I don’t have a lot to add to the appraisals of Eugene McCarthy–who died this weekend–being offered by others, but do want to riff on a theme suggested by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet over at The New Republic‘s site.Kusnet usefully focuses on McCarthy’s real breakthrough moment in national Democratic politics, his fiery nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 convention in Los Angeles. This now-forgotten incident was at the time a very big deal: as Teddy White explained in The Making of the President 1960, the draft-Stevenson movement, underscored by a very noisy demonstration of activists around the convention site, was momentarily a threat to the pre-ordained nomination of John F. Kennedy.But while Kusnet focuses on the temperamental aspects of the tradition that linked Adlai and McCarthy to such later liberal activist heroes as Mo Udall and Bill Bradley–candidates who sometimes conveyed the sense they were too good to actually win–I think there’s a more obvious strain that runs from Stevenson to McCarthy to McGovern to Gary Hart to Paul Tsongas to Howard Dean (and could include Russ Feingold if he emerges as a major candidate in 2008). It’s a tradition of candidates who expanded the Democratic appeal into previously Republican or independent upscale professional territory, but at the risk of losing touch with the old Democratic coalition of working-class and minority voters.For those of you who tend to think this trend began much more recently, it’s sobering to recall that the term “egghead” was first popularized as an anti-intellectual slur against Stevenson supporters in 1952. And each of “Adlai’s children” in later Democratic candidacies drew his signature support from social and economic elites determined to overthrow some aspect of mass culture or politics, from Stevenson’s implicit attacks on the philistinism of Ike’s America, to McCarthy’s ironically detached refusal to play “politics as usual,” to McGovern and Hart’s crystallization of discontent with old-line Democratic “machine” politics, to Tsongas’ mix of social liberalism and economic conservatism, to Dean’s antiwar-fed revolt against the Washington Democratic Establishment.All these candidates struggled, to one degree or another, to attract much support from blue-collar and minority voters, though arguably they might have pulled together a broader coalition if they had actually won the nomination (the one who did, George McGovern, performed credibly among minority voters but lost catastrophically among union households). Before you hit the button to send me a nasty email about lumping Howard Dean together with “Adlai’s Children,” we obviously don’t know how a Dean general election campaign might have fared, though the disproportionately upscale and non-minority nature of his original movement was beyond dispute, and a source of much hand-wringing among Deaniacs at the time.Ironically, it was probably McCarthy’s great rival, Robert F. Kennedy, who offered the best potential fusion of a New Politics appeal that attracted New Class voters, while keeping together the traditional Democratic coalition. After all, RFK’s primary campaign of 1968 did indeed draw a mind-boggling coalition from Wallacites to lunch-bucket ethnics to African-Americans and Latinos. But it’s worth remembering that RFK’s popularity among liberal intellectuals and anti-war professionals was much higher after his assassination than when he was an actual candidate (when he ran for the Senate in 1964, virtually the entire Manhattan liberal intelligentsia endorsed his Republican rival).On purely empirical grounds, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 have been the two nominees who were best able to consolidate upscale support while hanging onto much if hardly all of the old coalition. And Kerry did as well as Gore among highly educated voters, while losing more at the other end of the spectrum.Gene McCarthy, a temperamentally conservative man much more likely to quote Thomas Aquinas than Thomas Jefferson, was hardly the ideal fusion candidate. And a lot’s changed, politically and demographically, since 1968. But the challenge of adding to the coalition without subtracting from it elsewhere remains.
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.