Via Amy Sullivan in a Political Animal post, Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters drifts into the treacherous waters of wondering why people under 35 don’t see to know or care much about political history, viz. the (anecdotal) lack of young-folk interest in his book on Wendell Willkie, Five Days In Philadelphia.Not surprisingly, the comment thread to that post is full of angry responses from people under 35 accusing Peters of old-guy-nostalgia, old-guy-arrogance and old-guy-overgeneralization, along with a few bitter comments about how young-uns are too busy fighting Bush and Rove to care anything about Wendell Willkie.Not having read Peters’ book myself, I won’t comment on his hypothesis that Willkie’s upset nomination in 1940 made internationalism safe for FDR, and hence for America. (My own impression from other sources is that Willkie, or “our fat friend,” as Thomas Dewey liked to call him, may have been a proud internationalist before and especially after 1940, but ran a fairly isolationist general election campaign against Roosevelt.)And I also won’t associate with Peters’ generationalizations (to coin a term) about the historical knowledge of people under 35 today as opposed to their predecessors. Hell, there are a million historical topics I know embarassingly little about, including the history of art and the history of science–two subjects on which my 19-year-old stepson could kick my ass on Jeopardy any old day.But I will say this: I am continuously struck, from personal experience, at how many very highly educated and politically obsessive young Americans don’t know seem to know that much about U.S. or international political history.This is not an observation based on self-inflated Boomer Nostalgia for the Huge Events of my own lifetime, BTW.In the throes of the 2000 presidential psychodrama, I wrote a piece for the DLC that in passing compared Ralph Nader to Henry Wallace. A very smart 30ish colleague, who used to teach American history, admitted to me that he had no clue about the identity of Henry Wallace. After I enlightened him about the vice president and Progressive Party leader, he got a little defensive and said: “You have to remember that was before my time.” “Believe it or not, it was before my time, too!” I replied rather heatedly. “And you know what? Andrew Jackson was before my time. Don’t you read?”Knowing I was only half-serious, my colleague didn’t deck me, but it did make me wonder, not for the first time, if there was something about my generation or his that made interest in political history so variable. The only common theory I’ve heard that makes sense is that today’s politically active young adults have been told, or have experienced, that their world is radically discontinuous from much of the past–post-Cold-War, post-industrial, post-modern, and in a word, post-historical.The topic in political history that seems to have suffered the largest drop-off in interest is Marxism, despite the crypto-Marxist views lingering in academia so often alleged by whiners on the Right. That obviously makes sense after 1989, and I should probably grow up about it and stop making obscure references to Communist figures in blog posts, like the one I did last night calling Katherine Harris the “Pasionaria of the Palms” (an obscure reference to La Pasionaria, a cult figure of the Spanish Civil War).Not surprisingly, interest and perceived relevance go hand in hand in determining which of the vast avenues of political history one decides to explore, beyond the basics. For example, Rick Perlstein’s fine book on the Goldwater Movement, Before the Storm, seems to have stimulated an enormous amount of interest among left-leaning young journalists and bloggers hungry to learn about the roots of their contemporary enemies on the Right. I expect a similar buzz to develop about Michael Kazin’s new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero, among both neo-populists and those interested in a revivial of the Christian Left tradition.And for all I know, interest in the Trotskyist backgrounds of so many contempory neo-conservatives may have led to a subterranean trend towards renewed study of Marxism among young lefties, who as we speak may be reading up on the murderous relationship between the Trots and Stalinists like La Pasionaria in the Spanish Republican coalition.Assuming relevance really is the key, I have an answer to Charlie Peters’ cri du coeur about declining knowledge of political history. Those of us who’d like to see the trend reversed need to make the case that our particular historical hobby-horses are immediately relevant. Peters obviously thinks that’s true about Wendell Willkie, and he should keep making that case instead of fretting about why his audience doesn’t automatically embrace it.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
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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.