The Death of Community and the Rise of Trump

What does a decreasing attachment to religious and civic institutions in white, working-class America mean for the country's political future?

“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.”

 

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.

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