The God-Fearing Democrats

People in my family don’t follow sports much, but, to make up for it, we follow politics and cheer on our party as though it were an athletic team. At a very young age, I came to understand that the Democrats represented most of the things that were good about America- fairness, equality, diversity- while the Republicans represented the things we ought to work against -elitism, dogmatism, and stinginess. Democrats were the party of the poor and also the party of the intellectually inquisitive (my family being both), while Republicans represented the rich and the religious, an unholy alliance brought together by Reagan (a quasi-demonic figure in my non-religious household).

Life and education have slowly stripped away the simple political narrative that shaped me. I now know that some Republicans are atheists, and lots of them are poor, just as some Democrats are racists, and lots of them are dogmatic. Still, I was a bit shocked to learn from Charles Blow’s most recent New York Times column that, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last week, more Democrats than Republicans expect Jesus Christ to return to the Earth by the year 2050. Blow takes this information in stride, explaining that two highly religious groups, black and Latino voters, currently comprise about 37 percent of the Democratic base, and another 20 percent of the base is composed of very religious white people. The Democrats are becoming more religious because they are the party of growing ethnic minorities. These groups, comprised mostly of the descendants of former slaves and recent immigrants, have become a significant chunk of the party’s base because they see the Democrats exactly as I did- the party of fairness, equality, and diversity, and the party that represents the interests of the poor and the working class.

I don’t call myself a Democrat these days. I don’t even think it’s important that I vote. But, I have to confess that there is something about my home team putting bets on the Apocalypse that really makes my skin crawl. The explanation behind this recent trend reveals something that has long-embarrassed Democrats, which is why they have failed to exploit it the way Republicans have: Class is highly correlated with education, and education makes people more tolerant and less religious, in other words, more liberal. If anything, this observation seems like it should favor Democrats, but clearly the Republicans have made better use of its strategic implications. Over the last 35 years, the Republican Party has successfully managed to convince millions of working-class, religious white people who did not go to college to consistently vote against their own economic interests. It has done this by telling a story of cultural identity that exploits religious faith, racial prejudice, and xenophobia, and makes the base believe that labor and environmental regulation hurt their job prospects and that immigrants and “welfare queens” steal their hard-earned income through redistributive taxation. Republicans have managed to convince their base that intellectual sophistication rather than material privilege is the sign of true elitism, and that the people who teach their kids, not the people who own the means of production, are their political adversaries. The Democrats, in contrast, have no story of common identity and are reticent to identify a common enemy. They are the party of organized labor and most college professors, but they fear both populism and elitism.

Picturing an average Republican is easy: He’s white, drives an SUV, owns a gun, waves a flag, and goes to church on Sunday. Of course, the next Republican you meet might not fit any of those descriptions, but that doesn’t stop the image from persisting. In contrast, picturing an average Democrat is difficult. A Prius-driving vegetarian, a blue-collar AFL-CIO rep, and a black church-lady, wealthy or poor, are all equally plausible models. Even though the average Republican may have gone to college, may have gay friends, and may believe in evolution, he can be counted upon to vote with the party that panders to Christian fundamentalists because that’s what it means to be a Republican. The meaning of “Democrat” is, in contrast, much less precise. Some of the same Democrats who voted to elect Barack Obama voted against gay marriage on the same ballot in California. And a similar vein of social-conservatism runs through “purple” rust-belt states such as Pennsylvania, where the Democrats who get elected are often both pro-labor, and “pro-life.” Religious and cultural identity is likely to influence whether you are a Republican, but not how you vote. The same can’t be said of Democrats, and this is why the rise of the religious Left scares me.

