A Referendum on America's Identity

A new poll shows widespread concern about many of the key long-term demographic and economic trends reshaping the country.

Bill Sikes / AP

The old adage says that still waters run deep. But in the 2016 presidential race, the deepest currents may be the most turbulent.

In a campaign defined by anxiety over the nation’s direction and disillusionment with its public and private leadership, the latest Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor poll has found widespread concern about many of the key long-term demographic and economic trends reshaping contemporary America.

On many questions, these anxieties transcended political, racial, and generational lines.  But on other fronts the survey revealed a stark divide between the coalitions assembling behind the two major-party presidential nominees. Compared to Hillary Clinton voters, those who said in the survey they are supporting Donald Trump expressed somewhat more skepticism about America’s increasing exposure to the global economy and vastly more unease about the nation’s growing racial diversity. Trump supporters were also notably more pessimistic than Clinton backers about the next generation’s economic prospects, the poll found.

Taken together, these results suggest that the Clinton and Trump coalitions are separated not only by their assessments of America’s current conditions, but even more fundamentally by their views of its long-term trajectory.

In follow-up interviews, several Trump supporters described a country they feel is slipping into decline, not only economically but also culturally. Jim Wilson, a 65-year-old retired white police officer in Chillicothe, Ohio, who responded to the survey, is one of them. "We're losing the core family unit, I think, or [there’s] moral decline by both parents being gone and children don't have the values that they did at one time,” he said. And he added, “People today don't have a nest egg of any kind. A majority of people you see are living from check to check. [If] there is one sickness, one illness, one mistake, you stub your toe, [then] you lose everything you have.”

By contrast, Natalia Gamboa, a 28-year-old Hispanic in New Jersey who plans to vote for Clinton, believes growing diversity will generate increased opportunity. Gamboa, who works in an insurance company’s records department, also believes it is growing harder to advance economically. But she adds: “I will say that there is a very small tide that is turning in the sense of children are being raised to be more aware—at least some conscious parents are teaching their kids to be more aware of people are different, and you have to take care of the environment if you want to live in this world, and pay attention to what's going on in society, and speaking up when something wrong is happening. So it would be really nice to believe that my nieces and nephews are going to be living in a better place and a safer place and more self-conscious place than I do personally.”

The survey marks the 26th in a series conducted by Allstate and Atlantic Media since 2009 exploring how average Americans are adapting to the changing economy. This week, The Atlantic is reporting results from the latest poll, which was conducted from June 19 to 24, and primarily examined the public’s attitudes toward fundamental trends shaping American life, as well as their views about which institutions should respond to those challenges.

Asked to assess the impact of 11 structural trends influencing America—from the decline of manufacturing jobs, to retirees’ increased reliance on the stock market for their incomes, to the rising diversity of America’s youth population—a majority rated just three as mostly or even somewhat positive in their impact. For the rest, no more than a little over two-fifths viewed the changes as mostly or somewhat positive; for five of the 11 mega-trends, a majority rated their impact as mostly or somewhat negative.

In two related questions, an overwhelming three-fourths of adults said it was harder to get ahead today than it was in earlier generations. And less than one-fourth said they expected that when today’s children are adults they would have more opportunities to advance than adults do today.

Of the long-term dynamics the poll measured, Americans reacted most positively to the trend of “more women…working outside of the home than in the past.” Fully two-thirds described that trend as positive, with almost half viewing it as “mostly positive” and another nearly one-fifth percent describing it as “somewhat positive.” Although men and women were equally likely to view that trend as a good thing, minorities were considerably more positive on it than whites, and members of the Millennial Generation were more positive than their elders.

Only two other trends drew affirmative assessments from most of those polled. Just over three-fifths saw more Americans being self-employed, “including working in flexible positions through the sharing economy,” as a positive trend. Just below three-fifths were pleased that “Americans are saving more money than they did before the economic crash of 2008.” But in each case, only about one-third saw these trends as “mostly” positive; the remainder viewed them more equivocally as only “somewhat” positive.

For all of the remaining trends tested, fewer than half of respondents saw an affirmative impact, even when combining the mostly and somewhat positive responses.

Two big demographic trends drew similar—and conflicted—responses. Told that “the percentage of people living in America who are foreign-born is the highest … since the 1890s” just over two-fifths said the trend was positive, about one-fourth said it was negative, and nearly three-in-ten described it as neutral. Similarly, when informed that “a majority of our public school students nationwide are children from minority racial and ethnic groups,” exactly two-fifths rated the trend as positive, about one-fifth as negative, and the remaining nearly two-fifths as neutral.

The balance tilted more negative on a series of economic trends tested. When told that U.S. companies “are more dependent than in the past on selling their products abroad,” Americans divided about equally between those with positive and negative responses (just under two-fifths in each case.)

But a majority gave negative ratings for each of the other five economic trends the poll measured: the increased availability of products that may be lower cost but are manufactured abroad; more Americans relying “on the performance of their stock market for their retirement security”; fewer Americans living “in neighborhoods that would be classified as ‘middle class’’; fewer Americans working in manufacturing jobs; and the decline since the 2007 crash in the share of Americans who own their own home. Fewer than three-in-ten gave positive marks to any of those.

The sense that many long-term currents are now flowing in the wrong direction was reinforced by the response to two other measures of structural change. Fully 74 percent said it was “harder” for most people to get ahead today than it was for previous generations; only 7 percent said it was easier. (About one-in-six see no change.) Those results were virtually unchanged from the response in a September 2012 Heartland Monitor survey.

Looking forward, just 23 percent said they believed when “today’s children” are adults they will have “more opportunities to get ahead” than today’s adults. Another 29 percent said they would have “about the same amount of opportunity.” But a solid 45 percent plurality said today’s young people would have “fewer opportunities” as adults. In the seven times the Heartland Monitor has asked that question since 2009, that ties the largest share who have said they expect fewer opportunities for the next generation.

