Two Versions of America Emerge in the Presidential Campaign

Race, religion, and ethnicity divide the country between what it was and what it is becoming.  

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders listens at a rally in downtown Seattle.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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

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.