Women’s Political Union Button. Image credit: Library of Congress
The 2024 campaign for the Presidency began on January 6, 2022, when President Biden marked the anniversary of the invasion of the Capitol Building with a powerful condemnation that can best be described as a campaign speech. He attacked former President Trump, though not by name, for three Big Lies about the 2020 election.
Five days later he went to Atlanta to make the second campaign speech of the 2024 election. That’s 2024, not 2022, though the latter will certainly affect the former. While both Biden and Trump can easily get the nominations of their respective parties in 2024, it’s not certain that they will want them (or even be alive) by then. Whoever gets those nominations, the outcome will be determined as much by who can vote, where, as anything the candidates say or do.
In voting, demographics is often destiny. In particular sex, race and religion are primary sources of partisan conflict. Race and religion are long standing themes. Sex, more specifically the role of women and how it affects relationships between the sexes, manifested itself less directly until late in the 20th Century.
Sex, race, and religion are fundamental to politics for two reasons. First, they define the communities in which people live. For race, and to a lesser extent religion, these communities are homogeneous; those in them constantly have their values and attitudes reinforced by others like themselves. Common communities are conducive to political consistency. Since women usually live with men, this is clearly not true of sex, though it is truer of homosexuals.
Second, ideas about race, sex, and religion embody fundamental values, and consequently are a source of conflicts over values even among members of the same race, sex, or religion. These values go to the heart of what we mean by culture. When they are threatened or attacked or even challenged the response is far more ferocious and obstinate than in the “normal” politics of who gets what, when and how. As a “nation of immigrants,” founded by religious dissidents and political malcontents who brought many different cultures to our shores, our politics has often required us to channel and contain cultural conflict in order to “civilize” it. Indeed, some of our most exalted principles, such as the separation of church and state, or “that government is best which governs least,” are the result of trying to keep cultural conflict out of politics. But for most of our history cultural conflict has been an underlying theme, whether it stays within the boundaries of electoral politics or spills over into direct community conflict.
While our history has seen many political parties come and go, for the most part there has always been a two-party system. Political scientist Jim Reichley called these the party of order and the party of equality. The first prioritizes “public order and economic growth” while the latter favors “economic and social equality.” Today we recognize those labels as fitting the Republican and Democratic Parties, but historically, each was sometimes on the other side.
When combined with cultural conflict, these two orientations can result in major party polarization. This polarization has been much in the news these days, but it has been predicted for a very long time. In a 2008 book, two Brookings Institution scholars asked if the growing partisan divide has impaired the democratic policy process? Today, many would answer yes.
Nonetheless, while sharp, today’s polarization is not outside the normal bounds of our history. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—as the country shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy creating an urban-rural conflict over many moral issues—saw much more partisan passion than we see today. The Depression precipitated another great debate. Even these conflicts did not reach the extent of polarization that led to the Civil War.
A recent review of exit polls from 1972 to 2020 by the American Enterprise Institute looked at demographic patterns in 13 Presidential elections. Race, sex, religion, age, and education were the primary variables.
Focusing on sex: more women vote than men and they are more likely to vote Democratic. This is true for both Black and white populations. However, the marriage gap is bigger than the gender gap. Married couples are more likely to vote Republican and unmarried to vote for Democrats. The data doesn’t differentiate same-sex from different-sex couples, though it does indicate that LGBT voters swing heavily Democratic. Furthermore, among the unmarried, women are more educated than men. The more education a voter has, the more likely s/he will vote Democratic. Looking at the graphs, what stands out is that the various voting gaps are not getting larger than they were in 2008. If that stays the same in 2024, it is turnout that will make the difference in who wins.
Jo Freeman is a feminist scholar and author.