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Society & Culture

Changes in U.S. Society Revealed

Nov 30, 2020
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The 2020 presidential election in the U.S. is over, and a new administration is moving in. In the process, some profound changes in American society have been revealed.

1. New trends in population mobility

This year was both a quadrennial election year and a decennial census year. The U.S. Constitution mandates a national census every 10 years to determine the distribution of seats in the House of Representatives. So it is politically significant.

This election has been an important opportunity to observe population movement in the U.S. Generally speaking, the migration continues from rural areas to cities. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. urbanization rate has increased from 73 percent to about 83 percent; and in the past four years, the urban population has had a net increase of about 1.3 million. Changes have also been seen in the movement of people between metropolitan areas.

The economically developed East and West Coast metropolitan areas have experienced a relatively obvious population outflow, while Phoenix (AZ), Atlanta (GA) and Austin (TX) have had a visible inflow. Rust Belt metropolises such as Detroit (MI) and Pittsburgh (PA) have also seen a resurgence in population with the rise of new industries such as cultural tourism and artificial intelligence.

The new dynamics have political implications. In the election, Arizona was a key swing state, as large numbers of people from traditional “blue” (Democratic) states such as California and Washington had moved there. In the Austin, Texas, metropolitan area — the Silicon Hill that had attracted many high-tech talents from San Francisco in recent years — the Republican Party’s traditional advantage has been markedly reduced. Compared with the East and West Coast, growing metropolitan areas have significant advantages in low taxes and cost of living.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll, these places may attract more people in the future, which will have far-reaching political implications. 

2. Influence of religion on American politics

Religious sects have always been important forces in American society and a major factor influencing the political agenda, including presidential elections. They tend to support different candidates.

President-elect Joe Biden’s Catholic faith played an important role in his victory. Catholics now account for about 20.8 percent of the adult religious population in the U.S. over all, about 30 percent in populous states such as California and New York and more than 20 percent in key election states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Polls showed Biden winning broad support among white Catholic voters in those key states, which went to Donald Trump in 2016. Biden will become America's second Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, which could make a new impact on the country’s religious landscape.

After gaining strong support from Christian evangelicals in the 2016 election, Trump pushed through a series of policies aligned with evangelical views on abortion, immigration and Israeli-Palestinian relations. In this election, though, the evangelicals clearly diverged in their attitudes toward Trump.

Christianity Today, a prominent evangelical magazine, denounced Trump for Ukraine gate and supported his impeachment. Some older evangelical voters resent Trump’s handling of the pandemic and have been increasingly unhappy with his policies, even though they loathe the liberal ideas of the Democratic Party. This undermined their support for Trump. 

3. Changing political positions of racial minorities

Traditionally, American minorities tended to support Democrats out of self-interest. But this election revealed some subtle changes. The Hispanic community still overwhelmingly supported Biden but more people voted for Republicans than in 2016, with an increase of 6 percent across the country.

Trump received more support from Cuban Americans in Florida and Puerto Rican Americans in Pennsylvania. And within the Black community, the rising black elite moved closer to Republican positions and embraced Trump’s law-and-order proposition, thus strengthening Republican dominance in states such as Florida and Ohio. Changes in the political stance of these minorities was an important factor in the Republican Party’s maintenance in its lead in federal and state legislative elections, despite losing the presidential election.

All these changes may be attributed to the Republican campaign strategy downplaying racial issues and highlighting economic and social issues. They also reflect the deeper phenomenon of stratification among American minorities. Identity politics still plays a big role in the American political system. However, as the U.S. economy transitions from long-term growth to recession and the pandemic enlarges the existing tough social issues, stratification may well go beyond traditional dividing lines such as race and left/right and increasingly become an important source of social conflict.

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