Historic demographic change and a crisis of entitlement are at the heart of divided America
The divisions in the United States are caused by rapid demographic changes and associated pronounced alterations of cultural identity within a single lifetime. As an historic white majority transitions to the minority, the resulting culture war is further enflamed by a rise of individualistic personality traits over recent decades. Dennis Shen discusses said two changes within America – in its demographic composition and its social psychology – since the Second World War and how, together, the developments challenge long-run governability.
In President Ronald Reagan’s indelible words, America is the ‘shining city on a hill’ of the post-Second World War era. But America’s successes planted seeds of the nation’s current tribulations. As a consequence of America becoming the hegemon and most-desirable migration destination globally following the Second World War, there have been fundamental changes of the nation’s demographics since the past half century to a degree no large, wealthy democracy has endured, with an historically dominant ethnic group at this stage transitioning speedily to becoming the political minority. This has brought a contemporary competition for the nation’s soul – undermining the sense of shared purpose crucial in the nation’s earlier success.
As a consequence of America becoming the hegemon and most-desirable migration destination globally following the Second World War, there have been fundamental changes of the nation’s demographics since the past half century to a degree no large, wealthy democracy has endured, with an historically dominant ethnic group at this stage transitioning speedily to becoming the political minority.
While it is commonly supposed America is “a nation of immigrants”, the United States’ earlier history of successes derived not from an international melting pot but a nation originally of mainly European migrants. As of 1960, 84% of the foreign-born population of America arrived from either Europe or Canada. Divisions between such groups of European ancestry formed the cleavages of early America but eased as generations passed and language and cultural disparities eroded. By the 1960 census, nearly 90% of Americans self-identified under a generalized “white, Caucasian” majority.
Changes occurred following 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson adopted the Immigration and Nationality Act that year, abolishing the National Origins Formula – which was previously, to preserve racial homogeneity, the basis of American migration policy with preferences dating to the 1920s favoring migration from northern and western Europe. The 1965 reform – partly responding to international and domestic pressures for America to lead by example – removed de facto discrimination against southern and eastern Europeans, Asian migrants, as well as other non-northern Europeans.
Based on the immigration since and lesser fertility rates of the white majority (the 2010s represented the first decade since 1790 during which the white majority registered absolute losses), America underwent large-scale demographic change. Unlike earlier phases of migration from western Europe (arrivals vis-à-vis a romanticized image of Ellis Island), new-age migration arrived from varying corners of the Global South and represented a fundamentally more diverse complexion. What was once a nearly 90% white, Caucasian American society as of 1960 – a composition that had stayed roughly unchanged across the century beforehand – transformed rapidly to 57.8% white, Caucasian by 2020. In 2019, for the first time, more than half of the population under an age of 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. By the 2040s, the white Caucasian majority is expected to already be on aggregate an ethnic minority – a seismic shift within span of a single lifetime.
The rapidity and scale of racial changes is the origin of today’s social strains
The historic scale of ethnic changes has divided the nation (Figure 1). A cross-section of older Americans, who in their youth advocated for immigration and Civil Rights reform during the 1960s and 70s “hippie” movement when the country’s white, Christian identity was unchallenged, have, decades later, swung their personal opinions radically to the right – advocating for an opposite Trumpian policy, voicing a desire for a return to the white America of their early lives.
Today’s social rifts – cancel culture, the national anthem, the flag, Me Too – can be understood as attempts at reconciliation of an earlier understanding of national identity with what this identity is becoming. For many Americans of European descent, there is an existential crisis and a seeming loss of control of the country of one’s forefathers. In the 2016 elections, white working-class voters who argued discrimination against whites as being a serious problem, or who answered they believed they are strangers in their own country, were nearly twice as likely to vote for Donald J. Trump as those who did not. Two thirds of voters for Trump agreed “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline”.
Figure 1 – percentage of total population, white; Senate cloture motions filed (a proxy of political polarization)
White population figures incorporate Latino white Americans, source: U.S. Census Bureau. *Senate cloture motions are by two-year congressional periods: e.g., 2020 represents the 117th Congress (2019-20), 2010 the 111th Congress (2009-10), etc., source: United States Senate
A crisis of entitlement impedes resolution of the divides
The historic challenge of tackling America’s crisis of identity is more intractable due to changes of the nation’s social psychology. As I argued previously for the London School of Economics, an increasing society-wide self-centeredness further deriving from the nation’s past success and decades of comparative economic and political stability inhibits the resolution of today’s challenges requiring presently shared sacrifice. A more heterogenous but more entitled public fuels and inflames current disparities of opinion such as around race, culture and history rather than seeking to identify necessary common ground.
A more heterogenous but more entitled public fuels and inflames current disparities of opinion such as around race, culture and history rather than seeking to identify necessary common ground.
A nationwide data set displayed twice as many American college students answering a majority of questions in a narcissistic direction by 2009 compared with in 1982. One study comparing teenagers observed while only 12% of those aged 14-16 in the early 1950s agreed with a statement that “I am an important person”, 77% of boys and more than 80% of girls of the same cohort by 1989 agreed with the same statement. This exaggerated sense of self-value accelerated during the 1990s and since the turn of the millennium. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found nearly 10% of those in their twenties had experienced symptoms of clinical narcissism personality disorder, while only around 3% of persons above age sixty-five had experienced symptoms such as this.
The crisis of entitlement and exaggerated individualism undermines institutions binding society, linking to shallow values and materiality, as well as to lesser empathy and concern for and understanding of others. This impairs the long-run, collective decision-making required for compromise across a more diverse public.
Healing the divided country
Ironically, America’s crisis derives from the nation’s historical successes – the ethnic change alongside a more-vain public have advanced as products of the nation’s prosperity.
Under a more ethnically diverse body politic, “hunkering down” as referred to by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam – through less societal solidarity and trust, and lesser faith in community – is typical. Nevertheless, history does present examples of societies undergoing such majority-minority transitions in which society eventually reconciled a fresh understanding of identity. Such reconciliation is possible especially were government to support a process of broadening conceptions of identity beyond race and promote peaceful co-existence.
To reach such a fresh concept of the American patchwork, today’s diverse society would need to better understand each other, expand the notion of tribe but also respect the history of America. Groups – whether a rising minority or a declining majority – must alike be protected and not be made to feel threatened by changes.
Healing a divided country could reintroduce the strong nation and symbol of hope the US can again represent – but this contemporary crisis may present the most intractable set of circumstances the nation has yet faced.
About the author
Dennis Shen, CFA is a Senior Director of sovereign ratings based in Berlin, Germany. Dennis was previously a global economist with AllianceBernstein based in London and New York. He graduated from the MPA in International Development from the London School of Economics, and completed undergraduate studies at Cornell University.