As it marked another birthday, America is forging the outlines of a new century.
It’s moving with now remarkable speed to cast aside some of the traditions and mores that dominated American life for centuries. The Confederate flag is coming down, 150 years after the end of the Civil War and a half-century after it was raised in defiance of civil rights. Marriage is being redefined. Whites are fast becoming a minority. And after electing its first African-American president, the country is poised to elect a new leader from among a roster including a woman, two Cuban-Americans, and the scion of an old Yankee family married to a Mexican-American.
All of it is driven by a new generation, magnified by demographic change and accelerated by social media.
The biggest influence is the millennial generation, born between 1982 and 2000, a massive group that represents about one-fourth of the nation’s population, a bigger percentage than the baby boomers who upended the American political system themselves.
The millennials are different. They’re more diverse than their parents’ generation. They came of age in a time already distant from the institutions that moderated the last century: the church, government, media.
And armed with smartphones and social media, they create mandates for change with their own contemporaneous means of associating. Finding comfort with newfound acquaintances in far-flung places and banding together to pressure decision-makers is now commonplace. More striking, the rise of these electronic communities means a softening of the peer pressure of traditional geographic neighborhoods, where outliers were often reluctant to become vocal for fear of ridicule or worse.
“Organizing today is easier. People don’t have to wait to see what their elders tell them,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, a nonpartisan group specializing in young voter research.
The millennials are also the products of attitudes honed in a pervasive popular culture, where people of color and different sexual orientations fit smoothly into mainstream society. They’ve never known a world where intolerance is routinely tolerated. Today, even when people personally object to abortion or same-sex marriage, they often add that they understand those with different views.
They’ve only known a world without many of the stereotypes of the recent past – an 18-year-old today was a newborn when situation comedy star Ellen DeGeneres took the then-bold step in 1997 of coming out on TV as a lesbian.
“There’s a nonjudgmentalism that’s become clear,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute.
If American centuries are marked more by defining changes than by the calendar, recent events combine to signal this new age:
As the AIDS crisis spread across America in the mid-1980s, 55 percent of Americans said gay and lesbian relations between consenting adults should not be legal.
Now, a public opinion tsunami has upended long-held views, shifting from 40 percent approval of same-sex marriage in 2009 to 60 percent this spring.
When the Supreme Court ruled Friday in favor of such unions, virtually no major political leader urged immediate action to overturn the decision.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon with a strong religious voter following, had a typical political response.
“While I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, their ruling is now the law of the land,” he said. “I support same-sex civil unions but to me, and millions like me, marriage is a religious service not a government form.”
This Rainbow Revolution wasn’t the creation of the White House, Congress or any major political figure. It was the obvious outcome of years of quiet acceptance by millennials.
To millennials, this isn’t the new normal. This is the old normal.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, CIRCLE director
Popular culture was a big opinion shaper, said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, citing the recent popularity of such TV shows as “Glee” and “Modern Family,” which brought prominent gay characters into the living rooms of America.
Social media’s reach was also crucial. A gay or lesbian in a small town can now join with someone in a big Northeastern city to help apply political pressure. Millennials saw gay rights as nothing unusual and long overdue.
The Confederate flag
On June 22, the Indian-American governor of South Carolina, an African-American senator and an African-American congressman stood together to declare that the Confederate flag should no longer fly on the grounds of the state Capitol.
It was an extraordinary scene in the state where the Civil War began, a state whose most prominent 20th-century political figure, the late Strom Thurmond, was for years one of the nation’s best-known segregationists.
Yet within days of the murders of nine African-Americans last month by a white gunman in Charleston, the Confederate battle flag’s time was up.
Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, stood alongside Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat, and Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican, to say the flag should come down.
For Haley, it was about healing the state. And her own teenage children.
“I had to do everything I could to make everybody feel better,” Haley told The State newspaper of Columbia, S.C., this week. “And part of that was not just words but action. There was no way I could look my kids in the eye and justify that flag waving. I just couldn’t do it.”
Young people, particularly millennials, are more accepting of diversity and don’t understand the fealty to the Confederate flag.
“Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves,” said Strom Thurmond’s son, 39-year-old South Carolina state Sen. Paul Thurmond. “I am not proud of that heritage. These practices were inhumane and were wrong, wrong, wrong.”
There’s a new generation that doesn’t remember that past.
David Woodard, Clemson, S.C., Republican consultant
This doesn’t suggest that race has suddenly disappeared as an issue. Fringe racist groups remain. The Ku Klux Klan plans to protest the removal of the flag in Columbia. But the swift bipartisan, even nonpartisan, sentiment to set aside the divisive symbol underscored a shift in the country.
As a tide of immigration from Europe changed America in the early 20th century, so a swell of movement from Latin America, and to a lesser degree from Asia, is changing it now.
The new century will see whites become the minority in the country, within 30 years.
California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia already are majority-minority.
Their minority populations: Hawaii, 77 percent; the District of Columbia, 64.2; California, 61.5; New Mexico, 61.1; Texas, 56.5.
Nine other states had minority populations of more than 40 percent.
They are: Nevada, 48.5 percent; Maryland, 47.4; Georgia, 45.7; Florida, 44.2; Arizona, 43.8; New York, 43.5; New Jersey, 43.2; Mississippi, 42.7; Louisiana, 40.7.
Driving the change: Hispanics, who have more than doubled in number from 22.6 million in 1990 to 55.4 million as of last year.
The nation’s black population now totals 45.7 million as of a year ago.
Asian-Americans, the fastest growing minority group last year, now total 20.3 million.
Three states close to majority-minority: Nevada, Maryland, Georgia
Hispanics in particular are already changing the country’s politics.
In the campaign for the presidency, for example, top choices among Republicans include two Cuban-Americans, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is married to a Mexican-American woman.
Hispanics have rapidly become an influential and often decisive voting bloc in key states, notably in the Southwest and California. That’s helping feed support for a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Millennials also want action on immigration, and the demographics appear to be pointing in that direction. Pew found in May that four of five people ages 18 to 29 said undocumented immigrants meeting certain requirements should be allowed to stay in this country.
Opposition to legalization for undocumented immigrants remains a powerful political weapon, though, and legislation is stalled in the Congress.