There is a well-documented psychological trait called loss aversion. Essentially, it refers to the innate reaction people have to more acutely feeling losses than they do gains. This follows a larger pattern where negative events and emotions are more clearly remembered and experienced than their positive counterparts. For the American public’s collective memory, the past few decades have been marked by loss, the positive developments shrouded in a haze of threats, anxieties, and insecurities.
Many experts would consider these concerns overblown and irrational, pointing to rising living standards (albeit at a slower rate than decades past), lower crime rates and increased safety, and overall better material well-being. I empathize with these critiques since I tend to lean towards being a techno-optimistic; cautiously, but generally concurring that technological and economic improvements have constructed a more just, socially enriched society. However, individual and societal well-being does not only encompass material improvement, but also involves status. For people on both sides of the political spectrum, their status has been undermined. I mention the political spectrum because these status changes have been refracted through people’s political identities and intensified the hyper-partisanship engulfing our current political discourse. Documenting these status-loss trends is useful in illuminating what the underlying factors are in America’s entrenched divides and pondering how long these divisions will persist.
For many people, the likely scenario that the Democrats will take back the House from the Republicans this fall seems relatively normal. It has become conventional wisdom that Congressional control tends to switch somewhat frequently or that it is split between the two parties in the House and Senate. However, this phenomenon of frequent party turnover in Congress has recently been occurring starting in the early 1990’s. As the graph below shows, the Democratic Party controlled both the House and Senate from 1955-1995 save for a brief four year period from 1981-1885. Nearly 40 years of uninterrupted Congressional control!
Since 1995, Republicans have become much more competitive at the national level and have dethroned Democrats as the majority party. In the past twenty-four years, Democrats have only had unified control of Congress for four years from 2007-2011, while Republicans controlled Congress fourteen years (1995-2001, 2003-2007, and 2015-2019). This shift has weakened the liberal agenda at the national level. Whereas Democrats could reasonably push even Republican presidents to adopt some of their agenda items like environmental regulation or healthcare expansion, their major agenda items like universal healthcare and financial reform only were enacted in the brief period from 2009-2011 when they controlled Congress and the presidency.
It is not just nationally either. Democrats have seen their power corrode at the state level too. Throughout most of the 1960’s to the early 1990’s, Democrats controlled a majority of the state legislatures and governorships. This resulted in them having unified control of state power (control of both the state legislature and the governorship) in 19 states in 1978, while the GOP only had total control of four states. That number has essentially been inversed with Republicans having unified power in 24 states and Democrats only in six. This massive state and national control has shut Democrats out in a large portion of the country, which has been unsettling for a party that used to be the dominant party for decades. Consequently, Democrats have adopted a more entrenched position politically defending the social-safety net programs built during the post-war period and adopting more socially liberal positions to cater to minority interest groups not found as much in the heartland.
This siege mentality is further reinforced when it becomes evident that some Republican actors are willing to use Machiavellian means to cement their power. The two most egregious examples have been the large-scale gerrymandering by GOP state legislatures and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking the consideration of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. The Democrat Party certainly does not have clean hands when it comes to gerrymandering, but the most prolific recent efforts have been among Republican state legislatures who took advantage of the unified control of state government in 2010 to ratify state and congressional legislative maps favoring their partisans. As a result, in several swing states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, the GOP has drastically increased their share of legislator seats not commiserate with their share of the popular vote. Gerrymandering does not wholly account for the GOP’s gains in Congress and at the state level (ideological geographic sorting probably plays a larger part), but it certainly accounts for a sizeable portion of the GOP advantage. These currently legal (Supreme Court decisions pending), but unsavory practice further enrages Democrats and paints the Republican gains as illegitimate.
The second example involves another political institution Democrats view as increasingly aligned with conservative positions: the Supreme Court. Conventionally, the current Supreme Court ideological divide is seen as 5-4 in favor of conservatives. When conservative Justice Scalia died in 2016, Democrats saw it as an opportunity to tip the court in their ideological favor. GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly dashed their hopes when he put a hold on considering President Obama’s relatively moderate pick, Merrick Garland. McConnell’s unprecedented hold on a president’s Supreme Court outraged Democrats who viewed McConnell’s violation of confirmation norms as a blatant power play to preserve the Supreme Court’s conservative ideological leaning.
Favorable 2018 Congressional conditions mask the troubling political trends for Democrats. Geographic assortment results in Democrats packing themselves into urban centers, while Republicans more efficiently spread their votes in suburban and rural areas granting the GOP a slight edge in state and congressional house elections. Furthermore, as the GOP increasingly gains larger margins in rural areas, the Senate will tilt to favor a semi-permanent GOP majority as more numerous, rural states become solidly Republican. Lastly, if President Trump or his GOP successor is elected in 2020, the GOP will likely be able to appoint a couple more Supreme Court judges given that three of them are near or are older than 80 (two of whom are liberal). If this occurs, the Supreme Court could have a secure conservative majority for decades.
For Democrats and liberals, political descent encapsulates their fears. For Republicans and conservatives, it is becoming demographically displaced and culturally irrelevant. Demographically, this is due to the country becoming less white and less Christian. Let’s take the first point on racial demographic change. Over the past fifty years, the share of the white population has declined from around 82% to 61%. This pace will only accelerate and by 2045, a majority of the country will be non-white. On top of the racial change has been the growing share of the population that is foreign born. In the same fifty year period, the percentage of the American population that are immigrants rose from 5% to 14%.
