Skip to main content
Two secret service agents, a man and a woman, talk in front of a large American flag.
FixGov

How rising polarization will challenge the next president

While most political observers are focused on the ups and downs of the presidential race, it’s not too early to think about the condition of our politics once it ends. There is no evidence that the campaign will do anything to reduce the partisan polarization that has blocked progress on vital national problems. On the contrary, it seems likely to deepen the crisis of governance that has hobbled the United States for much too long.

There are three reasons to fear the worst. In the first place, the campaign has done little to help voters understand the real choices we face, especially in the economic sphere. The recovery from the Great Recession has been achingly slow, wages have barely budged, many working-age Americans remain outside the labor force, and productivity—the key to higher living standards—has declined for three consecutive quarters. Slamming the door on immigration won’t cure these ills, and neither will protectionism. Policies such as paid family leave will help at the margin but leave the core of the problem untouched. The president-elect will not enter the transition with an economic mandate and will have to create one virtually from scratch.

Second, challenges to the legitimacy of elections and candidacies have disfigured our politics for the past four presidential elections, a trend that may well continue into 2017 and beyond. In the wake of the botched vote count in Florida and the Supreme Court’s controversial Bush v. Gore decision, many Democrats never accepted the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s inauguration. In 2008 and beyond, conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace convinced many Americans that he was not an American citizens and was therefore ineligible to serve as president. This year’s Republican nominee, a principal proponent of these theories, has repeatedly warned his supporters that the election may be “rigged.” If he loses by a relatively narrow margin, there is a real danger that he may question the outcome and give his supporters additional reasons to reject the winner’s legitimacy.

Third, and most fundamentally, the 2016 campaign has further divided Americans along demographic lines, according to a just-released report from the Pew Research Center. Among whites, men are 10 percentage points more likely to identify as Republicans than they were in 2008; individuals over 50 are 13 points more likely; whites with a high school education or less, 14 points more likely. Because white women haven’t shifted nearly as much, the gender gap among whites has widened significantly.

Racial and ethnic differences between the parties also have widened since 2008. When Barack Obama first ran for president, whites formed 88 percent of the Republican electorate and 64 percent of Democrats, a 24-point gap. This year, the gap has expanded to 29 points, as the white share of Democrats fell by 7 points while white Republicans declined only marginally.

Although the electorate as a whole is getting older, the impact of this shift on the two political parties has been very different. In 2008, Americans ages 50 and over constituted 46 percent of the electorate, a figure that rose 5 points to 51 percent this year. During this period, the share of Republicans 50 and over grew by fully 11 points, from 47 to 58 percent, while the Democrats’ 50 and over share grew by only 3 points, from 45 to 48 percent.

Changes in levels of education display the same asymmetry. Since 2008, the share of voters with BAs or more remained virtually steady, rising by a single point from 32 to 33 percent. Among Republicans, it fell by 3 points while among Democrats it rose by 5 points. Eight years ago, Republicans were more likely to be college educated than Democrats, while today the reverse is the case. Conversely, eight years ago Democrats were more likely than Republicans to have a high school education or less; now Republicans are more likely to occupy the lowest-educated stratum of the electorate.

A longer historical view underscores the significance of this shift. When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, voters with less than a high school education constituted 50 percent of the electorate—55 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans. This year, as Hillary Clinton vies with Donald Trump to succeed President Obama, the share of voters with at most a high school education has fallen by 17 points to only 33 percent. But among Democrats it has fallen by 23 points, compared to 11 points for Republicans. In 1992, Democrats were substantially more likely than Republicans to have only a high school education, but now Republicans have a modest edge in this category.

When we focus on white Americans, this change is even more pronounced. In 1992, whites with less than a BA made up fully 63 percent of the electorate, compared to 45 percent today. Among Republicans, their share has declined from 67 to 58 percent. Among Democrats, it has fallen by almost half from 59 to only 32 percent. In the early 1990’s, whites without college degrees were predominant in both political parties, while today that is true only for Democrats. Conversely, whites with college degrees were more likely to be Republicans than Democrats back then, but now the reverse is true.

Otherwise put, in 1992, Democrats had a 9-point edge, 50 to 41 percent, among whites with a high school degree or less. Now, Republicans hold a massive 21-point lead, 57 to 36 percent, in this category. Meanwhile, the 11-point edge Republicans once enjoyed among college-educated whites has disappeared.

Summing up, Democrats are becoming the party of minorities and college-educated whites while Republicans are becoming the party of whites with lower levels of education. These two coalitions have fundamental differences of outlook and interest. The Democratic coalition welcomes diversity, believes that the present is better than the past and that the future will be even better. The Republican coalition regards increasing diversity as a threat, sees a marked decline in their quality of life since the 1950’s, and views the future with pessimism. These are differences of kind, not degree, and they create a gap that the winner of the 2016 presidential election will find it hard to narrow unless he or she focuses on an agenda of national reconciliation starting or Day 1 of the transition.

Author

Get daily updates from Brookings