fect, dif­fer­ent edi­tions of the coun­try. Along many key meas­ures, the Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion mir­rors what all of Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety looked like dec­ades ago. Across those same meas­ures, the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion rep­res­ents what Amer­ica might be­come in dec­ades ahead. The parties’ ever-es­cal­at­ing con­flict rep­res­ents not only an ideo­lo­gic­al and par­tis­an stale­mate. It also en­cap­su­lates our col­lect­ive fail­ure to find com­mon cause between what Amer­ica has been, and what it is be­com­ing.

The two dif­fer­ent Amer­icas em­bod­ied by the parties are out­lined by race.

In 2012, whites ac­coun­ted for about 90 per­cent of both the bal­lots cast in the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primar­ies and the votes Mitt Rom­ney re­ceived in the gen­er­al elec­tion. The last time whites represen­ted 90 per­cent of the total Amer­ic­an popu­la­tion was 1960. Eth­nic groups now equal just over 37 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans. But voters of col­or ac­coun­ted for nearly 45 per­cent of Pres­id­ent Obama’s votes in 2012. Eth­nic minor­it­ies likely won’t equal that much of the total pop­u­la­tion for about an­oth­er 15 years.

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Re­li­gion also re­in­forces the parties’ con­trast­ing Amer­icas.

White Chris­ti­ans ac­count for 69 per­cent of all adults who identi­fy as Re­pub­lic­ans, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s massive re­li­gious-land­scape sur­vey. The last time white Chris­ti­ans equaled that much of Amer­ica’s total pop­u­la­tion was 1984—the year of Ron­ald Re­agan’s land­slide reelec­tion. Today, white Chris­ti­ans have fallen be­low ma­jor­ity status, to just 46 per­cent of the adult pop­u­la­tion. The change is even more pro­nounced among Demo­crats, less than one-third of whom are white Chris­ti­ans. An­oth­er third of Demo­crats are non­white Chris­ti­ans.

But the party’s largest group (around 35 per­cent) is com­prised of people from all races who identi­fy with non-Chris­ti­an faiths, or in­creas­ingly, with no re­li­gious tra­di­tion. Those non-Chris­ti­ans are grow­ing rap­idly across Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety—but in the en­tire pop­u­la­tion they likely won’t match their cur­rent level among Democrats un­til after 2020.

Sim­il­arly, data from Pew’s re­li­gious-land­scape study shows that nearly three-fifths of Re­pub­lic­ans are mar­ried—a level last reached in the over­all adult population in 1994. Today just un­der half of Amer­ic­an adults are mar­ried. Among Demo­crats, the num­ber is lower still: barely over two-in-five. Like­wise, the share of Re­pub­lic­ans who live in a house­hold with a gun (54 per­cent) equals the share in so­ci­ety over­all in 1993. Since then, gun own­er­ship among the general pop­u­la­tion has dropped to about 40 per­cent, while fall­ing even lower (around one-fourth) among Demo­crats.

From these con­trast­ing ex­per­i­ences, the parties now sep­ar­ate, above all, by their at­ti­tude to­ward the grow­ing di­versity and cul­tur­al changes re­mak­ing Amer­ica.

As I’ve writ­ten, Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent a co­ali­tion of res­tor­a­tion centered on the groups most un­settled by the changes (primar­ily older, non­col­lege, rur­al, and reli­giously de­vout whites). Demo­crats mo­bil­ize a co­ali­tion of trans­form­a­tion that re­volves around the heav­ily urb­an­ized groups (mil­len­ni­als, people of col­or, and col­lege-edu­cated, single, and sec­u­lar whites, es­pe­cially wo­men) most comfortable with these trends.

A Decem­ber na­tion­al poll by the non­par­tis­an Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute mapped the chasm between those per­spect­ives. The sur­vey found that al­most three times as many Re­pub­lic­ans (53 per­cent) as Demo­crats (19 per­cent) agreed both that “im­mig­rants are a bur­den” on Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety and that “the val­ues of Is­lam are at odds with Amer­ic­an val­ues and way of life.” Nearly four times as many Demo­crats (43 per­cent) as Re­pub­lic­ans (12 per­cent) re­jec­ted both ideas.  

“The is­sue of im­mig­ra­tion, Syr­i­an refugees, and the is­sue of Muslims are all in the same bas­ket,” says Daniel Cox, the PRRI’s re­search dir­ect­or. “They raise fears about se­cur­ity—wheth­er that’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity or eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity—and fear of cul­tur­al change. These are all things that the white work­ing class is really strug­gling with.”

Elect­or­ally, this di­ver­gence has be­nefited Demo­crats in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions because the groups com­fort­able with Amer­ica’s evol­u­tion are cast­ing a grow­ing share of bal­lots in those con­tests. But it’s helped Re­pub­lic­ans to con­trol Con­gress by deep­en­ing their hold on com­munit­ies out­side of Amer­ica’s urb­an cen­ters, where these changes are con­cen­trated.

The lar­ger truth is that this cul­tur­al par­ti­tion has frus­trated both parties, by denying either a broad enough reach to es­tab­lish a dom­in­ant, much less dur­able, polit­ic­al ad­vant­age. More im­port­ant, this harden­ing di­vi­sion ob­scures our common in­terest in mak­ing our new dy­nam­ics work for all Amer­ic­ans—on is­sues from balan­cing se­cur­ity with re­spect for all com­munit­ies, to equip­ping Amer­ica’s di­verse young­er gen­er­a­tion with the skills to reach the middle class and pay the taxes that will sup­port So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care for the na­tion’s predominantly white seni­ors.

The cul­tur­al and demo­graph­ic changes re­mak­ing the coun­try are as ir­re­vers­ible as tides, but they likely will not wash away the val­ues so many cul­tur­ally conservat­ive Amer­ic­ans fear are en­dangered. At its best, the U.S. has al­ways refor­mu­lated both its pub­lic policies and so­cial mores to re­fresh its old­est traditions with its con­tem­por­ary real­it­ies. Any­one watch­ing the volat­ile and vitriol­ic pres­id­en­tial cam­paign re­cog­nizes that Amer­ica once again needs to bridge its past and fu­ture. But that won’t hap­pen if each party speaks only to one side of the di­vide.

This post appears courtesy of National Journal.