It’s the Demography, Stupid

It’s the Demography, Stupid February 21, 2020

I have blogged quite a lot about the relationship between demographicsspecifically, fertility rates – and trends in religion. Roughly, low fertility corresponds to low or declining religiosity, while high fertility societies tend to be actively religious. (See those earlier blogs for a lengthy discussion of the processes at work). It is thus a matter of great moment when, just in the past few years, the United States has moved decisively to become a European-style low fertility society, with a total fertility rate (TFR) well below the replacement figure of 2.1 children per woman. Presently, that rate is around 1.7, close to that of Denmark. That is very likely to portend some kind of secularization, with a steep decline of religious institutions in the coming decade.

But that trend also has very sizable political dimensions, quite apart from religious, and in fact, it might very well tell us a lot about the forthcoming Presidential election.

A comment attributed to esteemed science fiction author William Gibson observes that “the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed,” and that caveat applies strongly to American demographic realities. The fertility drop has advanced much further and more rapidly in some regions than others, and that differential rate of change has contributed to some familiar national divisions, and conflicts. In 2017, when the U.S. national TFR was 1.77, the actual rate ranged widely between regions, and individual states. New England stood at the very low end of fertility, with Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire all around 1.52, Connecticut and Maine a little higher. At the other extreme were the Dakotas, Utah, and Nebraska, all near replacement rate.

In different areas of the country, changes in fertility have been intimately linked to religious patterns, and to cultural attitudes. Repeated surveys have confirmed a familiar geographical pattern in which religious attitudes and behaviors are very common and standard in Midwestern states, while the West Coast and New England tend to be far more secular. In Washington state, for instance – the “None Zone” – religious Nones constitute almost a third of the population.

That religious division further correlates to political behavior. That is particularly likely in the U.S. context, where so much of the substance of politics revolves around issues of religion and morality, with gender and sexuality at the core of so much controversy. In the 2016 presidential election, those who attended religious services weekly favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 53 to 29 percent. Broadly, states and regions with higher fertility rates tend to retain older religious patterns, and in their politics, veer toward the Red side of the partisan divide. Low-faith and low-fertility areas are significantly Bluer. This point was evident in the 2004 presidential election, when fertility rates offered a frighteningly accurate predictor of which states would vote Republican (Bush) or Democrat (Kerry). High-fertility states went conservative and Republican; low-fertility went liberal and Democrat. The odd state out was Michigan, a high-fertility region that nevertheless opted for Kerry. What made the critical difference here was the state’s high degree of union membership and activism.

Of course social patterns in themselves cannot predict electoral outcomes, which among other things depend on party structures, electoral laws, and disparities between groups in voter registration. But the connection between fertility and political outcomes demands attention. Presently a map of U.S. states by fertility unnervingly echoes political divisions, and more especially stances in the culture wars.

Using only fertility data, an observer who knew nothing of American political geography would correctly deduce that the country’s liberal heartlands must be based in the Northeast (New England, New York, Pennsylvania) and the West Coast, the “Left Coast” (California, Oregon, Washington), with an outlier in Colorado. In 2017 all those regions had TFRs at or below 1.71. To put that in global context, that rate would be comparable to Belgium, Denmark, or the Baltic states, all countries well known for low fertility, and fading or collapsing religiosity. Conservative bastions, on the other hand, include a solid heartland bloc (Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, the Dakotas, Utah, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma). In the middle of the fertility table are several states that we would expect (correctly) to be electoral swing states, such as Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, or Michigan.

Our imaginary observer would make errors, such as presuming that low-fertility Florida must be part of the ultra-liberal bloc, whereas in fact it is a hard-fought swing state. Yet Florida’s electoral outcomes have long been distorted by severe laws that disfranchised felons, in effect removing large sections of left-leaning African American and Latino populations from the voter rolls. On the other side of the divide, we might also expect high-fertility Hawaii to be loyally conservative and Republican, which it certainly is not. But again, special local circumstances apply here, in the state’s distinctive ethnic structure.

If not perfect, a map of fertility rates remains a remarkably reliable predictor of religiosity, and of political alignments. So here is a suggestion. When you are checking the prospects for the political outcome of any state this November, by all means look at indices like unemployment, but also check out the fertility rate as a lead indicator. In particular, observe how rapidly that rate has fallen over the past few years.

Who knows, it may just be the demography, stupid.

I talk about all this at length in my forthcoming book Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions (Baylor University Press).


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