The Kaleidoscope Society

America’s hurtling change is inverting our oldest national motto.

July 1, 2015, 4 p.m.

The Su­preme Court de­cision leg­al­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage, Pres­id­ent Obama’s wrench­ing eu­logy in Char­le­ston, and a Census Bur­eau re­port that kids of col­or for the first time now make up a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ica’s un­der-5 pop­u­la­tion all ar­rived with­in one in­delible 24-hour peri­od late last week.

Each event sent the same un­mis­tak­able mes­sage: The demo­graph­ic and cul­tur­al change re­cast­ing Amer­ica is only ac­cel­er­at­ing. Against that back­drop, the most timely ques­tion this Ju­ly 4 may be wheth­er Amer­ic­ans be­lieve we are still cap­able of achiev­ing the soar­ing stand­ard of unity cel­eb­rated in the na­tion’s found­ing motto: e pluribus un­um—out of many, one.

It was un­doubtedly easi­er to em­brace that vis­ion when the many were more alike than not. For most of our his­tory, most Amer­ic­ans have been white Prot­est­ants who ended their form­al edu­ca­tion be­fore ob­tain­ing a col­lege de­gree, and then mar­ried as adults. Un­der that broad um­brella many dif­fer­ences per­sisted. But even in­to the late 20th cen­tury, it would not have been un­reas­on­able to say those char­ac­ter­ist­ics iden­ti­fied a “typ­ic­al Amer­ic­an.”

Like a river cut­ting through rock, cur­rents of cul­tur­al, demo­graph­ic, and so­cial change have eroded those pil­lars of Amer­ic­an iden­tity over the past gen­er­a­tion. On every front, Amer­ica is mov­ing from a single com­mon ex­per­i­ence to a pan­or­ama of al­tern­at­ive ex­per­i­ences.

Con­sider re­li­gion. As re­cently as the early 1990s, about 60 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans, a sol­id ma­jor­ity, iden­ti­fied as Prot­est­ants. But sur­veys by Gal­lup and the Pew Re­search Cen­ter in­dic­ate that some­time around 2007, Prot­est­ants (who them­selves di­vide between main­line and evan­gel­ic­al de­nom­in­a­tions) fell be­low a ma­jor­ity. No re­li­gion now claims loy­alty from half of Amer­ic­ans. The fast­est grow­ing seg­ment is those who claim no re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation; they have soared from only about one-in-20 Amer­ic­ans in the early 1970s to nearly one-in-four now.

On race, Amer­ica is fol­low­ing a sim­il­ar tra­ject­ory. In 1980, non-His­pan­ic whites rep­res­en­ted about four-fifths of the pop­u­la­tion. The Census re­por­ted last week they had fallen to around 62 per­cent. The change has ad­vanced even faster among young people. The school year that just con­cluded marked the first time kids of col­or made up a ma­jor­ity of K-12 pub­lic school stu­dents na­tion­wide. The Census find­ings on the di­ver­si­fy­ing un­der-5 pop­u­la­tion point to­wards the lar­ger trans­form­a­tion loom­ing after 2040: a so­ci­ety with no ra­cial ma­jor­ity.

Amer­ica’s edu­ca­tion­al mix is di­ver­si­fy­ing too. In 1967, only one-in-10 adults had com­pleted col­lege. Now, nearly one-in-three have done so. Fam­ily life is also re­or­gan­iz­ing around new com­bin­a­tions as het­ero­sexu­al mar­riage rates slip, single par­ent­hood in­creases, and more same-sex couples form.

These changes have left the na­tion without any single dom­in­ant group. One way to meas­ure that is to con­sider Amer­ic­ans eli­gible to vote. In 1980, one group alone rep­res­en­ted nearly half of all eli­gible voters: whites who were mar­ried but lacked a col­lege de­gree. Today that group rep­res­ents few­er than one-in-four eli­gible voters, ac­cord­ing to Census data ana­lyzed by the non­par­tis­an States of Change pro­ject. And no oth­er single group is lar­ger.

In all these ways, Amer­ica is in­vert­ing the e pluribus for­mula. A na­tion­al motto that more ac­cur­ately de­scribes our mod­ern dis­ag­greg­a­tion would read: “out of one, many.” At­ti­tudes to­ward this hurt­ling change, I be­lieve, rep­res­ent the cent­ral di­vi­sion in our po­lar­ized polit­ics. Demo­crats rely on a “Co­ali­tion of Trans­form­a­tion,” built around minor­it­ies, mil­len­ni­als and so­cially-lib­er­al, col­lege-edu­cated whites (es­pe­cially wo­men) largely com­fort­able with this so­cial and ra­cial trans­form­a­tion; Re­pub­lic­ans mo­bil­ize a com­pet­ing “Co­ali­tion of Res­tor­a­tion” that re­volves around the older, blue-col­lar, rur­al, and re­li­giously-de­vout whites most un­easy with some or all of these changes.

The dis­tance between these per­spect­ives was cap­tured by the im­pas­sioned lan­guage in last week’s Su­preme Court de­cision es­tab­lish­ing the na­tion­wide right to same-sex mar­riage. Writ­ing for the ma­jor­ity, Justice An­thony Kennedy groun­ded the right to mar­riage in the Trans­form­a­tion Co­ali­tion’s core con­vic­tion that change re­freshes Amer­ica’s found­ing prin­ciples: “Changed un­der­stand­ings of mar­riage are char­ac­ter­ist­ic of a Na­tion where new di­men­sions of free­dom be­come ap­par­ent to new gen­er­a­tions.” Writ­ing for the minor­ity, Chief Justice John Roberts crys­tal­lized the Res­tor­a­tion Co­ali­tion’s core fear that un­con­strained change is tear­ing the na­tion from its moor­ings: “The Court today not only over­looks our coun­try’s en­tire his­tory and tra­di­tion but act­ively re­pu­di­ates it, pre­fer­ring to live only in the heady days of the here and now.”

From Char­le­ston to the Su­preme Court steps, so many of Amer­ica’s con­flicts raise the same ques­tion: What binds a na­tion now woven with so many dis­tinct threads? The fault lines in our di­ver­si­fy­ing so­ci­ety are ob­vi­ous. Less ap­par­ent is our con­tinu­ing con­ver­gence around shared as­pir­a­tions (that each gen­er­a­tion should live bet­ter than its pre­de­cessor) and val­ues (among them fam­ily, com­munity, and per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity). Ex­cept dur­ing the Civil War, what unites Amer­ica has al­ways been great­er than what di­vides us. The tragedy in Char­le­ston of­fers one es­pe­cially omin­ous meas­ure of the risks we face if we can’t re­mem­ber that power­ful truth. Far more than the Founders an­ti­cip­ated (and per­haps pre­ferred), we are now truly “many.” That has com­plic­ated, but only made more ur­gent, the chal­lenge of find­ing enough com­mon cause to unite this kal­eido­scope of a so­ci­ety as “one.”

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