The GOP’s white Christian voter base is shrinking and losing power — but what will replace it?
Robert P. Jones is the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Jones has earned a reputation as a sterling pollster of religious trends in America and how they affect politics, elections and the social fabric. In 2016, his latest book, The End of White Christian America, was praised for its insights into the fears of white Christians and they flocked to Donald Trump. Alternet’s Steven Rosenfeld asked Jones what he sees since the election. (Read a book excerpt.)
Steven Rosenfeld: The last time we talked about the direction of the electorate and white Christian voters. What do you see looking back that you weren’t so sure about saying last fall?
Robert Jones: There’s nothing in the long-term trends that I outlined in the book about the decline of white Christians in the country, both their cultural power and their numbers that has changed because of this election. When you look at the election I think the most important thing to do really whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or just Joe Citizen, is to not over read this election as saying anything about the long-term trends.
Mostly I say that because it’s just worth remembering how extraordinarily close this election was. Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2 percent. In fact, there’s only two times in American history since the popular vote had been tallied that a president has lost the popular vote by that much and still won the presidency. It’s a highly unusual event. Even when you look at his electoral college victory he ranked 46th out of 58 elections that we’ve had in this country, so he’s pretty far down in terms of his margin. The victory and just also remembering that it really did come down to about 78,000 votes spread across three states.
Steven Rosenfeld: if we shift from political numbers to cultural observations, what do you see as continuing to be in play or perhaps changing?
Robert Jones: Maybe the sharpest thing I’ve been able to see since the election is how much of, even way below the level of policy, there’s a fundamental debate about who the country is and who the country is going to be. It really is that basic. It’s about American identity. I do see the two political parties in many ways reorienting themselves from a more liberal to conservative spectrum. There’s some overlap here, but I think it’s a little bit different to not just liberals and conservatives, but to a kind of pro-pluralism versus a kind of cultural monism poles, with the Republican party gravitating toward the cultural monism pole and the Democratic party embracing the cultural pluralism pole.
Then what happens is issues like immigration and the fears about Islam come front and center. What we saw in the election is these fears about cultural change, fears about particularly non-white immigrants to the country. I do think what I had right was this eclipse, the beginning of the eclipse of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant lock hold on American culture that really is slipping away. I think that’s energizing a lot of this panic.
Steven Rosenfeld: How would you describe what people are most afraid of losing? What I mean by that is people tell themselves stories all the time, whether they’re true or not. I am wondering if the fear of what white Christian America thinks it’s losing is more imagined than real.
Robert Jones: Yes. One piece of evidence that would point that direction is back in the summer we asked a question, it was on a national survey, and we asked people how much they thought new immigrants were changing their local communities and how much new immigrants were changing the country. It turns out that Republicans and Democrats don’t look that different on the local community question. I forget the exact numbers, but basically they look roughly the same on how much immigrants are changing their local communities. When you ask them how much immigrants are changing the country, despite the fact that people have just reported, Republicans and Democrats had just reported they had roughly the same experience on the local level in their actual lives, Republicans are far more likely to say that immigrants are changing the country.
I think that goes to a set of fears that aren’t exactly grounded in experience. What they report as a local experience actually aren’t that different, but they have this outside fear that somewhere beyond their local experience the country’s changing in these negative and drastic ways.
Steven Rosenfeld: Do you see these fears deepening since the election?
Robert Jones: Yeah, it’s a good question. I don’t think we know. I’m trying to think of what I would point to. There’s on the one hand, the guy who says he’s going to protect the country from all this bad stuff won the election. That would I think go toward calming these fears a bit. On the other hand, the kinds of policies that he’s put forward early in the administration, like the Muslim travel band policy and setting up this office, what’s it called, it’s got a weird name, Victims of Immigrant Violence… All the evidence we have shows that immigrants are no more likely to commit violent crimes than native born Americans. Nevertheless there’s now a complete office set up to track nothing but violent crimes committed by immigrants.
These are ways of holding that fear up in a very present way. I think on the one hand they’ve got the person made the claim he was going to protect the country from these bad influences, but on the other hand the policies he’s putting forward or the justifications are fears that aren’t based in that much evidence.
Steven Rosenfeld: We’re heading into the midterm elections when the party in power typically loses. You’ve been studying the people who are afraid of losing. Do you think they will lash out?
Robert Jones: I think that the thing to remember is that outside of elections the vast majority of Americans aren’t watching the day to day drama as much as those of us in the D.C. bubble are. I think what’s really going to matter is, for example, if Trump’s budget that he just proposed actually gets implemented, and signs are that it’s not, even Lindsey Graham has come out and said we’re not going there with the kind of cuts we’re talking about. Most of those cuts would hit the very people who are feeling these cultural anxieties, and who by the way also were hit the hardest by the recession.
Leading up to your point, people are relying on Medicaid, they rely on disability, if those kinds of things get cut and those people lose their health care … If the policies actually get concrete enough where they effect real people, I think then we’ll see a shift.
The one thing that’s clear from our data is that the vast majority of white working class people were voting for Trump as essentially a kind of lottery ticket. They weren’t exactly sold on Trump as a candidate. I would say their dominant emotion, as I read the data, was less about anger and more about desperation. Trump seemed like a little bit of a wild card, a long shot at the track.
Steven Rosenfeld: The casino candidate.
Robert Jones: I think it’s like that. That means that Trump probably gets a while to figure out whether he’s going to come through. I think as soon as some of these concrete things get down to the level of people actually losing health care insurance, people actually get dropped off Medicaid, people losing their disability, that kind of thing, I think will make a real impact. I don’t think that they’re so wedded to Trump that if they see their own lives getting worse they’d certainly be willing to pull the other lever.
