A new analysis of American values reveals a deepening philosophical divide among voters. And this election’s outcome may offer a breaking point.
By Jared Keller
Donald Trump onstage at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Almost exactly four years ago, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter offered a dire warning to the crowd of nearly 1,300 people assembled in Concord, New Hampshire: America’s civil religion, built on an abiding devotion to Republican principles, is on the verge of collapse.
“If we know who is responsible, I have enough faith in the American people to demand performance from those responsible,” Souter said, speaking of voters and the democratic process, less than two months before Barack Obama would defeat Republican challenger Mitt Romney at the polls. “If we don’t know, we will stay away from the polls. We will not demand it. And the day will come when somebody will come forward and we and the government will in effect say: ‘Take the ball and run with it. Do what you have to do.’ That is the way democracy dies. And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”
When considered in the context of Trump’s campaign, Souter’s warning is eerily prescient (as, to her credit, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow astutely observed last week). Of course, democratic societies have always struggled to nurture republicanism; just consider Benjamin Franklin’s famous assertion that the United States would be “a Republic … if you can keep it.” But after 240 years, America’s extraordinary experience is showing signs of wavering: New data on American values suggests the 2016 campaign has forced civil society to an unprecedented breaking point.
On Tuesday, the Public Religion Research Institute released its annual survey of American values. Culled from a sample of 2,010 voters, the PRRI data paints a picture of a body politic evenly divided on whether the country has changed for the better or worse (48 percent to 51 percent) since the end of World War II, splitting Americans across ethnic, racial, religious, and sociopolitical lines.
Not surprisingly, it’s primarily white, working-class Christians who believe the U.S. has been in decline for years. They are pessimistic about a political system and remain concerned that their values are “under attack,” a finding bolstered by other polls. This can’t all be traced to economic anxiety: The election is about the future of American whiteness.
“This election has become a referendum on competing visions of America’s future,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones in a statement accompanying the report. “Donald Trump supporters are nostalgic for the 1950s, an era when white Christians in particular had more political and cultural power in the country, while Hillary Clinton supporters are leaning into — and even celebrating — the big cultural transformations the country has experienced over the last few decades.”
Conservative malaise has now transformed into a subtle rejection of republicanism.
Even as faith in American institutions remains at historic lows, white anxiety has been on the rise since the political turmoil and social liberalization of the 1960s and ’70s started chipping away at the idea of the post-war nuclear family. According to the PRRI data, some 72 percent of likely Trump voters say American society has worsened since the 1950s (compared to 70 percent of Clinton voters who say it’s improved), as do 56 percent of white Americans, mostly due to the usual socio-economic anxieties of working-class whites (65 percent hold this view compared to 56 percent of college-educated whites). It’s those relatively religious working-class whites who believe “America’s best days are behind [them],” and are deeply pessimistic about America’s financial future, the threats posed by immigrants, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Perhaps the most alarming revelation of the PRRI survey data is that conservative malaise has now transformed into a subtle rejection of republicanism. There’s obviously a marked increase in frustration with the U.S. political system: Sixty-one percent of Americans reject both political parties (up from 48 percent in 1990), and both Trump and Clinton have historically high unfavorability ratings among voters, 65 and 57 percent respectively.
That frustration has extended to the electoral system, the very lifeblood of republicanism itself. Consider that, while African Americans are generally more skeptical than whites that their votes will be counted, only a third of white, working-class Americans have confidence in the system. Additionally, 64 percent of white, working-class Americans believe elections “are controlled by those with money so it doesn’t matter if they vote,” a belief that precedes Trump’s claims of vote-rigging by several weeks. And consider that, while only 45 percent of white Americans believe the country needs an authoritarian leader (defined as someone “who will break rules because things have gotten so off track”), a majority of working-class whites are in favor of one.
The tendency toward authoritarianism among this subset of American society was documented well before Trump’s rise. In Authoritarianism and Polarizationin American Politics, political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler observed that the political philosophy undergirding far-right conservatism that evolved after the relative homogeneity of the 1950s is less about “conservative” principles (small government, free markets, etc.) and more about order.
Although their analysis was published in 2009, it feels as relevant as Souter’s 2012 warning: Authoritarianism, they write, “is fundamentally motivated by desire for order, support for authorities seen as best able to secure that order against a variety of threats to social cohesion … to stave off the chaos that often appears to be just around the corner. Emanating from such a conception is a suspicion of ideas that appear to pose a threat to such authorities and of groups that may, by their very nature, unravel the social fabric.” Trump’s ostracization of immigrants and Muslims, his demonization of the “rigged” media and elections, and his law-and-order battle cry of “I alone can fix it” aren’t just brilliant rhetoric—they’re the stuff of democratic nightmares.
This isn’t to say that there’s an apocalyptic, democracy-ending civil war brewing between a faction of conservative Trump supporters and the rest of the country (as some worrywarts in Washington, D.C., might have you believe). But the sociopolitical malaise that Trump has summoned certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy.
The conservative exploitation of Tea Party anxiety after Obama’s election in 2008 and Trump’s utilization of white anxiety in 2016 may have fanned the flames, but the authoritarian sickness has been festering among working-class whites for decades.
The best response to civic ignorance, Souter said in 2012, was to engender a knowledge of (and respect for) republicanism beyond the cheerleader-like patriotism that accompanies fear and panic. “What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible,” he said in Concord. “And when the problems get bad enough … some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’”
It’s the right proposition, but it’s likely too late. Consider that a 2012 Xavier University study showed that two out of three Americans who take a citizenship test offered to immigrants fail (some 97.5 percent of the immigrants applying pass). And, in an age of fact-free governance and campaigning, where Trump can construct an entire universe of falsehoods and lies and sacrifice long-term civic solidarity in favor of short-term profit, it may be a bit too late for civics.
An armed revolution will not come to the U.S. anytime soon. But if Franklin’s (and Souter’s) biggest fear was that Americans would voluntarily surrender their liberty, the PRRI’s report shows that a growing bloc of voters are increasingly ready to do just that.