Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution participated in an online chat on The Washington Post website yesterday, where he answered questions about Tuesday’s election results–many of them on the minds, I would imagine, of those who visit this site. All Mann’s answers are lucid and perceptive; I strongly recommend you checkout the transcript of his chat as an aid to your reflections on the election.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
June 2: Rise of Religious “Nones” a Mixed Blessing for Democrats
Since I’m always standing at the intersection of politics and religion, I’m always interested in fresh data on the subject, and wrote some up at New York:
One of the big predictions in American politics lately, of infinite comfort to embattled progressives, is that the increasing number of religiously non-affiliated Americans, particularly among younger generations, will spur a steady leftward drift. Perhaps that will mean, we are told, that Democrats will be able to build their elusive permanent majority on the grounds of abandoned houses of worship. Or perhaps, some hope, the religious roots of today’s Republican extremism will begin to wither away, allowing American conservatives to resemble their less intemperate distant cousins in other advanced democracies, ending the culture wars.
Both propositions may be true. But it’s a mistake to treat so-called nones as an undifferentiated secularist mass, as Eastern Illinois University political scientist Ryan Burge explains with some fresh data. He notes that “in 2022, 6% of folks were atheists, 6% were agnostics, and another 23% were nothing in particular.” This large bloc of “nothing in particular” voters may lean left, all other things being equal, but they tend to be as uninterested in politics as in religion, making them a less than ideal party constituency. He explains:
“To put this in context, in 2020 there were nearly as many nothing in particulars who said that they voted for Trump as there were atheists who said that they voted for Biden.
“While atheists are the most politically active group in the United States in terms of things like donating money and working for a campaign, the nothing in particulars are on another planet entirely.
“They were half as likely to donate money to a candidate compared to atheists. They were half as likely to put up a political sign. They were less than half as likely to contact a public official.
“This all points to the same conclusion: they don’t vote in high numbers. So, while there may be a whole bunch of nothing in particulars, that may not translate to electoral victories.”
As Burge mentioned, however, there is a “none” constituency that leans much more strongly left and is very engaged politically — indeed, significantly more engaged than the white evangelicals we’re always hearing about. That would be atheists. In a separate piece, he gets into the numbers:
“The group that is most likely to contact a public official? Atheists.
“The group that puts up political signs at the highest rates? Atheists.
“HALF of atheists report giving to a candidate or campaign in the 2020 presidential election cycle.
“The average atheist is about 65% more politically engaged than the average American.”
And as Thomas Edsall points out in a broader New York Times column on demographic voting patterns, atheists really are a solid Democratic constituency, supporting Biden over Trump in 2020 by an incredible 87 to 9 percent margin. It’s worth noting that the less adamant siblings of the emphatically godless, agnostics, also went for Biden by an 80 to 17 percent margin and are more engaged than “nothing in particulars” as well.
So should Democrats target and identify with atheists? It’s risky. Despite the trends, there are still three times as many white evangelicals as atheists in the voting population. And there are a lot more religious folk of different varieties, some of whom have robust Democratic voting minorities or even majorities who probably wouldn’t be too happy with their party showing disdain for religion entirely. There’s also a hunt-where-the-ducks-fly factor: If atheists and agnostics already participate in politics and lean strongly toward Democrats, how much attention do they really need? There’s a reason that politicians, whatever their actual religious beliefs or practices, overwhelmingly report some religious identity. Congress lost its one professed atheist when California representative Pete Stark lost a Democratic primary in 2012; the only professed agnostic in Congress is Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, whose political future isn’t looking great.
It’s a complicated picture. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat argues that American liberalism’s increasing identification with secularism is keeping a lot of conservative Christians from politically expressing their reservations about Donald Trump. And religious people beyond the ranks of conservative faith communities may feel cross-pressured if Democratic politicians begin to reflect the liberal intelligentsia’s general assumption that religion is little more than a reactionary habit rooted in superstition and doomed to eventual extinction.
