Even more depressing is what happens when you explore the identity division through the lens of demography. That means especially confronting race, and looking at what happens to identity as society’s racial composition changes. One research project asked white college students about race, and then primed them to think about white privilege. That led them to express more racial resentment, not less. Klein adds: “The simplest way to activate someone’s identity is to threaten it, to tell them they don’t deserve what they have, to make them consider that it might be taken away. The experience of losing status — and being told your loss of status is part of society’s march to justice — is itself radicalizing.”
The political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck demonstrated that in the 2016 campaign, racial resentment activated economic anxiety, not the other way around, and that the relationship between the two can be surprising. When Barack Obama was president, as the economy picked up steam, Democrats grew more optimistic and Republicans more pessimistic, but as soon as Trump won, the numbers flipped, despite the fact that economic indicators did not. And Tesler has shown that now the most racially resentful whites are the most optimistic about the economy.
The reinforcement of identities means that white liberal Democrats are “less likely than African-Americans to say that black people should be able to get ahead without any special help.” As the journalist Matthew Yglesias notes, “Democrats themselves have moved the goal posts in terms of what kind of racial views one is expected to affirm as a good liberal.” And as Democrats have moved left on race, Republicans have veered sharply right. Looking ahead, to win elections, Democrats will need their diverse coalition, meaning they will have to be even more explicit about racial and gender justice and equality, but Republicans will need to be even more responsive to a largely white coalition.
Klein makes clear, drawing in part on my work with Thomas E. Mann (which, in full disclosure, he praises), that the parties have reacted to, and weathered, the drive toward polarization in different ways. By doubling and tripling down on a more homogeneous group, Republicans have become more cultlike and resistant to compromise or moderation; Democrats, in contrast, have “an immune system of diversity and democracy.” Klein says that “if polarization has given the Democratic Party the flu, the Republican Party has caught pneumonia.”
Justin Amash, the libertarian House member, told Vox before he left the Republican Party to become an independent, “I get a lot of reactions now from Trump supporters saying, ‘Who cares how big the government is,’ or ‘Who cares how much we’re spending as long as we’re fighting against illegal immigration and pushing back against the left.’”
For those who think demography is destiny, Klein has an answer, and it is an unsettling one. Baked into the political system devised by our framers is an increasing bias toward geography and away from people. As the country grows more diverse, the representation and power in our politics will grow even less reflective of that dynamism. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 of our 50 states, and 50 percent will live in just 8 states. The Electoral College will be less responsive to the popular vote, and we will likely have more elections where the winner of the popular vote loses the presidency — and it could be by five million or six million or seven million votes, not the 500,000 margin for Al Gore in 2000 or the three-million margin for Hillary Clinton against Trump.
Thirty percent of Americans will elect 70 of the 100 senators. At some point, the fundamental legitimacy of the system will be challenged. And all of this is without considering the thumb on the scales provided by a Supreme Court that has turned a blind eye to racial discrimination, voter suppression and outrageous partisan gerrymandering.