The Kaleidoscope Society

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

Ronald Brownstein
Add to Briefcase
Ronald Brownstein
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.”

What We're Following See More »
RYAN BOUNDS MADE RACIALLY INSENSITIVE REMARKS
McConnell Pulls Nomination of Circuit Court Judge
7 hours ago
THE LATEST
JUST AS SENATE VOTES ITS DISAPPROVAL
Trump Backtracks on Putin's "Incredible Offer"
7 hours ago
THE LATEST
BOLTON'S WORST NIGHTMARE
White House Planning Putin Visit To D.C.
8 hours ago
THE LATEST
HABITAT PROTECTIONS WOULD BE LIMITED
White House Seeks to Roll Back Endangered Species Rules
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS
DISPLEASED WITH RATE HIKES
Trump Throws Shade at the Fed
11 hours ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login