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If you wanted to explain America, which story would you tell: That of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen shot dead by a man who hasn't been charged with any crime and whose motive may have been nothing more than the victim's skin colour and hooded sweatshirt? Or that of the "hoodie" protest movement in which citizens and politicians don the victim's garment and speak out against the state's permissive gun and self-defence laws?

Is the U.S. nowadays a country of angry gun nuts or of people fighting for racial tolerance?

Is America the country of Rick Santorum, the Republican presidential candidate who believes the Enlightenment was a mistake and public schooling is wrong? Or is it the country where nine states have voted to remove barriers to same-sex marriage since 2004?

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We tend to focus on the dark side, because it fits the popular image of the place as perpetually different and aggressive, and also because it happens to be more entertaining. During the half decade before 2008, I watched European newspapers cover the U.S. by sending a reporter to Mississippi or Texas every few months to write about the latest ultra-conservative movement, shooting rampage, death-row drama or racist outrage.

When a majority of Americans voted to elect Barack Obama that year, the foreign media were stuck without an explanation: It didn't match any of the stories they'd been telling, and they were momentarily struck dumb. Something else must have been happening to Americans all those years, unnoticed.

What has happened is that Americans have become more politically progressive. We haven't noticed, because the U.S. electoral system doesn't reflect the changing views of the population. But there has been a steady shift over the past 50 years, accelerating during the past decade, toward racial and sexual tolerance, acceptance of equal roles for women, religious minorities and immigrants, and support for social liberalism.

Political scientist Ruy Teixeira has devoted his career to chronicling this shift. As he has noted in dozens of books and studies, the U.S. population structure is changing in ways that shift political attitudes sharply.

A generation and a half ago, the crucial voters and quintessential American voices were white, working class and had a high-school diploma or less. They lived in the country or the suburbs, which were conservative.

That has changed dramatically. In 1960, six out of 10 Americans were high-school dropouts; that's fallen to 14 per cent, while the percentage with university or college education has risen from 5 per cent to 54 per cent. Blue-collar workers, who were key to the Republicans' "southern strategy" of attracting racially polarized whites, have gone from being a majority of employed people to representing only 23 per cent of the work force.

Even more important, in terms of tolerance, is the colour of Americans. The U.S. racial and ethnic-minority population has grown by 30 per cent in the past decade, so that almost four in 10 Americans, and 28 per cent of voters, are non-white, the largest group being offspring of Latino immigrants. A quarter of them vote for Republicans (and even more would vote for a Republican who didn't bait immigrants), and virtually all, obviously, favour racial equality.

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And "family values" are changing fast, because the nature of U.S. families is changing fast. About a third of American adult women were unmarried in 1970; nowadays, it's half. This means that women in non-traditional families now make up a quarter of eligible voters, a group the same size as evangelical Christians. They tend to support other non-traditional groups.

Immigrants to the U.S. now arrive predominantly in the suburbs, turning them into places of racial and religious diversity – and those "ethnoburbs" are experiencing the fastest population growth in America. States that were once strictly white, like Colorado, are now very racially mixed.

Mr. Teixeira (and co-author John Judis) first drew attention to this trend a decade ago in The Emerging Democratic Majority, a book I kept on my shelf for a number of years as a mild joke. The reason why the prognostication in its title didn't come true for six years – and why a Republican could still win the presidency this year – is because U.S. leaders are not elected by the population, but by the states. The loud and intolerant are increasingly few, but they're spread across the thin, underpopulated land in the middle, exercising disproportionate ballot clout. They may still capture our eye and win the odd election, but they're becoming an endangered species.

Editor's note: The print and previous versions of this web story stated an incorrect number of years between the release of The Emerging Democratic Majority and 2008.

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