Not only did the share of the foreign born population increase, but it became less white. As the graph below shows, from 1965 to 2015, the U.S. immigrant population went from 80% white to 18% white.
On top of this, since 1990, the share of the immigrant population that is undocumented rose from 18% to 26% (although it should be noted illegal immigration has been falling since 2007).
What has been the impact of increasing non-white immigration, a greater proportion of which has been illegal, and an overall decrease in the white population? Within some segments of the white population, racial anxiety. That anxiety was manifested in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and some of these anxious white voters expressed it via their support for Trump. Various studies have shown that racist and sexist attitudes were correlated with greater support for Trump and when race was made a more explicit factor for certain white voters, support for Trump increased. This does not mean all or even necessarily a majority of Trump voters are racist or racially motivated. What the studies do point to is a sizeable segment of Republicans and conservatives whose motivating factor for supporting Trump was concern about the changing racial makeup in society.
Racial anxiety is compounded by religious identity for some white Christian communities. Along with being supplanted as the dominant racial group, white Christians are no longer the dominant religious group. For the first time in American history, white Christians are no longer the majority. One of the major reasons why is the Millennial Generation is less religious than previous generations with unaffiliated or “nones” being the largest belief bloc. Consequently, the white Christian community is becoming older and losing its cultural authority among the younger generation.
This is most starkly apparent in cultural norms, the most prominent being same-sex marriage. Many Christians, conservative Christians especially, believe same-sex marriage is morally wrong. For a long time, this was the cultural norm and same-sex marriage was not socially acceptable. That has drastically changed in a comparatively brief period. As the chart below shows, in the early 2000’s, a majority of the population opposed same-sex marriage. Within 15 years, those attitudes had become inverted with a majority supporting same-sex marriage and only a third opposing it. Certainly some of the opinion change reflected attitude shifts within Christian communities, but other conservative Christian communities felt alarmed about how quickly society’s position changed on this issue.
Concern over cultural norms is now being extended towards trans-sexual issues, which further pushes the envelope on sexual mores and long-standing social categories. Some Christians feel under siege believing asserting their preference for more traditional gender categories will be met with calls of being a bigot or that their religious communities will be forced to accept changing sexual mores like conducting same-sex marriages or being unable to deny homosexual or transgender persons leadership positions within their organization.
These concurrent trends have been especially felt on the right and the Republican Party because the Republican Party has become more exclusively the party of white Christians. This was not always the case. As you can see in these charts, in the 1990’s both Republicans and Democrats were mainly white and Christian. Now, Democrats have become less white and Christian. They are increasingly drawing their support from non-religious whites and racial minority groups. Furthermore, both of these groups, non-religious whites and ethnic minorities, particularly Hispanics, are some of the fastest growing demographic groups soon supplanting whites and Christians as the majority group in the United States.
Consequently, the Republican and Democrat Party are becoming less similar and have fewer religious and ethnic bonds that transcend their political disagreements. This could be one reason why polarization has intensified as political identity becomes more salient as the political factions share fewer common traits with their opponents. These demographic party differences will only intensify and become further entrenched as President Trump’s racially charged rhetoric alienates ethnic minorities and the naked hypocrisy of evangelical value-voters overlooking Trump’s personal moral failings in order to advance their social agenda repels some younger voters from the conservative Christian community.
United Against Elites?
A cross-section of both Democrats and Republicans are grappling with another status loss: economic dislocation. Inequality has increased in the past few decades as the economic gains have accrued to the top income bracket. Consequently, the middle class has been shrinking from being slightly over 60% of the adult population in 1970 to slightly less than half today. Besides just falling as a share of the total population, the middle class’ median income and wealth has been relatively stagnant while the upper class has accrued most of the new wealth.
This trend affects both Democrats and Republicans and their collective anger was demonstrated in the 2016 election. Energizing and galvanizing, Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both tapped into an animosity towards the existing economic order which failed to produce the same shared economic prosperity as the post-WWII period. Sanders proposed a socialist wealth redistribution program, while Donald Trump offered a populist, ethno-nationalist critique of economic elites and globalization. Neither program was truly workable nor going to resolve the deep-seated economic issues confronting the U.S. Yet they were the most compelling solutions because they appeared to be uncompromising in their disdain for the financial and professional elites who disproportionately benefited in the current economy.
Does this common anger towards the current economic inequality and favoritism offer an opportunity to unite the left and the right in America? Possibly. At the very least, it can cause left and right coalitions to emerge and work constructively on certain issues where economic favoritism has entrenched itself like in finance, tech, and fossil fuel industries. Hopefully it could mean the best impulses of the left (checking corporate favoritism and making middle class investments) and the right (checking onerous regulation like occupational licensing or restrictive zoning laws) could become the animating forces of their coalitions.
I am not optimistic though. To reiterate, losses are more compelling than gains. Therefore, I believe the other status declines outlined before – political power on the left and demographic/cultural decline on the right – will remain the primary drivers in the near future. Trump’s ascendance has started to transform the Republican Party into a coalition built on ethnic and cultural grievance allied with corporate capitalists peddling spurious trickle-down economics. In response, Democrats are tempted to champion the message of normalcy, a return to the imperfect, but more stable and progressive Obama era. As political power remains harder to grasp, Democrats will probably continue to draw their support (most importantly: campaign donations) from financial, technological, media, and governmental groups who are more comfortable with Democrat’s social agenda (pro-choice, same-sex marriage, higher immigration, etc.), but will push back against reigning in their economic interests. In the Trump era, the politics of dislocation and grievance reign supreme clouding the positive opportunities for reform and renewal.