Perhaps it makes more sense for Democratic atheists and agnostics to spend time educating and mobilizing the “nothing in particular” Americans who already outnumber white evangelicals and ought to be concerned about how they’ll be treated if a Christian-nationalist Gilead arises. Only then can “nones” become the salvation for the Democratic Party.
I agree with Cugel: payroll tax reform is an idea that is long overdue. Dems should play it up big!
Maybe by losing the election we really won. Given Mann’s dead-on assessment, could anyone come outta this smelling good?
Q: What do you see as Bush’s biggest challenge over the next four years?
Mann: Coping with the consequences of his first term: staggering budget deficits, federal revenues at their lowest level as a share of the economy in a half century, intense spending pressure for defense and homeland security, a mess in Iraq with no happy ending in sight, and serious security threats across the globe, from North Korea to Iran, from loose WMDs to terrorist organizations with little sympathy or affection from the rest of the world.
I think Mann’s parallel with the 1920’s was pretty accurate. I myself have been struck by the parallels between Al Smith and Kerry: Northeastern moderate Catholic attacked for religious reasons. Moderate position on social issues (prohibition or gays/abortion) characterized as totally off the board. And the ’28 election was followed by the Roosevelt and the New Deal. Unfortunately it took the stock market crash and the depression to make it happen. The sad part isn’t that the Repubs will fall flat; it’s that there will be a whole lot of suffering before that happens.
Everyone should read this article from the New Democrat (the DLC blog):
They point out all the advantages Democrats had this time and
This summarizes their conclusions:
“The second obvious problem for Democrats was a “reform gap.” Having lost control of every nook and cranny of the federal government during the last two elections, Democrats were perfectly positioned to run as bold, outsider, insurgent reformers determined to change Washington, and the public was ready to embrace such a message and agenda. While Democrats did made a strong negative case against Bush, we never conveyed a positive agenda for reform. Indeed, Democrats often reinforced the idea that the GOP was the “reform” party by trying to scare voters about every bad or deceptive Republican idea for changing government programs, instead of offering our own alternatives for reform. In the end, we relied on mobilizing voters who were hostile to Bush instead of persuading voters who were ambivalent about both parties, and about government. Since Republicans did have a simple, understandable message, it was an uneven contest: message plus mobilization will beat mobilization alone every time.”
. . . .
“There will be a powerful temptation for Democrats to simply go to the mattresses, fight Republicans tooth and nail, and hope for a big midterm sweep in 2006. That would be a mistake, just as it was a mistake to believe that Bush’s weakness would be enough to produce a victory in 2004. It’s time for Democrats to clearly stand for values, principles, and ideas that will earn us the opportunity to become the majority party of the future.”
This argument is right on the money! The one thing Kerry and the Democrats failed to do is to make a serious reform agenda the centerpiece of their campaigns. We desparately need to coalesce on a central reform strategy and beat it like an army mule come rain or shine — just as Newt Gingrich did starting in 1992. Remember the Contract on America?
We need something similar that all Democrats can rally behind and really push. One thing that we never seem to talk about is PAYROLL TAX reform. When was the last time you heard either party talk about how much $ are taken from your weekly paycheck in the form of payroll taxes? We need to oppose Bush’s idea of ending all taxation on unearned income with our own tax proposals that will help workers, not millionares — payroll tax relief. This issue divides the Republicans from their base. Let them explain how they’re for every form of tax cuts, except payroll taxes. We need to be explicit about this and hammer away despite all the ranting and lies about it from conservatives. Ordinary people would be with us on this.
But it can’t be point 32 of a 62 point plan. We would have to hit it hard and repeat it endlessly to force a national debate on this issue.
i think that if any one person in america is responsible for the election defeat, it is the mayor of san francisco. the gay marriage issue was handed on a silver platter to the right wing religious zealots and rove. and when you give rove something to work with he always makes the best of it. the issue brought out millions of right wingers who may not have come out. if the issue would have been put on the back burner untill after the election, kerry would have had four years to figure out how to deal with it.