In one of the most incisive pieces of post-election pop culture so far, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live school an election night party full of blithely ignorant white liberals on the deep, persistent currents of American racism.
“Because of changing demographics, there might never be another Republican president in this country,” cast member Beck Bennett says in the sketch.
Chappelle glares at him, dumbfounded. “Word?” he says. “You ever been around this country before?”
The gag of course is the fact that, as a black man, Chappelle has seen the country at its ugliest, its least inclusive, so he can understand how a candidate like Donald Trump, with his hardline stance on immigration and tough-on-crime policies, might just succeed. Bennett’s character is still living in his white liberal bubble.
And yet it’s not a bubble formed entirely by delusions. Even as the Electoral College votes today to make Trump president, the United States is becoming more liberal. Just look at the data.
Over the eight years Barack Obama has served as president, public opinion in the United States has shifted decisively leftward. Think about it. When Obama came to office, he still hadn’t publicly supported same sex marriage. Last year, the White House was lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Over the last year, bottom line-driven businesses have boycotted entire states over discriminatory policies against LGBT people. A law prohibiting transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice just cost North Carolina’s Pat McCrory the governorship. Undocumented immigrants have come out of hiding, banding together online to discuss their struggles. And in November, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all voted to make recreational marijuana legal.
So if left is quickly becoming the new center, how did Trump win? Some, including Trump’s own team, have chalked up his victory to an economic message that resonated with white, working class voters dismayed about the economy. But exit polls reveal Clinton actually won among voters whose top issue was the economy, and Trump’s own approach–curbing free trade chief among them–had more in common with Bernie Sanders than GOP orthodoxy. Another theory for Trump’s victory, one held by the dejected partygoers in the sketch, attributes his win to a far-right racist uprising.
But according to Paul Taylor, author of the book The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, Trump’s election is less a sign of some new ideological shift as it is a backlash to a massive, leftward shift that is already underway. “The overall drift is toward more liberal views on a range of issues, but that doesn’t mean the whole country’s buying in,” he says.
To be sure, Trump’s election feels like a referendum on a lot of things: the ruling class, Washington gridlock, the Clintons. But it is also, just as crucially, a referendum on the lightning speed at which public opinion about a range of controversial social issues has shifted in recent years. It’s a rebuke of “political correctness,” a shorthand in Trump circles for what is, in reality, an increasing societal acceptance of a diversity of races, genders, religions, and sexualities.
“We’re seeing a kind of primal scream of, ‘No, our society cannot change in exactly the ways it has been changing,'” says Nell Irvin Painter, a historian at Princeton University and author of the book The History of White People.
But while the backlash helped president-elect Trump win, it may not be enough to help him lead. Not only did he lose the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, but dig into the data, and you’ll see Trump has inherited a country where the majority of the people increasingly reject his views on everything from the border wall to climate change to gun control.
Fueled by the huge millennial generation, an influx of immigrants, and increases to educational attainment, the US at large is becoming more inclusive and accepting of ideas that would have been utterly taboo not too long ago. Trump’s election may represent the resistance of those who fear this left-leaning future, but it won’t change that future from coming to pass.
“That idea didn’t win the day on November 8th,” says Taylor of this drift toward inclusivity, “but it’s going to win the day more broadly in the culture.”
A National Makeover
The country is currently in the midst of what Taylor calls a “racial makeover.” Latinos accounted for more than half the country’s population growth between 2000 and 2014, according to Pew Research. This demographic shift is having far-reaching effects on voting patterns. Since 2012, the country’s white voting-age population, which tends to vote Republican, has proportionally grown the least among major groups. The Hispanic voting-age population, which tends to vote Democratic, has expanded the most.
The Republican party acknowledged this change when it drafted its so-called “autopsy report” after Mitt Romney lost to President Obama in 2012. “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity,” the report said. As a candidate, Trump essentially did the opposite, announcing his plans to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and accusing Mexico of sending rapists and criminals over the border in his very first campaign speech. Trump won the election despite this rhetoric, but given his popular vote deficit of nearly 3 million, alienating the country’s fastest-growing voting bloc seems like an untenable long-term strategy.
It wasn’t just minority voters the Republican party saw it had to please back in 2012, however. Millennial voters have now surpassed baby boomers as the largest generation. “If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out,” the report said.
But these two target audiences overlap substantially. According to the most recent Census, 44.2 percent of millennials are minorities, making it a more diverse generation than any one before it. It is also more liberal. Beginning in 2004, when older millennials first became eligible to vote, the political divide between older and younger voters vote has widened. That trend continued this year: Exit polls showed 55 percent of voters 18 to 29 supported Clinton, while just 45 percent of voters 65 and over did the same.
