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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Edsall: Demographics, Faith, Egalitarian Values Feed Polarization

Thomas B. Edsall takes some recent demographic and attitudinal trends out for a ramble at his New York Times ‘Campaign Stops’ blog, and comes across some interesting insights, among them:

In a study published in February 2008, the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life found that mainline Protestants, once the dominant force not only in politics but in the national culture, had fallen to 18.1 percent of the electorate, behind both Protestant evangelicals and Catholics – and barely ahead of the fast-growing category of “unaffiliated,” which reached 16.1 percent.
Although a majority of the American population today decisively self-identifies as Christian, at 78.4 percent, America and its politics have in fact become vastly more heterogeneous. The connection between religion and politics is very complicated, of course. On the one hand, many people do not feel their religious beliefs and their political beliefs are directly related, but for others the former determines the latter. Not to mention the fact that the tenets of Christianity are themselves subject to partisan and subjective interpretation.

That latter point comes alive in a survey by an April 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, which asked respondents, “Is capitalism compatible with Christian values?” The results, as Edsall summarizes:

By two to one, 53-26, Democrats believe that capitalism and Christianity are not compatible. Republicans, in contrast, believe there is no conflict, by a 46-37 margin. Tea Party supporters are even more adamant, believing that capitalism and Christian values are compatible by a 56-35 margin.

You can imagine the field day neo-McCarthyist Republicans will have with that one. The findings are corroborated somewhat with other surveys cited by Edsall. The Public Religion Research Institute found, for example, that 70 percent of Democrats agreed that “one of the big problems of this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life,” compared to just 38 percent of Republicans. A healthy majority of Republicans, 54 percent, on the other hand, agreed that “it’s not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others,” while only 25 percent of Dems endorsed this view. Looking at all Americans, 53 percent agreed with the more liberal view, with 40 percent also embracing the more conservative perspective.
Edsall’s take on these and other survey data he presents is that “As presently constituted, the Republicans have become the party of the married white Christian past.” He rolls out an array of questions about how both parties will adapt to the demographic changes ahead, leaving his readers with an unavoidable conclusion that there is a well-rooted altruism/compassion gap which is reflected in party identification and economic philosophy.

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