Donald Trump will never be an easy phenomenon to explain to future generations of Americans. Pundits and academics have struggled with some basic questions about Trump and Trumpism: Why was such an unlikely candidate elected to the presidency in the first place? Why did Trump succeed in transforming the Republican Party in his image despite his undeniable electoral and policy failures?Why, after he lost the 2020 election by substantial popular vote and Electoral College margins, did so many of his supporters continue to believe without evidence that victory somehow was stolen from him? And why were so many Republican members of Congress willing to betray American democracy and their oaths of office by backing Trump’s unconstitutional attempt to overturn the election? 

Perhaps there can be no rational explanations for Trumpism. Some observers have suggested that “it exists beyond the logic of policy… in the dreampolitik realm of feelings.” But if the question of why Trumpism happened is one better answered by psychiatrists than political scientists, we can objectively determine what happened by looking at the changes to America’s political party system that made Trumpism possible and perhaps inevitable.

In the long view of hindsight, Trump’s presidency completed the transition to a new party system – the seventh in our history. The inception of this new and dangerous system began in the 1960s, accelerated during the Reagan-Bush era, and culminated with this year’s election. America has now realigned to a system based not on economic differences but on racial, religious, and cultural identity. Our new party system is itself a threat to democracy.

Before the election, I wrote about the history of American party systems and the likelihood that 2020 would complete the realignment to our seventh system. Based on polling, it appeared that this could be a system, like the fifth party system that emerged with the 1932 Democratic landslide, characterized by one-party dominance:

In the party system that’s now becoming extinct, Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump pried the South and many working-class white voters away from the Democrats while retaining their traditional base of college-educated whites. This erased the dominance Democrats enjoyed from the Depression through Vietnam and created a 50-50 nation, divided government, and gridlock. But now moderate suburbanites seem to be switching sides, leaving Republicans with just white evangelicals and rural voters.

If Biden holds his primary coalition together and wins, the Democratic Party has the opportunity to become a big, broad, center-left, one-nation party that can win often enough (and with big enough majorities) to break the gridlock and actually govern. Polls now suggest that just that kind of a Biden blue wave is building. 

The 2020 election did complete the transition to a new party system. Still,  contrary to many pre-election predictions, the result was not a new majority party but a continuation of previous patterns of intense polarization and evenly balanced divisions. Joe Biden won the White House due to very narrow victories in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But the House and Senate are at a nearly 50-50 division between Republicans and Democrats. The result is likely to be more bitter and debilitating legislative gridlock.  

It appears the Big Blue Wave failed to materialize because turnout among non-college educated whites was higher than expected, and Trump did a bit better among college-educated whites and some non-white voters than was anticipated. The Trump base, as it turned out, was bigger than most political observers had predicted. Even so, beneath the apparent political stalemate, the 2020 election revealed the outlines of America’s new party system and the challenges it will present.

American politics has never exclusively been about economics; there has always been some degree of socio-cultural conflict. Jeffersonians believed that farmers were more virtuous than “stock jobbers” and that the U.S. had a moral obligation to support France’s revolution. Abolitionists saw slavery as a moral and religious issue. There was more than a tinge of religious fervor among the populist and Progressive followers of William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt.

But America’s first five party systems, from the retirement of George Washington to the election of Richard Nixon, were mostly based on economics. The conflicts were between northern merchants and southern slaveholding planters, between bankers and farmers, between business and labor. The homogeneity of the voting population contributed to keeping these divisions primarily at the economic level. The overwhelming majority of enfranchised voters (and virtually all officeholders) during the earliest party systems were white Protestant males.

The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and landmark Supreme Court decisions such as Roe v. Wade made tension about culture and values an increasingly important aspect of the sixth party system. But the main debate during the system that began with Nixon and ended sometime during Barack Obama’s presidency was over the size and role of government.  

The data and our lived experience very clearly show that something new and dangerous has taken root. America has become dramatically more diverse in terms of race and religion. Voters no longer routinely share common experiences and world views. Our differences now define how we vote.

Exit polls are imperfect, but they are one of our most valuable tools to interpret election results. Exit polls going back to 2014 show clearly that the two parties are now differentiated by race, culture, and religion. Yes, a majority of those making over $100,000 consistently vote Republican while a majority of those making less vote Democratic. But these margins are in the range of 55% to 45%. Likewise, Democrats won college-educated whites in 2018 and 2020, but the margins are relatively narrow. The really big divides show up when you look at other factors.

