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.
I think your critique is only a partial picture of the Netroots. I am both a member of the Netroots and a member of the Democratic establishment (working on campaigns since 1996). It is not that the Netroots expects ideological purity, but it does expect Democrats to stand up on important issues. For instance, I think few people believe that the Democrats who voted for the Iraq resolution were fooled by bad intelligence or thought that Iraq was really a major threat. The problem for me is not fighting a war, but not taking a principled stand on an issue of the greatest importance for our country.
I consider myself a hawk and in the lead up to the war I could think of many greater threats than pre-2003 Iraq. I thought (and still do) that North Korea, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda were all much greater threats. Unfortunately time has shown that invading Iraq was not in our interest. I just wanted a Democrat to stop cowering and say just that: Invading Iraq is not in our interest or let’s get Bin Laden.
What is the point of having representatives if they will not risk their office and power when issues of highest national importance are being debated? What is the point of power if you do not use it to protect your country in its time of greatest need?
The Netroots just wants politicians to fight for what is right, to be a little better. Many members of the netroots maybe Liberal, but so what, being Liberal is not a bad thing. Both parties live and die by their ideological bases. The Netroots supports conservative Democrats when that is the only viable option. That is what got Lieberman in trouble. If he were from Montana, most of us would accept the political reality and support him, but he is from Connecticut. Democrats do not have to hold their noses in Connecticut…
There seems to be a flawed conflation of data that is being used by many to discount the significance of this particular argument. Time and again I see the citation that contends that because a majority of Americans favor a withdrawal from Iraq (the latest data shows that a majority of Americans favor a withdrawal within a year), the netroots is therefore ideologically aligned with mainstream Americans. That conclusion ignores data on the left / right make-up of the voting public.
The problem is that the sentiment on the war cannot be extrapolated to conclude that a majority of Americans are aligned with the netroots…it is merely a measure of disfavor with the war…but cannot be concluded to be a fundamental leftward voter shift. It may happen in the future but the current data doesn’t support that reality.
The “Hillary Meter”, an ongoing Rasmussen survey that gauges her proximity to the center point of voter left / right sentiment demonstrates that she remains notably left of center. At the same time Clinton is seen to be a DLC centrist and that puts her too far right for the netroots. Therefore, one cannot reasonably conclude that the majority sentiment on Iraq…despite the fact that it coincides with netroot sentiment…will translate into a netroots defined Democratic voter majority.
read more observations here:
I think the netroots comparability with the larger population of the Democratic party will become apparent during the primaries.
I predict Feingold won’t be much of a player as a candidate, contradicting his very high support in the netroots. And the eventual winner, whomever that is, will at best be a 2nd or more likely 3rd favorite of the netroots.
This will answer a lot of questions and focus many minds.
I read you piece in the American prospect. You are correct in your findings that netroots readers are overwellmingly liberal.
Where I disagree with you is that this will force that Democratic Party to chose an overwhelmingly liberal Presidential candidate.
You overestimate the ideological rigidity and underplay the pragmatic flexibility of the liberal activist. Netroots people are fully aware that the most liberal guy will not always make the cut or win out and we are willing to work with that. What we also know is that America can not get back to the center unless there are liberal positions and truly liberal candidates to compromise off of. You see, in the far right environment we are in now, you can’t get to to center by just picking the center, you need to push to the left as much as possible and then tack back to the center as little as possible just to end up a little bit less to the right then we are now.
It’s about making the political environment safe again for liberals so that we can have sensible politics again, and we really wish centrist strategists would begin to understand this. When you shoot at the left you blow up the center.
I think that you want to have it both ways. You admit that the “idealogy” of the netroots has only two real components: opposition to the Iraq war and anti-corporatist populism. Everything else is optional, depending on the situation (even reproductive freedom; see Casey in PA). While you criticize “liberalism” as being unpopular, you don’t really address whether the populist anti-war position also unpopular.
If polls give any hint, I think you are wrong, and the netroots idealogy is broadly popular. People don’t like the war and they don’t like legislation that amounts to corporate-friendly give-aways. Tell me, why isn’t that a winning position?
Aren’t you ignoring, in your piece, that the race in question occurs in CT?
Beyond the fact that there is no sillier model than the median voter one… shouldn’t liberals have different standards re ideology on the basis of the state in question?
Lieberman is to the right of his Republican predecessor; that’s… odd, esp. in a state that has become more Dem in Presidential elections since 1988, not less.
Additionally — where was the analogue GOP anguish re PA 2004?
From reading your article, I think it would be useful to distinguish between two groups: (1) the political junkies that read and comment at liberal weblogs; and (2) those widely read hosts of liberal weblogs that are also active in Democratic political circles.
As to the former, they are what they are, and the rise of the net has probably only broadened the awareness of, and ability to communicate with, each other. You need to mobilize them to vote for you in elections but, as a candidate, you may not want to emphasize every one of their preferences (hence, no Democratic running on a pro-conscientous objector platform). Nothing new there.
Given their wonkishness, you correctly assess that they would much rather engage in a debate over the merits of a particular issue (e.g. universal health care) and formulate a strategy to successfully advance that issue. Conversely, they tend to be critical of unprincipled pandering (see H. Clinton – flagburning).
Their loyalty to the Democratic Party relies on the Party being able to advance these interests. When Party leaders are seen as compromising liberal interests, disappointment and criticism will ensue. In this regard, they are no different than so-called centrist Democrats (would the New Republic become dovish in the Middle East if polls showed it was crucial to a 2008 victory?).
Similarly, free-market conservatives and values conservatives seem to speak out when they feel elected Republicans are ignoring them, Reagan’s commandment notwithstanding.
It really seems you are putting forth an argument to marginalize the second group – the bloggers becoming influential in Democratic political circles. Maybe you are right that they should not be managing campaign strategy. However, they are still going to be making their arguments for thousands and thousands to see. So, you are still going to have to roll up your sleeves and engage them.