The change is just as dramatic when looking at the nation’s religious composition. White Christians comprised fully 85 percent of all American adults in 1968, according to figures from Gallup, provided to me by the senior editor Jeffrey M. Jones. They now represent only half as much of the population, 42 percent, according to PRRI’s latest national figures.
The groups that have grown since then reflect the nation’s increasing racial and religious diversity. In 1968, nonwhite Christians represented only 8 percent of Americans; now that’s tripled to just more than 24 percent in the PRRI study. Most explosive has been the growth of those who identify as secular or unaffiliated with any religious tradition. They represented just 3 percent of Americans in 1968; now it’s 24 percent.
Other shifts in society’s structure since that era are equally profound. Census Bureau reports show that a much smaller share of adults are married now than they were then. Only about half as many Americans live in small-town or rural communities outside of major metropolitan areas. The portion with at least some college experience is about triple its level then.
Across all of these dimensions, the consistent pattern is this: The groups Trump hopes to mobilize—non-college-educated, nonurban, married, and Christian white voters—have significantly shrunk as a share of the overall society in the past 50 years. The groups most alienated from him include many of the ones that have grown over those decades: college-educated white people, people of color, seculars, singles, and residents of the large metro areas.
Trump faces two other big challenges in channeling Nixon. One is that the crime rate, especially the rate of violent crime, doesn’t provide as compelling a backdrop for a law-and-order message as it did during the 1960s. The overall violent-crime rate increased by more than 50 percent just from 1964 to 1968, en route to doubling by the early 1970s. Robberies per person more than doubled from 1960 to 1968. The murder rate soared by 40 percent from 1964 to 1968; by 1972, it was nearly 85 percent higher than in 1964. In Gallup surveys from September 1968, 13 percent of college-educated white voters, 11 percent of non-college-educated white voters, and 9 percent of nonwhite voters identified crime as the biggest problem facing the nation.
Today, overall crime rates are much lower, a change that’s made possible the revival of central cities around the country. After violent crime peaked in 1991, it declined fairly steadily for about 15 years. It’s proved more volatile over the past decade: The violent-crime rate fell from 2008 to 2014, then rose through 2016 and has dipped again since. As Trump did in 2016, with his dark warnings about “American carnage” following the uptick in crime late in Barack Obama’s second term, he is again using recent findings of elevated murder rates in some cities to raise the specter of Democrats unleashing a new crime surge. “Despite the left-wing sowing chaos in communities all across the country … and the heart breaking murders in Democrat controlled cities like Chicago, New York City, and Atlanta, Joe Biden has turned his back on any semblance of law and order,” the Republican National Committee warned in a press release yesterday morning.