It’s much harder to spot absences than presences. Presences can jump out and smack you in the face. Absences just lurk until they startle you.
Right now, we’re looking at an absence that would have been a startling presence 50 years ago. With all the focus on economic issues in the U.S. presidential race, there’s hardly any talk about the fact that, for the first time, none of the leading presidential and vice-presidential candidates is a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has no WASPs. These are new phenomena in the United States.
The totally non-WASP tickets signify major political and social shifts in the networked age. As Robert Putnam showed a decade ago in Bowling Alone, organized groups such as churches, political clubs, fraternal clubs and Scouts have declined in importance. People have moved sharply away from traditional, tightly knit groups into more loosely knit networks that have fewer clan boundaries and more tolerance. The rise of the Internet and mobile connectivity has pushed the trend along by allowing people to expand the number and variety of their social ties.
The tech-enabled change from tight groups to looser networks has produced three dynamics that break down traditional, tribal insularities.
The first is that the Internet revolution has de-emphasized the groups people belong to and emphasized their shared interactions and opinions. And with cellphones and computers, they have perpetual access to these new networks.
The second is that it’s harder to see someone as “the other” if they’re part of your extended cadre of friends, acquaintances and social media followers. There are a number of studies showing that a strong predictor of personal tolerance is having a friend from a different race or ethnic group, or someone with different sexual orientation.
The third is the way in which new ideas spread in networks. Innovation and new ideas pass virally through networks, leaping over once-rigid boundaries with the click of a mouse and the swipe of a finger.
Those dynamics help explain key changes in public attitudes that have produced the first non-WASP U.S. election. In 1955, sociologist Will Herberg showed how white America was rigidly divided in Protestant, Catholic, Jew. Indeed, one of the authors of this article was barred from college fraternities because he was Jewish.
Now, when Chelsea Clinton marries, no one remarks on the kippa on her husband’s head. This year, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that 81 per cent of those who know Republican Mitt Romney is a Mormon are either comfortable with his affiliation or say it doesn’t matter to them.
If people don’t organize by tight group affiliations any more, how do they arrange themselves? The networked way is the DIY way. People customize their beliefs, relationships and practices to their circumstances and to get needs met by their looser networks.
For example, in politics, more Americans now identify as independent (38 per cent, as of late July) than Democrat (33 per cent) or Republican (25 per cent), according to Pew Research data. In religion, DIY networks have produced churn in church affiliations. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that 44 per cent of Americans have switched religions or denominations since childhood, giving up what had been lifelong memberships and boundaries for their parents and grandparents. Those who identify as “unaffiliated” constitute nearly 20 per cent of adults, putting them on par with or even ahead of the combined membership of mainline Protestant churches.
In racial and ethnic matters, there has been a notable rise in intermarriage. In 2008, 15 per cent of new U.S. marriages were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In the 2010 census, more than 28 million people reported that their race was “two or more” or “some other race” besides the main ones.
In this networked society, people are less concerned about the candidates’ old boundaries – their race, ethnicity, social pedigree and church – and more about their policy positions and values. The first totally non-WASP election is a signpost of the new political and social realities in networked America.
Barry Wellman is S.D. Clark Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Lee Rainie is director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. They are the authors of Networked: The New Social Operating System.