Identity politics, radical secularism, economic messaging and its impact on key congressional districts (Part I)

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.


  1. Such a good point. I’m a cultural Catholic, which means a lot of things to a lot of people. For myself, while I don’t attend church, and stopped taking communion in 11th grade b/c of how the church treats women, I recognize that much of my moral center formed around that old Vatican II religion, which many of us experienced as liberation theology. Even though I left the church behind, and even though I spent 20 years deep in snake handling/charismatic xtian territory, I’ve never been 100 percent comfortable with radical secularism as a political orientation. For the reasons you to allude to, it leaves too much from the conversation—it leaves morality out of politics, which is as much a failure of radical secularism as it is of the political imagination.

    Not to beat a dead horse, but this is the core Lakoff principle. Speak to our moral center. Radical secularists often misinterpret this as using emotional language. But that misses the point. Why do people care about politics? The answer going back to Plato and beyond has always been “to create a more moral society.” The ideas of ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’ are simply applications of morality to society. Why do we want single payer healthcare? Because it’s immoral that people should die for lack of medical care. Why do we oppose colonial wars? Because it’s immoral to kill people to steal their resources. These are all moral imperatives. Radical secularists can reinterpret moral imperatives so that they fit neatly in charts and graphs, and be presentable to business groups, but that’s never going to move voters. When we say people “vote with their hearts” this is what we mean—the heart is a symbol for morality. We fall “in love” with politicians b/c we believe they are moral people who will do the right thing; not because they resemble us. That is the heart of the matter.


  2. Herb Shelton · ·

    Radical secularism is not radical, but common sense built upon the principle of keeping politics and religion separate. When the two are mixed, then the result is radical, as evidenced by theocratic governments. Persecution against minority groups is the inevitable result, from intimidation, fine, imprisonment, and then death to the dissenters. Our greatest danger today is the radicalization of apostate christianity, the intentional establishment of their view of God’s will, specifically evangelical popery. This is seen in anti choice movements, planned parenthood defunding, and the push back against the so called gay rights ‘agenda’, as the misguided call it. Dominionists and 7 mountain advocates ignore the admonition of their Leader who said that His kingdom is NOT of this world. They ignore the fact that the Old Testament theocracy was nailed to the cross, hence the New Testament of heart conversion. They work like their predecessor Judas who tried to force His kingdom with a kiss of betrayal, thinking this would corner his Master to declare His kingdom. The clergy of old got it all wrong, just like the clergy of today, the ones who excite the masses to establish a christian taliban.


  3. Andrew B · ·

    “…means that the party still have no white members of Congress elected from a state in the Deep South.” Are you excluding Florida from this group? We had Alan Grayson and Charlie Crist.


    1. Deep South is widely accepted to be Louisiana, Georgia. Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina. If you include peripheral regions of neighboring states you could include TX CD 1 and TX CD 2, FL CD 1, FL CD 2 and a handful of Arkansas and Tennessee districts. If you broaden it, Gwen Graham was the last white member. Under the narrower, more widely-accepted definition it was John Barrow.


  4. A few points I want to make here. Democrats made fun of Donald Trump during the debates when he automatically equated African-Americans to inner cities. Do Democrats do that with Hispanics and immigration? It seems like whenever I mention Hispanic voters to white Democrats, the only issue they come up with is immigration. So we kind of have a pot-meet-kettle situation here.

    Also, over the last 11 years, I have lived on and off in rural Illinois, and have been able to see how voters in rural America (especially in coal country) react. The county that I live in (Franklin County) voted for Dukakis with 58% of the vote. Trump won 70% of the vote. While religion does play a role in vote choice, I really think that it is a red herring, especially in the coal belt. There were other factors that played more of a role than religion. First, people did not trust the Clintons down here. While a lot of identity politics fans want to throw out the “sexist” card when it comes to these voters, these voters hate Bill Clinton just as much. Rank-and-file, coastal elite Democrats either failed to recognize, or just ignored, how toxic the Clinton name is in rural America. Second, the Democratic Party has been the author of almost every free trade deal that has taken away American jobs. Clinton signed NAFTA, Obama signed free trade deals with Colombia, Peru, Korea. So, when Trump comes along and says he is going the rip apart NAFTA, that sells here. However, the third and most important reason people do not vote Democratic here is because the party has become centered on coastal elitist politics. The Democratic Party, at least in the eyes of rural voters, is becoming the kale-drinking, man bun, city dweller party that considers rural voters beneath them, and usually labels them as sexist, racist, or whatever. THAT is the reason why these voters aren’t coming back…they are giving the middle finger to coastal elitists.

    Living in southern Illinois is a real wake up call. Do I think that prejudices pay a role in vote choice down here? Yes. But YOU DON’T SAY THAT OUT LOUD DEMOCRATS!!! However, it seems like many liberals just want throw around slurs so that they feel that they won the debate.

    While I do appreciate the commentary, I think that one needs to live in a rural community for a while to understand how people in these communities think.


  5. And to build one what I said in the past, which is that we need to focus on economic issues, we need to look at others. Look at what Cheri Bustos has done in her rural district here in Illinois. We need to do that. Actually, Democrats have already done what Bustos has done, Bob Graham Workdays. Why aren’t we returning to that grassroots approach?!?! Elitist Democrats will be the downfall of the party.


  6. Sister Imp · ·

    I’ve spent 30 years working for Universal Health Care, voting and being active in Democratic politics. I’m now thinking it was wasted effort, and I should have been working against multiculturalism as the first step toward building a single society of people that cared enough about each other to enact UHC.

    Trump tapped into Americans’ yearning for social cohesion. Peter Beinart has a great article at the Atlantic explaining how the Democrats went wrong on immigration. So busy celebrating the cultures of black and brown people that white Americans become convinced they are not welcome in the party. And lots of white Americans have some qualms about the multi-culti America Democrats and liberals insist we build.

    I’ve never agreed with the theory of multiculturalism, but I voted with the Democrats anyway. Can’t agree with one party about everything, I told myself.

    I’m a feminist, not a multiculturalist. I don’t respect cultures that don’t respect women. I don’t want people who believe women are property to be traded just like pigs and cows to move in next door to me.

    We need to bring back the theory of the melting pot and expect immigrants to adopt our culture. Our western culture that respects the rights of EVERYONE. And, we probably should listen to the American people who want to slow the rate of immigration into the US. We now have more foreign-born people in the US, as a percent of our population, than ever in our history.

    Multiculturalism kills community cohesion. We must work to become one people, Americans, so that we can have some hope of progress on goals like universal health care and reducing the cost of college. First, we need to feel some kinship among ourselves as fellow Americans.

    IMHO, if Democrats want to win, we have to radically change our positions on immigration and multiculturalism. I’m not sure that we can do it.


    1. Beinhart article this month is great.


  7. […] Democratic Party is made up of disparate groups and clinging to identity politics and de-emphasizing economics has become the party’s way to try and remain united. The Democrats appear on the surface to […]


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