Steven Rosenfeld: I lived in rural America, not just in San Francisco where I am now. There’s plenty of trauma along all races and ethnicities. You would think more people would see they’re in the same boat. Are people just so locked into skin color tribalism?
Robert Jones: I’ve been using this word tribal a lot actually to think about this. The problem is that our two political parties have gradually [split along racial lines], and essentially it’s been since the civil rights movement that the alignments that we have today are largely how the parties reacted to the Democratic party becoming the party of civil rights in the 1960s.
That’s when you had the big shift among southern whites who were long term Democrats and they began to gradually shift and mostly by Reagan’s presidency they fully shifted into the Republican camp for national politics anyway. It was largely over a white backlash to the civil rights. That’s really the beginning of the movement.
The other layer here is religion, that when you have the Christian Right in the ‘80s basically joining their wagons to this, what a lot of political scientists call the Great White Shift in the south, so that the Christian Right and the Evangelical Movement then gets wrapped up with this white flight from the Democratic party in the South.
We end up with these very powerful forces of partisanship, race, and religion all wrapped up together and all pulling the same direction. That’s a pretty powerful cocktail in terms of powerful human social sources, base religion and then partisanship, and particularly partisanship with the kind of money that gets put behind that partisan machine to reinforce those boundaries. Then it uses religion and uses race as wedges to win elections.
Yeah I think we do end up with a tribal identity that is really troubling. There’s a survey question that Stanford University asked in 1960. They ask how troubled would you be if your son or your daughter married someone of the opposite political party. In 1960, it was only 5 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats said this would bother them a lot. The last time it was asked, this is 2010, it was about a third of Democrats and half were Republicans, now say this would bother them a lot.
It’s just like so much has been loaded into partisanship. You could test your own instincts if you meet somebody new and the first first thing you find out about them is their partisanship, who they voted for in the 2016 election, most of us have already made about 20 assumptions about what we know about that person from that one piece of information.
Steven Rosenfeld: Do you see any prospect of that desperation abating or is it becoming demographic and political destiny?
Robert Jones: I worry about that. I think we need to figure out some real, just thinking as from a standpoint of what a healthy democracy looks like in my opinion, I worry that we are, without some interventions, heading into that thing where we just see well if we’re Democrat then no matter who gets put at the top of the ticket that’s our person no matter what. Same goes for Republicans. We just align everything else to line up with that. The results of that is it kind of is a really winner take all zero sum game kind of politics. That’s not really democracy. You end up with pendulum dictatorships in a way.
Steven Rosenfeld: That’s a very good way of putting it.
Robert Jones: Nobody cares about the other side and no matter who wins there’ll be some percent of the country just deeply disaffected. That’s certainly not a healthy way forward.
I do think there are some limits to this and there just may be some openings here. I think Democrats are going to certainly realize they can’t win without a bigger slice of white working class Americans than they’ve had. They could wait it out another two decades and maybe then there’ll be solid enough majorities just due to demographic change, but that’s a long time to wait it out. In the middle all kinds of bad stuff may come about.
On the Republican side though I think the clock is ticking and it’s just an untenable long- term position, if the position is again to double down on a white Christian nationalism, there just aren’t going to be enough of those voters very very soon. I’m hoping that there’ll be just some sort of demographic necessity that’s going to help both parties rethink a little bit the worst of their tribal temptations.
Steven Rosenfeld: I just wonder if we’re sinking deeper into the tribal mires. As I’m listening to you, I’m hearing all these indices of rigidity and to think otherwise would be naïve. Like Obama was a naïve hope that we’d get to a post-racial era…
Robert Jones: We’re certainly nowhere near there. The other thing I would say is I do think we are at this transition point. I do think we are at this tipping point. The percentage of foreign born Americans is up around 15 percent, which is about where it was in the early part of the 20th Century when there was a lot of anti-immigrant worry and a lot of anti-immigrant legislation passed, so that’s real. I think the other thing that’s real is that we are seeing the passing of this cultural majority that has been with the country for pretty much all it’s life. Without that I think cultural majority in place, we’re really having to rethink what holds the country together. Instead of a bunch of white Protestant saying oh yeah well you Jews, you Italians … At the end of the day you’re going to look like WASPS and that’s the expectation.
We don’t have that I think available and I think we’re on a little bit of uncharted territory. The principles have been there, that we hold ourselves together around adherence to the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and that kind of thing, that’s what holds Americans together, but I think we cheated a little bit historically. We did that with a cultural majority and we didn’t really have to lean on those principles as hard as it looked like we were leaning on them.
I think now when we can no longer rely on this unstated but very present cultural majority to shore it up, we’re really going to have back on and it’s going to be a real test to see whether do we really think we can hold a country together around a set of political principles and values that don’t rely on religion and race as the actual glue.
Steven Rosenfeld: If it’s not religion or race that’s the glue, what’s left? Economic class?
Robert Jones: It could be class. That’s fraught too, right? I wrote a recent op-ed. I was thinking a lot about Alexis de Tocqueville and G.K. Chesterton and these Europeans that came to the U.S. in late 19th Century and the early 20th Century. They came over here because they were fascinated by the fact that we were holding a country together. We weren’t depending on French ethnicity to hold the country together or being of Anglo-Saxon descent. We were, at least in principles, trying to hold things together around the Constitution. That’s why the Tocqueville and Chesterton came here were so fascinated by the American democratic experiment.
I think that they did downplay the way in which, I think this the way I would put it, that we were cheating a little bit. We were saying that [democratic structure] was the principal, but we were relying on a white Protestant maybe mixed with a little bit of deism together to hold things together. I think we’re back now to that question, like can we really do it if we’re not relying on this race and religion stuff.
Steven Rosenfeld: That is the question. We will all be looking. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.