THE GREAT DIVIDE

03.10.14

Demographics Or Destiny in 2016

Cultural divides, from demographics to religion, will contribute to widening the gap between party lines.

Millennials are embracing big government like no prior generation, the United States is moving away from organized religion, and older white evangelicals are yearning for yesteryear. The country grows more diverse, more tribal, and more embattled.  So, prepare for continued cultural warfare in the guise of political gridlock.

Faced with these changes, Democrats have aligned their rhetoric with emerging reality, while Republicans have generally clung to their vision of Arcadia—and have lost five of the last six presidential elections in the process.  At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Republican pooh-bahs unintentionally reminded America that the GOP has a way to go in reaching beyond the party’s base, while doing a poor job at that. Right now, the GOP isn’t where younger Americans are, and for the most part CPAC’s speakers were preaching to the converted, offering little that was tangible to the Republican rank-and-file, let alone the under 35 crowd or minorities.

Take embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who sounded like Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) redux. Christie recycled Ryan’s take on entitlements, and called for raising the retirement age, and limiting cost-of living adjustments. But here’s the thing: The Republican base is the main beneficiary of Social Security and Medicare. As Congressman Ryan can testify from personal experience, the GOP lost Florida in 2012.  Indeed, even Barack Obama learned his lesson, and dropped last year’s proposal for “chained CPI” from the current budget.

Younger Americans expect activist government, but less than half of them consider themselves patriotic.

Then there’s former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who told the crowd, “If this nation forgets our God, then God will have every right to forget us.” Sounding more like a minister than a politician, Huckabee advised America to “repent before we ever have to receive His fiery judgment.”

True, white evangelicals are the majority of Republican presidential primary voters, and more than seven-in-10 white evangelicals “believe that the current cultural landscape is worse than it was in the 1950s,” according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Still, the numbers say that Americans are more willing to roll the dice on their souls, as Church and Synagogue continue to lose their allure and grip. 

The bottom line is that Americans are walking away from religion. Nowadays, less than a majority of Americans view the clergy as ethical or honest. Mainline Protestant denominations are in marked decline and Evangelical Christianity is in slow retrograde.  Meanwhile, the percentage of white Catholics continues to drop, and Jewish affiliation stagnates. In contrast, religious “nones” are a rising political force, and are at home within the Democratic Party.

As for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), sometime bomb-thrower and distant runner-up at CPAC’s straw poll to fellow freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), he made embracing “principle” the keystone of his vision. Cruz dug into failed Republican nominees Bob Dole (1996), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012).  According to Cruz, “Those are good men, those are decent men—but when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”

One problem for Cruz: The country has grown ever less enamored with Republican principles, at least with Cruz’s take on principles. To most Americans, last fall’s Cruz-driven government shutdown looked like senseless grandstanding by a publicity hungry junior senator. Oh and then there’s Cruz, continuing to be a dual national, after pledging to drop his Canadian citizenship last summer. Principles, eh?

And of course, CPAC wouldn’t be a party without Newt Gingrich, baby-boomer par excellence and former House Speaker.  For his part, Gingrich labeled Hillary Clinton “the leading prison guard of the past, propping up every failed bureaucratic institution.” The Clintons are probably quaking by now.

To be sure, all was not lost at CPAC. Rand Paul delivered a speech that may yet transcend party and generation. He lambasted the NSA for its over-zealous data grabs, and its unrestrained eavesdropping on average Americans. In Paul’s words: “As our voices rise in protest, the NSA monitors your every phone call. If you have a cell phone, you are under surveillance. I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business.”

Paul can potentially best appeal to younger voters when it comes to civil liberties. Pew reports that those under 30 “stand out for their broad concern over civil liberties,” and believe by a two-to-one margin that government may have over-stepped its bounds in the name of fighting terrorism.

Of course, regaining the youth vote is a hard sell for the GOP, regardless of who its 2016 nominee will be. The last time younger voters went Republican was in 1988.  Since 1992, voters under 30 have cast their ballots for Democrats in six consecutive elections.

Then there’s the diversity thing—younger Americans are ethnically more diverse, and socially more tolerant.  Non-Hispanic whites are only 61 percent of the “selfie-generation,”  whose members are more likely to describe themselves as supporters of gay rights than as patriotic, religious, or even as environmentally sympathetic. 

All of that poses a problem for the Republican Party, but it is also a problem for the U.S.  Yes, the U.S.

Younger Americans expect activist government, but less than half of them consider themselves patriotic—in stark contrast to baby-boomers (75 percent), older seniors (81 percent) and even Generation X (64 percent).  And that’s a far cry from the late John F. Kennedy’s “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Expect the culture wars to continue.