As regular readers of this blog know, there is no political subject that fascinates me more than party politics in my native South–both the historical question of how the region became “red,” and the immediate question of whether and how Democrats can become more competitive.Earlier this week a colleague sent me a book review that provides a good excuse for revisiting that first, historical topic. The New Republic‘s Clay Risen reviewed The End of Southern Exceptionalism for the Boston Globe, and concluded that the book offers fresh evidence that economics, not race, was the central factor in the rise of southern Republicanism.I’ve ordered, but have not yet received, a copy of the book, written by Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin and Richard Johnston of the University of British Columbia. But the surprising thing to me about Risen’s review is that the book’s hypothesis seems to be so controversial, “one that few observers of the postwar South will agree with.”This is not to say I believe in a purely economic interpretation of the South’s Republican resurgence, but given the apparent supremacy of a purely racial interpretation, it’s a good corrective.Certainly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were decisive events in breaking down the ancient alliance between the National Democratic Party and a whites-only regional Democratic Party that had dominated most of the South since the Civil War. But the civil rights revolution did not necessarily, and did not in fact destroy state and local Democratic parties. And if you look at the dynamics of two-party competition in the South, even today, the picture is too complicated to support the claim that race, or any other one factor, has caused the rise of southern Republicanism.My own informed-amateur “wave theory” of party politics in the South places great emphasis on the efforts of each party, and especially my own Democratic Party, to constantly create and recreate new coalitions, depending on the demographics of individual states. But this improvisational coalition-building was a big part of the originial post-World-War-II Republican effort to create a viable two-party system in the South.According to Risen, Shafer and Johnston focus on the rapid urbanization that occured thoughout much of the region from the 1940s through the 1960s, which created a self-conscious urban and suburban white middle-class that voted Republican just like similar places elsewhere (indeed, a heavy in-migration of already-Republican voters from the northeast and midwest, already a large factor in Florida in the 1940s, spread throughout southern suburbs in later decades). But in four states, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, there was already a sizable Republican voter base among Appalachian whites (until quite recently, the very poorest people in America) who had been voting that way since the Civil War. The pre-Civil Rights strength of Republicans in any given state was largely a function of the size of these two very different elements of the population. Moreover, states with few Appalachian voters and smaller cities and suburbs had weak Republican Parties that did ultimately depend on their occasional success in reaching large numbers of rural white voters through race-based appeals.It should come as no surprise, then, to discover how well Eisenhower did in relatively-urbanized states like Florida (which he carried twice) or Texas (won in 1956), and in states with both growing suburbs and cities and Appalachian pockets (Tennessee and Virginia, which he won twice, and North Carolina, where he narrowly lost twice). In 1960, Richard Nixon, then considered a liberal on racial issues by southern standards, did nearly as well in precisely the same places.This complicated picture was confirmed, not obliterated, by Barry Goldwater’s race-based rural southern breakthrough in 1964. Although he swept the Deep South, he lost all the border states, including those carried by Ike and Nixon, and even within the states he carried, he ran behind the previous GOP candidates in many urban and suburban areas.At both the presidential level and–especially–the state and local level, Republican fortunes have ebbed and flowed according to the same shifting of coalitions in the ensuing decades. And even in the contemporary era, where Republicans have an advantage in most, though not all, statewide elections in most of the region, the components vary from state to state. In places like South Carolina and Mississippi, the party system represents a widespread racial polarization, and you can definitely say the basic partisan dynamics point straight back to the civil rights revolution. But in my own home state of Georgia, while race has been a factor, the explosive growth of the suburban population has clearly tilted the state to the GOP, which also means the Democratic counter-trend that has so often set in as suburbs mature could be a big factor in Georgia’s political future.In other words, there is no universal theory that really explains the past, present or future or southern politics, and that is why I am more optimistic than most in predicting that Republican hegemony in the South is far less than inevitable or permanent.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.