In 2016, 57 percent of white Americans who voted chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls. More white men than women voted for Trump. A plurality of young white people voted Trump, as did roughly two-thirds of white people without college degrees.
While these stats may seem to tell a simple story about race and partisanship in the United States, they conceal demographic shifts among white voters that will be significant in future elections. White Americans, especially the young and the working classes, are largely becoming detached from religious and civic institutions.
Right now, Democrats and Republicans are both wrestling with their demographic futures. After a brutal defeat in November, progressives are wrestling with whether and how to reach out to the white voters who cost them the election. Meanwhile, victorious conservatives still have to look ahead: Their success largely depends on a shrinking share of voters who are becoming more disillusioned with and detached from political and communal life. While the drift of white America matters for elections, it also matters for American culture: It’s a small sign that the nation’s cultural and civic fabric is fraying.
Demographers have long tracked the rise of the “nones”—people who don’t identify with any particular religion. The Public Religion Research Institute has found that this trend has a racial component. “Overall, white Americans are significantly more likely to be disconnected from religion than ... non-white Americans,” said Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director, in an email. “They are 2.5 times more likely to say that they seldom or never attend religious services and nearly twice (1.7 times) as likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated.”
What’s interesting is that this might also have a class component. Back in October, PRRI and The Atlantic conducted a study of white, working-class voters—the Americans, it turned out, who were so important to Trump’s victory in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Unlike other pollsters, they defined “working class” as people without a college degree who are also paid by the hour or the job, meaning white-collar workers were excluded.
“Churches have served, for most of the nation’s life, as pipelines to all kinds of civic engagement.”
Compared to their white, college-educated peers, these working-class Americans were more likely not to attend religious services. Of the people in their late 30s and 40s, half said they seldom or never go, compared to less than a third of college-educated people in that age group. In general, white people under 35 are unlikely to be big church-goers: Nearly half of both the working class and the college-educated said they rarely or never attend services. But young, highly educated white people still claim to be religious: Only 31 percent of this group said they’re not affiliated with any particular faith, while 43 percent of young, white working-class people said the same.
This matters for politics. “They’re going to be missing one of the major pipelines toward voting and civic participation,” said Robby Jones, the CEO of PRRI, in an interview. “Churches have served, for most of the nation’s life, as pipelines to all kinds of civic engagement—and not just because they hand out voter-registration cards or have them in the lobby. We actually see a link between all kinds of civic activity and church activity.”
This pattern shows up in PRRI’s research. White working-class Americans of all ages were much less likely than their college-educated peers to participate in sports teams, book clubs, or neighborhood associations—55 percent vs. 31 percent said they seldom or never participated in those kinds of activities. Especially for young white voters, “there’s a real question whether … there will be a lower civic participation rate over that cohort’s entire lifespan,” Jones said, including everything from voting in elections to being involved in community groups.
This will have consequences for Democrats and Republicans alike. “The parties are increasingly divided by race and religion,” Jones noted. Each party has to wrestle with what America’s demographic changes mean for its future, including the growing share of non-white citizens and the aging of the white generation that was once more involved in religious and civic life, if only by default.
“We have these two mutually exclusive stories about what it means to be in America.”
While the 2016 election was absolutely shaped by religious white voters, the nature of living as a white person in America is changing. “My biggest fear is that we do end up with these two parties: One that represents an aging white Christian America, and that’s resentful as it’s losing ground, and one party that represents a growing demographic but also has its own kind of resentment,” said Jones. “Both parties give up on telling a story about the country that everybody can see themselves in. So we have these two mutually exclusive stories about what it means to be in America.” Combined with declining participation in common civic and religious institutions, this may produce a sense of alienation and grievance.
Polling research on issues of identity is messy. Every person’s life is a complex mix of demographic variables, and those variables don’t always explain human behavior. But “your demographics exert a kind of gravitational force on your attitudes,” Jones said. In this case, factors like wealth and class might play a role in how disengaged Americans feel from civic life: Research shows that poor people are less likely to vote, for example. But race seems to be an important part of the “gravitational force” Jones described. More and more white Americans are being pulled toward isolation, away from the thick knit of civic and religious life that has long defined American political culture.