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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

The Democrats’ demographic dilemma

If no man is an island, no political party should be an archipelago. Such are the Democrats — blue islands in a sea of red.

True, an America becoming younger, better educated, and less white trends Democratic. Thus Democrats have carried the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, an unprecedented run. But 2016 confirmed that demography writ large does not decree success.

Young people, for example, are often unengaged. Voter suppression laws target minorities and the poor. Above all, political polarization and demographic sorting control the electoral map.

Most obvious is the electoral college. Hillary Clinton’s 3 million-vote edge was erased by a cluster of less educated whites in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But the preponderance of red states over blue also affects the Senate, where Idaho and California each elect two senators.


As for the House, this advantage permits state legislatures — two thirds of which are controlled by the GOP — to draw congressional districts that tilt Republican. Half those states also have Republican governors; Democrats enjoy this hammerlock in only six. The result? A GOP that won half the votes cast in congressional elections claimed 55 percent of the seats.

But this demographic divide goes deeper. As Paul Taylor shows in his seminal book “The Next America,” we are “increasingly sorted into think-alike communities” defined by ethnicity, education, and economic status. And so geography mirrors demography.

Clinton’s 3 million-vote edge came from but 420 of our 3,100 counties. The space between is best measured by economics. The 16 percent of counties supporting Clinton accounted for 65 percent of our GNP, and their median home price was 60 percent higher than in counties carried by Trump.

These economically ascendant counties, largely urban, are geographically isolated. Hence the archipelago — islands of the relatively privileged surrounded by what is, to them, a mare incognitum, in which the less educated and more aggrieved dog paddle to survive.


One recalls the film critic Pauline Kael, who wondered aloud how George McGovern lost when everyone she knew had voted for him. However silly, Kael’s observation was a precursor of the “wasted vote phenomenon,” wherein Democrats roll up huge margins in blue enclaves, only to be thwarted by the tripartite menace of the electoral map, gerrymandering, and demographic sorting.

But this social chasm is graver than elections can measure. As Taylor writes, the GOP “skews older, whiter, more religious and more conservative, with a base that is struggling to come to grips with the new racial tapestries, gender norms, and family constellations.” By contrast, Democrats tend to be “younger, more nonwhite, more liberal, more secular, and more immigrant — and LGBT-friendly,” prepared to welcome diversity. Alienation follows.

The result, Taylor explains, is that “92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat in their core social, economic, and political views, while 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” Moreover, he adds, “two-thirds of consistent conservatives and half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views.” Easier to do, he notes, when liberals prefer cities to the small towns and rural areas favored by conservatives.

Our growing economic disparity also aggravates what one could call a “despair gap.” As reported in The New York Times, a study by the Center for American Progress found a direct correlation between the percentage of “underwater” homes and counties that voted for Trump. Similarly, a sociology professor at Penn State found that Trump fared better in counties where the mortality rates caused by drugs, alcohol, and suicide were highest. Among many other things, some poisonous, what issued from Trump’s America was a desperate and angry cry for help.


The grievous truth is that ever more Americans fear other Americans, whose lives they can no longer imagine, save as the enemies of all they hold dear. And partisan media and social media — purveyors of “alternative facts” — fortify these gated communities of the mind.

The GOP must preserve them, lest their residents notice that Trump’s populism of false promises and racial animus masks its service to the wealthy. The Democrats’ road is infinitely harder — but potentially more unifying – than merely firing up their subgroups while scaring seniors about entitlements. The party must become a credible force for betterment in the lives and minds of more Americans, no matter who or where. Only then will we learn whether politics can help restore a country so fractured and embittered.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.