The Democrats are hoping to win back both houses of Congress in 2018 – this cannot be done without holding certain key seats in the industrial Midwest, the heartland and here in the southeast. Jon Ossoff’s loss in GA-6 on Tuesday despite exorbitant spending by the Democratic Party and allied groups as well as the closer-shave loss of Archie Parnell in SC-5 means that the party still have no white members of Congress elected from a state in the Deep South. From a high-point in the post-1994 landscape entering the 2010 cycle when white Democrats held congressional seats in every Deep South state, the party has now been obliterated. Of concern to the party looking at 2016 exit poll data, election returns from that year, the failures in special elections and general trends is that we may soon be seeing a similar situation outside of urban areas throughout the country. The Democrats de-emphasis on tough economic issues that appeal to working class whites while projecting what is interpreted to some voters as a persecution complex. Ossoff’s campaign was based largely on bashing President Trump and articulating fell-good but ultimately meaningless platitudes that have characterized recent Democratic campaigns. Parnell ran a stronger campaign on the issues that really mattered in South Carolina – but was ignored by the party elites who favored Ossoff’s approach and misread historical trends in both districts.
Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D-Ohio) challenge to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in November was based on the shifting ground that the Democrats in Washington seem to fail to acknowledge – even though deep down they must know it is happening. But whether it is because they are “feeding at the trough” making hundreds of thousands of dollars over losing Democratic efforts which focus on identity, elitism and radical secular thinking. Ryan’s seat is one where the eschewing of economic messaging outside of the platitudes Ossoff used in his party-driven effort could doom the Democrats long term. In the next part of this series we’ll look at numbers from specific congressional districts where the majority of the population is white, working class and likely religious where the party could have trouble going forward. Ryan understands that the Midwest is now in serious jeopardy for the party and if the Democrats numbers are reduced further in the Midwest, Western Pennsylvania and upstate New York, it’s hard to see a path back to a majority anytime soon.
But first some thoughts on religion.
Ten years ago, I read Jim Wallis’ seminal work God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It . It shaped much of my perception of the religious vote after a 2004 election cycle where like most Democrats I really didn’t understand it, and the party got beat because of it. Wallis’ work shaped the 2008 campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards with the type of empowerment language we didn’t hear from Clinton or her allies in 2016. It is possible to be secular and NOT offend religious voters and people of faith though the Democrats seem to have lost this art in recent years.
I am myself a self-described “radical secularist.” However, I respect the history of religion in this country and its force for positive good on the left of our society. The Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements would not have been possible without clergy – white clergy from middle America. Democrats haven’t been able to ever hold a majority of seats in the Congress without those who identify themselves as religious, ever. The great orator William Jennings Bryan who made economic populism a viable political strategy particularly in the South and Midwest was one of the most religious figures in American public life ever – he three times was the Democratic nominee for President and helped usher in an era of progressive reforms that began bringing balance between workers and industrialists.
While like the rest of the west, the United States is becoming more secular, it is still far more religious on the whole than most western European countries, Canada or Australia.
Today, the party which is dominated by elites from coastal areas, and its allied groups are hostile to religion. Whether or not political insiders and activists view the Democratic establishment in this light doesn’t really matter – because the voters pretty clearly do based on recent election results and polling data. My view of radical secularism fuels my overt opposition to Islamic fascist terror (which includes labeling it what it is), but for many on the left this isn’t an issue, yet hostility toward Christianity is at an all time high on the left – but distinctions need to be made. Radical Christianity is like Radical Islam, but all too often, perhaps by simply being sloppy, dogged and elitist communication from the left has painted too broad a brush about religion – and it might even threaten current elements of Democratic Party coalition which is held together by identity.The left has demonized churchgoers, regular folks from middle America just worried about the next pay check and people who because they have it so difficult put their faith in a higher power as a means of coping with the realities of 21 st Century living.
Many leaders of advocacy groups on the left express subtly (and perhaps subconsciously) an open hostility towards religion and a contempt for those who are people of faith – messaging perhaps again subconsciously that tends to offend people of faith – even at the high point of the Christian Coalition in the 1990’s and the new right’s effort to implement a mild theocracy here in Florida and other states in the 1990’s and 2o00’s, Democrats didn’t perform as badly as in 2016 among religious voters in both the Presidential and Congressional elections.
The biggest reason for this is likely economic messaging or the lack thereof now – religious people may have been out-of-step with the Democrats growing urbanism and big city flavor but they believed through many of those years the best interest of working class people was represented by the Democratic Party. Many stuck with the party and its candidates for office through the years because the party’s candidates for office were either religious themselves or used the type of empowerment language Wallis suggested in his work.
It is worth noting that despite playing the identity card and articulating a positive vision about immigration, 28% of Hispanic-Americans voted for Donald Trump (the percentage was higher in some key battleground states where Trump actually campaigned – and his national percentage was higher than Mitt Romney’s). Given Trump’s stand on immigration and his economic policies which would hurt Latinos and trade with Latin America, it is a head-scratcher as to why until you begin to think about the hostility conveyed by party and advocacy group elites toward religion, as many Latino’s are devout Roman Catholics. Per the Pew Research Center, the Catholic vote declined 5% nationally for Hillary Clinton in 2016 from President Obama’s 2012 level and nine percent from 2008. The drop from 2012 probably includes some Latino’s, as incredible as that might seem to those on the left who believe playing identity politics shows a tolerance towards Hispanics that the GOP doesn’t demonstrate.
For years, the catholic vote represented a core constituency for Democrats here in Florida, in the industrial Midwest and also in the urban centers of the Northeast. The differences between white Catholic voters and white Protestant voters was stark but now the two constituencies are voting more and more like one another. And as demonstrated above the slight bleeding in the Latino vote in key states was enough to elect President Trump.
When playing the identity card, the Democrats have very little margin for error because the combination of minority groups, coastal elites and young white secularists who aren’t libertarians probably isn’t 50% of the electorate – the number might be creeping upwards but still isn’t a winning formula in elections.
It’s worth noting that for years the GOP had hoped that religious issues would help to reduce the massive margins that Democrats enjoy among African-American voters. That has not happened yet, but 2016 may indicate that the GOP is lobbing just enough Latino’s off in key areas thanks to social conservatism and a perception that Democrats and elites on the left care more about secularism than economics.
In the next part of this series we will look at specific congressional districts and regions of the country where the Democrats messaging and the perception of the party and the left could be fatal.