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.
Here’s a good polling suggestion that Democracy Corps or anyone else Ruy talks to can do:
First, identify a LARGE pool of voters who fit the following description: they did NOT give Bush a positive approval rating individually as of election day AND/OR preferably AND were part of that majority who felt in polls as of election day that the country “was moving in the wrong direction”.
Then you determine if they did not vote for Kerry, did they (a) vote for someone else, especially Bush, or (b) stay home, after having voted in either 2002 or 2000, especially for a Democrat.
Those voters who did NOT give Bush a positive approval rating or felt that the country was “moving in the wrong direction” AND who voted for Bush or stayed home after having voted in the past for a Democrat can first be assessed for what percentage of the total number of voters they comprised. You need to first assess the percentage of those who actually voted as a percentage of the total vote, possibly with a breakdown in key states, and then check to determine how LARGE the number of voters who stayed home but were seriously potential voters based on recent voting for Democrats and their disaffection with the status quo was. These voters cost Kerry the election.
Now, WHY didn’t these voters vote for Kerry. Two issues seem prominent — they thought he was wishywashy or a flipflopper AND/OR they were concerned about the war on terror and did not have confidence in Kerry (the Bai distortion). Voters don’t always or generally give specific indications of why they voted they way they did or why they didn’t bother to vote, but there is where a decisive number of bodies are buried. You could also measure what IF those two groups of voters had turned on mass to Kerry? What would it have done to your constituency analysis. Prediction on the latter — add those voters who felt the country was going in the wrong direction but didn’t vote for Kerry to the Kerry column, by breakdown of category, and most of those gaps you are measuring in various social groups close like a mousetrap that has been sprung.
The mandate was for being successfully snookered by the mass media AND spinmeisters justifying the lying and the chorus of hounds that didn’t bark, including when spinning the polls, on the abovementioned issues. Another mandate for a rigged election, cashed in all the moreso as real the less real it is.
Everybody is so busy “serving” and “doing the job” that no one really serves democracy and all that is left is the hollow shell of a system as it goes down the tubes.