That gap has coincided with increases in educational attainment in the US. Since 2004, the number of people with a college degree or more who consider themselves Republicans has steadily dwindled.
This education gap may have something to do with the long tail of desegregation on college campuses, Painter says. Where once white males dominated these institutions, a college degree didn’t exactly offer much in the way of exposure to diverse people and ideas. Today, colleges are increasingly becoming more diverse, and students are more likely to meet and learn from people who are not like them, thereby becoming more inclusive and accepting of progressive ideals over time. Painter says as a black female academic, she’s evidence of this trend. “My work is part of what the 20th century collegiate education takes for granted,” Painter says.
An Immigrant-Inclusive Society
The country’s changing, diversifying demographics have precipitated a leftward tilt–a tilt evident in voters’ changing views on a range of issues. Trump dominated the vote among people who said immigration was their top concern, according to exit polls. And yet, across the country as a whole, views about immigrants are in fact becoming more accepting.
Slightly more people still say immigration hurts American workers than helps. But the helps/hurts ratio has changed dramatically over the past decade.
The vast majority of Americans believe undocumented immigrants should have a path to citizenship, according to a Gallup poll. Pew, meanwhile, has found that 74 percent of American voters believe there should be a way for immigrants to stay in the country legally.
And while most Republicans favor a border wall, far more Democrats oppose it, Pew found. The country overall opposes a border wall by a substantial majority–61 percent to 36 percent in Pew’s survey.
Embracing Background Checks
Gun control wasn’t the most widely debated issue during the general election campaign. But Trump made his positions clear, saying he is categorically against gun control. As a candidate, Trump said he wants to make concealed carry permits valid in every state and called gun-free zones “a catastrophe.” Yet research shows that the majority of American voters–including the vast majority of Trump voters–support at least some forms of gun control.
Though he’s expressed no interest in expanding background checks, the president-elect has spoken with the National Rifle Association about banning people on the terror watch list from buying guns, a policy that recently failed in the House of Representatives after Democrats staged a sit-in to force a vote.
Concern About the Climate
Trump’s now-famous assertion that climate change is “a hoax” is also utterly incongruous with changing public opinion.
Concern about global warming fluctuates, but it’s increased during President Obama’s time in office. This year, climate change worries hit an eight-year high with 64 percent of Americans expressing great or moderate concern. They’re not buying Trump’s argument that the Chinese are behind this global warming myth, either. In 2016, the number of people who believe climate change is man-made hit a 16-year high.
Since the election, the president-elect has sent mixed messages about what he plans to do about this issue. In early December, climate crusader Al Gore met with Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, to discuss climate action. At the same time, Trump has picked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who sued the Obama administration over its emissions regulations, to serve as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Widespread Support for LGBT Issues
Perhaps the swiftest changes in public opinion have taken place in the realm of LGBT issues. Over the last eight years, the number of people who believe same-sex marriage should be valid has jumped 20 points. Over the last 20 years, it’s doubled.
For his part, Trump has said that the issue of same-sex marriage is “settled” and hasn’t expressed much interest in overturning the Supreme Court’s decision. That’s in sharp contrast to his expressed desire to see the court overturn its earlier decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade.
Meanwhile, the president-elect may be misreading where Americans stand on so-called religious freedom laws that allow businesses to cite their religion to avoid doing business with LGBT customers. Vice president-elect Mike Pence was one of several governors last year who signed such bills into law. (Indiana later amended its law under pressure from business leaders led by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.) And Trump himself has said he would sign the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, which would prohibit the federal government from punishing people who discriminate against LGBT people on religious grounds. Polls indicate that the majority of voters oppose such laws that many of them see as enabling discrimination.
Marijuana: Not Just For Hippies
Marijuana is now legal in some form or another in more than half the states in the country–clear evidence of how quickly public opinion has changed on pot. Since 2006, the number of people who believe marijuana should be legalized has nearly doubled. This change coincides with the Obama administration’s decision not to prioritize enforcing federal laws banning the drug in states that have legalized it. Yet Trump has appointed senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), an anti-marijuana hardliner, as his attorney general, casting doubt on the future of legalization despite ample citizen support.
These issues aren’t the only ones on which American public opinion has shifted to the left. Nor is the shift comprehensive. (See Dave Chapelle above.) But Trump may face more opposition than he expects–including from Republicans–if he attempts to enact a truly far-right agenda. He may have won, but his victory doesn’t mean the whole country has moved radically right.
At the same time, his victory offers a lesson for liberals: sometimes, when you bend so far, you’re bound to break.