I was a bit startled yesterday to read a Nathan Newman post at TPMCafe suggesting that bloggers had pulled off a coup in helping elect one Frank Page as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I did a little research, and found that indeed there was a grassroots effort, spread in part by bloggers, to promote Page against the conservative establishment candidate Ronnie Floyd of Arkansas.But it would be a bit too much to assume that Page’s election represents some sort of sea-change in Baptist political theology. He’s a supporter of “biblical inerrancy,” and by his own account has supported the conservative theocratic takeover of the SBC. The big argument for his candidacy has mainly revolved around the need for congregational support for Baptist mission work, which has been lagging of late. And if you actually google around and read some of the blogs about the contest for the SBC presidency, there’s an underlying tension among Baptists that Page exploited: a neo-Calvinist movement in the Baptist seminaries that threatened the denomination’s commitment to evangelizing the world.This is a very old conflict among Baptists; in the nineteenth century, it produced two denominational spinoffs: the Primitive Baptists (two of my great-grandfathers were ministers for this group) who rejected missionary activity as a waste of time given the doctrine of predestination of souls; and the Free Will Baptists who rejected predestination altogether.The neo-Calvinists, who often overlap with the politicized right-wing leadership of the SBC, have exposed a lot of underlying Baptist angst about the drift of the denomination away from its roots. Page’s outspoken resistence to neo-Calvinism, and his advocacy of a more open and inclusive Baptist attitude towards unbelievers, may have been crucial to the success of his candidacy.So there’s more going on here than some grassroots rejection of “fundamentalism.” But Page’s election does in fact indicate that internet-based organizing is particularly relevant to a denomination with a strong tradition of local, congregational autonomy (vitiated so much by the conservative takeover of the SBC). Moreover, the upset probably indicates an understanding among Baptist clergy that the denomination’s massive growth in recent decades has slowed, and that Southern Baptists have lost the initiative to pentecostal churches, and to the nondenominational megachurches where right-wing politics are not the central message from the pulpit.I was raised as a Southern Baptist, and know a lot about the denomination and its membership. And althought rank-and-file Baptists have not vocally dissented from their Christian Right leadership, there’s a lot of snickering going on behind those Broadman Hymnals every Sunday on which the preacher suggests that divorce, feminism, extramarital sex, or homosexuality are unknown among the Godly. Maybe Page’s election will ultimately help energize the sensible if silent majority of Baptists. I certainly hope so.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
In looking at the trajectory of the 2022 midterms, I noted at New York a theory that suggests we’d better get used to close elections that defy history:
With six weeks to go until Election Day, the midterms aren’t unfolding as we all expected earlier this year, when Republicans were better than even money to retake the Senate and a lead-pipe cinch to flip the House by a substantial margin. There are, of course, plenty of reasons you can cite for this change in the political climate, from the backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision to somewhat better economic news to Donald Trump’s continued presence on the campaign trail to bad GOP-candidate selection. It’s nerve-racking, of course, because with Democrats holding the slightest of majorities in both congressional chambers, very small micro-trends in just a few states or districts could have enormous consequences for the parties and for the country (the consequences extend, of course, to state-level positions, not just governors but election-supervising secretaries of State).
“In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck write that American politics has become more polarized and calcified. Events and the responses to them from politicians no longer have the ability to deeply and fundamentally reshape our politics or political coalitions. ‘Voters and leaders in the two major parties are not only more ideologically distant from each other but also more likely to describe each other in harsh terms,’ they write. ‘In the fall of 2020, 90 percent of Americans said there were important differences in what the parties stood for — the highest number recorded in almost 70 years of American National Election Study surveys.’
“Moreover, they write, voters are ‘less likely to change their basic political evaluations or vote for the other party’s candidate.’ This calcification of our partisanship ‘produces rigidity in our politics — even when dramatic events suggest the potential for big changes.’
“In other words, if every election is an existential fight, then every election will be close. Or, as the Democratic strategist told me, ‘notably competitive.’”
If true, this would mean not only fewer “persuadable” swing voters to produce big shifts in the results from election to election, but likely a reduction in the sorts of “enthusiasm gaps” thought to affect partisan turnout patterns in the past. Elections would be more like a series of huge pre-mobilized armies meeting in a series of huge clashes with no prisoners taken (and little cooperation across party lines between elections). Even if that’s an exaggeration of the degree of gridlock from which our government and our electorate is suffering, we might truly be entering a period in which swings in party voting are limited. And as Sides, Tausanovitch, and Vavreck note, the “calcification” of party and ideological divisions can become self-perpetuating:
“Calcified politics and partisan parity combine to produce a self-reinforcing cycle. When control of government is always within reach, there is less need for the losing party to adapt and recalibrate. And if it stays on the same path, voters have little reason to revise their political loyalties.”
To be clear, very close elections can have variable outcomes. And in our winner-take-all system, the stakes will remain high. It will obviously make a great deal of difference which party wins the White House in 2024. Control of the Senate, moreover, depends as much on near-accidents of landscape than on the overall voting strength of the two parties, since only one-third of senators face voters each cycle. Democrats are benefiting from a modestly positive Senate landscape this year. Republicans should have a big Senate advantage in 2024. There is no guarantee either party can muster a governing “trifecta” in the future. As Republicans learned in 2017–18 and Democrats have learned in 2021–22, a trifecta isn’t all that if you can’t rigidly discipline all your troops all the time.
When white-knuckle time arrives just before Election Day this year, the odds are pretty good there will remain a lot of uncertainty about exactly what will happen when the votes are all counted (assuming we can get bipartisan buy-in on the results as officially certified, which is hardly a safe assumption at present). If Democrats managed to hold onto both congressional chambers, they may well feel vindicated by voters and go on to undertake an ambitious agenda in the next two years. More likely we will have a return to divided government and even more uncertainty and gridlock as we enter still another momentous election cycle.