Here are some big numbers from the 2020 exit polls (and one from 2018) that have been consistent over time:

  • Non-white voters made up 33 percent of the 2020 electorate, and 71 percent of them voted for Joe Biden
  • 51 percent of all voters said abortion should be legal, and 74 percent of them voted for Biden; 42 percent said abortion should illegal, and 76 percent of them voted for Trump
  • 63 percent of white women without college degrees (and 70 percent of white men without college degrees) voted for Trump
  • 27 percent of Americans say they never attend church; 68 percent of them voted for Democrats in 2018

And the biggest one, which has been remarkably consistent in exit polling:

  • White voters who identify as evangelical or born-again Protestants comprised 28 percent of the electorate, and 76 percent of them voted for Trump; 62% of everyone else voted for Biden

In our new party system, the Democratic coalition is based on non-white voters and highly secularized college educated whites. The Republican coalition is based on white evangelicals and whites without college degrees. Within each party, those are the demographic groups that vote in primary elections and become party activists. These two bases now define the two parties.

The fact that Republicans and Democrats disagree on social issues like abortion is hardly new.  What is new (and dangerous) is the transformation of everything into a question of values and identity, especially on the Republican side. For example, polls consistently show that Republicans, unlike Democrats and Independents, hold overwhelmingly negative views of the Black Lives Matter movement and reject the notion that America’s criminal justice system treats black people unfairly. Why? David French, in a brilliant essay, discusses the rise of “Christian nationalism” as an explanation: 

What is going on? Yes, there is some outright racism in the church. But we’re also seeing evidence of the Christian nationalism that has emerged more explicitly in the age of Trump, and Christian nationalism — because it is rooted so deeply in reverence for a particular version of the American story — will always minimize America’s historic sins and the present legacy (and reality) of American racism.

Christian nationalism will also always be alert to cultural change of all kinds (not just the sexual revolution), in part because “American culture” and “Christian culture” are experienced by all too many white Protestants as inseparable. You see signs of this in the conservative branding many of the more-religious sectors of American society (especially the rural and exurban centers of Republican power) as “real America” while huge swaths of American society, from its urban centers to its universities to many of its most successful corporations, are branded as less than fully authentic.

Moreover, in attitudes about the American founding, the American police, and the American military, you can see a defense of this nation and (some) of its institutions that runs deeper than in other American communities.

This analysis is consistent with studies done after the 2016 election. While many posited that simple economics drove the white working class to Trumpism, an analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute found that “fear of societal change, not economic pressure, motivated votes for the president among non-salaried workers without college degrees.” Together, evangelical whites and working-class whites form the alliance of cultural conservatives that now drives the Republican Party.

Cultural conservatives believe they are fighting to defend America itself — an America based on the Bible and traditional American patriotism — and so every issue becomes part of the culture war. Legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, athletes kneeling during the national anthem, increased immigration, gun control, talk of democratic socialism and institutional racism, even how we greet each other during the holidays — these are not just issues to be debated but existential threats to “America.” And, to cultural conservatives, the preservation of this “America” is more important than the democratic process.  

Democracy depends upon opposing parties being willing to accept defeat. But when a sufficiently large number of citizens in a democracy believe that their world will be destroyed if they lose an election, many anti-democratic outcomes become possible. This explains why Republicans have been willing to defend, excuse, or fully support Trump’s unconstitutional authoritarianism — and now his attempts to overturn the election. 

Politically, the new party system is likely to continue to produce close elections, divided government, and more gridlock. That is because the Republican base is sufficiently large to allow the party to lose electoral majorities while retaining power in a system that makes minority rule possible. The Electoral College, disproportionate representation in the U. S. Senate, and the reality that Democrats are handicapped by the clustering of their voters in urban districts — these are the factors that allow a Republican minority to prevail over Democratic majorities.  

More ominous are the lessons history teaches us about what can happen when politics becomes all about race, religion, and culture. Protestants vs. Catholics, Christians vs. Jews, Moslems vs. Hindus, Hutus vs. Tutsis — North America fortunately has been spared these and other types of sectarian conflict until now. Genocide doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, but serious people are seriously talking about civil war and secession. Faith in the fairness and legitimacy of our elections has been severely weakened. Are future elections even possible if one side consistently refuses to accept the results?

There is no getting around the realities we face. Republicans and Democrats are irreconcilable on the issues their base voters care most about. There is no common ground. And all the reforms that seemed possible if the Democrats had won a resounding victory — such as changes to the Electoral College, admitting new states, or passing a new Voting Rights Act — are impossible now. Instead, we are going to see continued trench warfare over the most bitterly divisive issues. 

Nothing less than the survival of democracy will be at stake in our seventh party system. Americans who are willing to put country before party, and the preservation of democracy before all other policy issues, must remain united and vigilant if they are to have any hope of prevailing.