The sense that it is harder to move ahead today radiates through almost all groups: It is shared by at least 70 percent of men and women; whites and non-whites; Republicans, Democrats, and independents. That sentiment was also broadly shared across generations, though Millennials (at 66 percent) were slightly less likely than their elders (particularly Baby Boomers at 79 percent) to say the climb has grown more difficult. “Wages aren’t increasing at a sufficient level compared to years ago,” said Renee, a 60-year-old African American in Maple Heights, Ohio,, who works as a billing agent for a medical consulting company and asked not to give her last name. “The cost of goods are much higher—they’ve increased at a higher percentage as opposed to our wages, so our money doesn't go as far as it used to.”

More pronounced differences surface over attitudes about opportunity for the next generation. Millennials (at 32 percent) are more likely than older generations to expect more opportunity for today’s young people. And minorities, as in earlier surveys on this question, also remain much more optimistic. While 33 percent of non-whites expect more opportunity for the next generation and 35 percent expect less, whites are much gloomier: Only 19 percent of them expect more, and fully 48 percent less. As in earlier polls, whites holding at least a four-year college degree—arguably the group most advantaged in the economy—are as pessimistic about the next generation’s prospects as whites without advanced education.

Political differences are more salient. Almost exactly three-fourths of both Clinton and Trump supporters say it’s harder to get ahead today. But Trump supporters are much more pessimistic about the next generation’s chances. Just 17 percent of them think today’s kids will have more opportunities than today’s adults; a resounding 56 percent of them expect them to have fewer opportunities, with the remaining roughly one-fourth expecting no change. "Well, if it keeps on going the way we’re going now, you get to be my age, you're just done,” said Wilson, the retired Ohio police officer. “You don't have a chance to have a nest egg, to retire on ... I mean, right now if I was 21 years old today, and I just got married, I would terribly concerned on bringing children into the world the way it looks like it's headed under the past leadership we've had."

Clinton supporters are more balanced: They divide almost exactly in thirds between those expecting more, less, and equal opportunity for the next generation. “I think new markets will open up with new technology, so there will be more opportunities for them,” said Renee, the Ohio medical-office employee.

Trump and Clinton supporters actually differ little over many of the other economic trends measured in the poll. They are almost equally likely to express concern about the decline in manufacturing jobs, the shift toward greater reliance on the stock market, the falling rate of homeownership, and the reduced number of middle-class neighborhoods; they are almost equally positive on the shift toward greater self-employment.

More differences between the two camps emerge over America’s increasing integration into the global economy. Trump’s supporters are somewhat more likely than Clinton’s (42 percent to 33 percent respectively) to view with alarm the heightened reliance of American companies on foreign markets; the gap is even wider over the increased availability of low-cost products produced abroad (with 65 percent of Trump’s supporters, vs. 48 percent of Clinton’s, viewing it negatively).

Trade is the key issue pulling Colin Putney, a 42-year-old self-described moderate Republican in Middletown, California, toward Trump. Putney said he was laid off from a major technology firm when his job was outsourced to India. “The only reason they let me go is bottom line,” he said. “They just want to show profits to the shareholders and it didn't have to do with my work performance at all. I do feel very strongly that that would be my number one reason for why I would support Donald Trump, is he does believe that corporations have their duty to bring their work here into the United States. There's plenty of unemployed people in this country who are willing and able to do the jobs that are being sent overseas.”

But by far the biggest gap between the two groups comes in their response to cultural and demographic change. In each case, the share of Clinton supporters who express positive views of the three key social trends the poll tested is about 30 percentage points higher than the proportion of Trump supporters.

Although 83 percent of Clinton voters are positive about more women working outside the home, only 50 percent of Trump backers agree. Intriguingly, the women supporting Trump are more negative about this development than the men, the poll found.

And while 58 percent of Clinton voters say the growing share of foreign-born residents has been a positive force, only 26 percent of Trump supporters second that conclusion. Nearly half of Trump supporters believe that trend has negatively affected the country, compared to just one-in-ten Clinton supporters. (Another 29 percent of Clinton supporters and 22 percent of Trump backers say the change’s impact has been neutral.)

Similarly, while 53 percent of Clinton supporters consider it positive that most public-school students are now ethnic and racial minorities, only 25 percent of Trump supporters agree. About one-third of Trump supporters, compared again to only one-in-ten Clinton backers, view the increased diversity of school children as negative; another one-third of Clinton supporters, and two-fifths of Trump backers, view the change as neutral.

In follow up interviews, several of the Clinton voters enthusiastically portrayed the increasing diversity as a rejuvenating force for America. By contrast, in conversation, for many Trump supporters demographic change is inextricably interwoven with a sense of diminished economic opportunity and wobbling moral foundations. Theresa McCoy, 57, a former textile employee in Barnesville, Georgia, who is now on Social Security, has not found work since her plant was shut 15 years ago. She worries about foreign economic competition, eroding respect for religion, (“I wish they had never took the 10 commandments, the reading of the bible and the pledge of allegiance out of school”), and the increasing presence of foreign faces in American communities, such as immigrants from India. “They shouldn't … be able to come over here and suck us dry,” she said. “I don't go in nowhere there's an Indian person working … If it ain't an American store, I'm not going in.”

These stark contrasts underscore the sense that the 2016 election is coalescing into a referendum on America’s national identity at a time of unstinting economic, demographic, and cultural change. In that contest, Clinton is marshaling a “coalition of transformation” mostly comfortable with cultural and demographic change, while Trump is drawing on a competing “coalition of restoration” centered on the groups most unsettled by it.

Atlantic assistant editor Leah Askarinam contributed.