Barack Obama roared onto the political stage in 2004 with a speech many Americans found soothing. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he said. “There’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
Twelve years later, the Obama era is ending with a lesson—taught by Donald Trump—in how deep political divisions of race and geography remain. The electoral map that emerged on Nov. 8 looked like a sea of red speckled with islands of blue. Hillary Clinton won the cities and close-in suburbs where affluent professionals, millennials and people of color are clustered. Donald Trumpprevailed in the farther-flung suburban, exurban and rural places where residents are disproportionately white and aging.
It will take a long time to fully understand why this election turned out the way it did. But part of it, undeniably, has to do with anxiety about how America is changing. Some voters idealized a picture they grew up with, in which culture and politics were dominated by a white Christian majority. They found a voice for their disorientation in Trump’s rhetoric and his promises that he could restore an older vision of the country.
Demographic change, however, is not a force that is easy to halt — and as American leaders and policymakers grapple with the country’s real challenges and political trajectory, it’s the actual face of Future America they’ll need to deal with, not an imagined one.