The federal government is gearing up once again for the census. Often, the deeper meaning of that decennial account of American demography is lost amidst statewide political bickering. While the final report consists of some of the dullest reading imaginable, it also offers great insights into the future of the United States.
Every decade, the entire American populace is counted. The Republicans inevitably argue that Utah gets screwed out of a congressional seat and Democrats inevitably kick and scream about Massachusetts losing its seat.
Historically, the census has roused the American public out of a host of self-defeating delusions. The 1890 census stated the frontier was closed and the entire continental United States was finally civilized. A few years later, Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out that American culture had been decisively shaped by the frontier more than any other factor, laying to rest the voices who clung to the notions we were but the farflung siblings of old man Europe. The 1920 census served as a funeral notice for the Jeffersonian republic of yeomen famers with its announcement that for the first time there were more urban than rural Americans. And the 2000 census ranks as one of the watershed moments in American history. For the first time, the Hispanic population surpassed the African-American population, and signaled the a day when white people will be the minority.
As demographics continue to shift, the United States will continue to re-evaluate its narrative and its culture, just as it did in 1890 and 1920. For example, instead of highlighting the conflict between North and South, historians may focus on East and West. Instead of talking about Massachusetts and Virginia, history teachers may focus on Texas, California and Florida. Instead of Abraham Lincoln being touted as the defining president of the nineteenth century, perhaps Andrew Jackson or James K. Polk will get some instruction time. Instead of focusing on Puritans, Americans wanting to understand religious history may need to take a deeper look at Catholicism.
While the 2010 census will probably not reveal the dramatic findings of previous censuses, it will offer insight into who Americans are and where we are headed. Crunch the numbers and think. Women continue to represent more American college students than their male counterparts. The number of evangelical Christians continues to increase and Catholics continue to see declining numbers of priests and nuns. People continue to head south down I-95 and I-75 and west on I-80 and stay there for the long haul.
Next year, while the talking heads ponder how many congressional seats Texas will claim, they will likely miss the bigger point.The census is not merely about who has power; it tells us who we are and who we will become.