This is getting to be really interesting. Armando of DailyKos has done a second post responding to my latest optimistic epistle on the future of Southern Democrats, and poses a few more questions and challenges that I’m happy to try to answer. Maybe I should apply for a Sympathy for the Devil diary on the Kos site, as a combined party unity/missionary effort.The main question Armando poses is why, exactly, Dems cratered between ’96 and ’04 among Southern self-identified moderates. He answers his own question by suggesting that 9/11 made all the difference, elevating the national security issue.Certainly that answer has something to do with it. Maybe it’s all those military bases; maybe it’s the disproportionate number of black, white and brown southerners who sign up to fight for their country; maybe it’s even that fightin’ frontier Jacksonian Scotch-Irish heritage that Walter Russell Mead writes about–but there’s no question national security matters more in the South than in, say, Iowa.But the problem with attributing the Dem decline between ’96 and ’04 to national security is the intervening election: ’00, when the Democratic presidential vote among white southerners collapsed, even though the candidate was, technically, a Southern White Guy (and, technically, a Baptist to boot) named Al Gore.In another section of his post, Armando suggests that Clinton’s personal qualities as a candidate, not his message or his positioning on issues, explains his relative success in the South. As I have argued at some length elsewhere, I don’t think you can separate the message and the messenger so cleanly, especially in the South, where Clinton’s communications gifts were considered natural, not supernatural.Personalities aside, the biggest difference between Clinton ’96 and Gore ’00 had to do with how each candidate dealt with two sets of issues: culture, and role-of-government–both big “trust” issues in the South. Clinton was thoroughly progressive, but went well out of his way to make it clear that he wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” that he supported a modest gay rights agenda because everyone who “worked hard and played by the rules” should be treated the same; and that he fought to maintain and even expand the social safety net on condition that it truly represented a “hand up, not a handout.” Everyone in Washington laughed at Clinton’s “micro-initiatives” on supporting the family–V-chips, school uniforms, youth curfews, etc,–but they sent big messages in the culturally-sensitive South. And in general, Clinton’s whole ’96 message was that he was willing to reign in government’s excesses, while fighting to defend its essentials–the famous M2E2 (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment).Compare that message to Gore’s, and you go a long way towards understanding why the guy lost nearly half of Clinton’s southern white support. Gore was forever bellowing about partial-birth abortion legislation (supported by about three-fourths of southerners) representing a dire threat to the basic right to choose. While Clinton called for “mending, not ending” affirmative action, Gore pledged to defend every aspect of affirmative action with his life. Clinton talked about balancing gun ownership rights with responsibilities. Gore talked about national licensing of gun owners. Clinton talked about making government “smarter, not bigger.” Gore never mentioned his own role in the “reinventing government” initiative, and boasted an enormous policy agenda that added up to a message that he wanted to expand government as an end in itself.Moving forward four years, Kerry tried to avoid Gore’s mistakes on specific cultural and role-of-government issues, but never talked about these themes more than occasionally, and never came across with any kind of authenticity in his efforts to project himself as a man of faith, a hunter, a government-reformer, or a family guy. While Gore got killed by his positioning and the lack of a compelling message, Kerry got killed by the lack of a compelling message and by those personal characteristics–distorted and exaggerated by GOP propaganda–that made him seem alien to southern voters. And without any question, the polarization of the entire election pushed southern moderates, like moderates elsewhere, to pick sides instinctively rather than think it all through.(At the risk of gnawing this question to death, I might add that Clinton in ’96 was advancing an increasingly successful national policy agenda; Gore in ’00 perversely ran a campaign that avoided references to that success; and Kerry, of course, had to campaign as a critic, not as an achiever).The downward trajectory of the southern Dem vote between ’96 and ’04 also reflected demographic trends which I discussed in my earlier answer to Armando–trends that may not help Republicans that much in the immediate future, as the aging pains of new suburbs and bad GOP governance create a natural backlash that Democrats can exploit if they are smart enough.Armando seizes on my commentary about southern suburban moderates as a Dem target to suggest that maybe the belief that “values voters” are the key to the South is wrong.Well, that depends on your definition of “values voters.” If it means people who want to criminalize abortions, demonize gays and lesbians, or institutionalize evangelical Christianity, then no, suburban southerners don’t generally fit that category, and I’d personally write them off as targets even if that were the case, on both practical and moral grounds.My own (and generally, the DLC’s) definition of “values voters” is quite different. They are people who: (a) don’t must trust politicians, and want to know they care about something larger than themselves, their party, and the interest groups that support them; (b) don’t much trust government, and instinctively gravitate towards candidates who seem to care about the role that civic and religious institutions can play in public life; (c) don’t much trust elites, whom they suspect do not and cannot commit themselves to any particular set of moral absolutes; (d) don’t much like the general direction of contemporary culture (even if they are attracted to it as consumers), and want to know public officials treat that concern with respect and a limited agenda to do something about it; (e) are exquisitely sensitive about respect for particular values like patriotism, parenting and work; and (f) have a communitarian bent when it comes to cultural issues, and dislike those who view them strictly through the prism of the irresistable march towards absolute and universal individual rights without regard to social implications.By that definition, I think southern suburban moderates, and especially women in that demographic, are definitely “values voters.” In answer to Armando’s particular question about how suburban southerners would react to that wingnut in Kansas who wants to explore the sexual histories of women seeking abortions, I think the simple answer is that they would say: “Mind your own business, boy! Aren’t there some criminals out there you ought to be chasing?”Somebody at Vanderbilt once wrote a book entitled “The South’s Compulsive Need to Explain.” In that spirit, I hope the debate over the region and its political future continues. Clearly, Earle and Merle Black need some real competition.
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.