It’s hardly surprising that analysis of Barack Obama’s sudden viability as a presidential candidate dwells on race. He is, after all, a black man whose main source of popularity at present seems to be with white voters. Like Colin Powell, moreover, he is often described as a black man almost perfectly engineered to appeal to white voters, at potential risk to the “authenticity” deemed essential to attact the African-American voters who are so important in the Democratic presidential nominating process, at leasts when it pivots beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.Peter Beinert has an article up on the New Republic site examining the Powell parallel in detail, suggesting that Obama represents an implicit repudiation of other, more “authentic” African-American politicians, which could create a backlash among black voters generally. And last week Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post examined African-American ambivalence towards Obama, as reflected in his little-known congressional primary loss to Bobby Rush in 2000.There’s also the simple data point that national polls currently show Hillary Clinton trouncing Obama among black Democrats, which makes his overall robust poll numbers that much more remarkable.But while fascinating, these race-based takes on Obama don’t come to grips with the genesis of his startling appearance on the national political scene in August of 2004, when few Americans knew much about his personal story, or had experienced his “charisma” or marveled at his political skills. Ever since his famous Democratic Convention speech, Obama has been articulating what might be called the Great Alternative Democratic Message, and it clearly has some clout.What is that message? It could be described as “The New American Patriotism,” or “The Politics of Higher Common Purpose,” or “Towards One America,” or even “Meeting the Big Challenges.” But whatever the precise rhetoric, its core is to suggest that Democrats can and will lift politics and government out of the slough of polarization, culture wars, smears and sheer pettiness characterized by the Bush-Rove era, transcending party and ideology to unite the country around an agenda that really matters.This was the meta-message Stan Greenberg urged Democrats to embrace in 2004 in his pre-election book, The Two Americas. It was the original theme of John Kerry’s campaign, until Bob Shrum convinced him to shift in the autumn of 2003 to a message focused on the candidate’s biography (with fateful, perhaps fatal, consequences a year later). It was then picked up (or perhaps, according to insiders, accepted as a gift from former Kerry advisor Chris Lehane) by Wes Clark, whose campaign never really got its act together. And it was echoed in some respects by John Edwards, though his “one America” aspiration drew much less attention than his neo-populist “two Americas” indictment of the status quo.But this alternative message never got a full test until Barack Obama, at the time still a state senator, made it the core of his “Red, White and Blue America” speech in Boston. And it’s still Obama’s distinctive message.That’s one important reason for the half-submerged skepticism about Obama in some precincts of the progressive blogosphere, where all his talk about unity and civility sometimes sounds uncomfortably like the much-despised “bipartisanship” of party centrists. But it still strikes a chord in the electorate, I suspect.Obama must, of course, soon begin to fill out a more detailed message and agenda that explains exactly what Democrats should do to transcend the counter-polarization of the 2006 campaign and expand the party base, without repudiating principles or sacrificing unity. His success or failure in doing that may in the end have a greater impact on his candidacy than his alleged role in some great national psychodrama about race and identity.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.