I would like to believe that the Democratic Party is attracting more religious people because the religious are starting to believe that the Democratic platform better reflects their values (aid to the poor, fairness, etc.), but I think it’s more likely that they just see the Democrats as better representing their interests*. This isn’t all bad. I’m glad that religious people in my tax bracket want their vote to represent their economic interests because I share the same interests. However, I don’t share the same values as religious Democrats, and that’s a problem because, as we’ve seen with the religious Right, values are at least as important to most voters as economic self-interest. I haven’t seen as much pandering to the anti-gay, anti-choice, evolution-is-just-a-theory- crowd by the Democrats as I have seen by the Republicans, but there really isn’t any good reason to think that the Democrats won’t pander to this group if it becomes politically advantageous for them to do so, and, with growing numbers of religious Democrats, it may. I could say that a robust package of social programs, including low-cost higher education is likely to make the children of today’s religious Democrats less religious and more socially liberal than their parents, but that hope reeks of just the sort of paternalism that embarrasses liberals like me. I want my “team” to represent the interests of the common person, but I want the common person to share my values. This is why I don’t study politics anymore.

*Let’s be clear here, I don’t actually think the Democratic Party really represents the interests of poor/working people, regardless of race. The Republicans have just done such a good job of alienating black and Latino voters by pandering to racists and xenophobes that the Democrats have won them over by default.

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6 Responses to “The God-Fearing Democrats”

  1. gregw89 Says:

    This is a good description of the modern state of the two main parties in America. It is true that there is no uniform identity of Democrats, and that Republicans seem to have more in common with each other. I wish all people would teach their children that intellectual sophistication rather than material privilege is the sign of true elitism, as consumerism is getting out of control while controlling society. Maybe Christ is coming back by 2050. 😉

    • Liza Says:

      I was sort of intentionally vague about whether I really believe elitism is a good thing, so I can’t fault you if you misunderstood me, but to be clear, I don’t think we should deride or dismiss the value of intellectual sophistication. I want people to teach their children that it is a good thing to be smart and thoughtful, not that we should resent the smart and thoughtful. If they can do that and call it “elitism” that’s fine, but that’s not the word I would use because it has a negative implication.

      • Clouser Says:

        The point is, though, that the true elite–a wealthy few who control the means of production in our economy and enjoy privileges most can hardly imagine–have successfully tricked the lower class into associating elitism with intelligence and education.

        Sadly, the intelligent and educated are often the ones who are really on the poor’s side. Academic elitists are often sophomoric douches who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

        People who are actually informed and intelligent can be dicks, too, but I think that the stereotype the Right has sold to the poor is that of a pseudo-intellectual.

        Certainly, they don’t want to suggest that intellectuals actually know anything. Since evolution and climate change are supposed to hoaxes, they cast the learned as a club of snobs who think they know so much but don’t know anything.

  2. Wes Says:

    Liza,
    I share your sentiment about the increasing religiosity of the Democratic party. It’s very upsetting.
    In this post you mention the success Republicans have had at convincing working-class white voters to “vote against their own interests.” This certainly does seem to be the case, but I’d like to know if you have any thoughts on how the dominant news media share in the complicity of the Republican party in perpetuating these myths of class and cultural identity such as “welfare queens” and the idea that “big labor” is bad for jobs. It seems that, given the statistical information available, a responsible journalist would be sure to stress that the majority of welfare recipients are white people living in rural areas, and yet these myths continue to dominate the political discourse reflected in major media outlets in this country. I know that media criticism falls outside the subject matter of this post, so I hope you don’t mind this comment.

    • Liza Says:

      There are certainly examples of the media perpetuating myths that serve political interests, but I wouldn’t say that the mainstream media is heavily biased toward Republicans or Democrats. Republicans and Democrats both answer to corporate interests, as does the media. None of these groups can afford to alienate their sponsors, but outside of that, I think mostly the problem with news media is that it privileges things that make catchy sound bites over substantive content and debate. Also, I think that, insofar as news programs consist of dialogue between pundits and hot-headed talk-show hosts, they don’t constitute the Fourth Estate, and they don’t play the crucial role in the democracy which freedom of the press was supposed to protect. In the U.S. the powerful may not be able to silence their political opposition, but they are quite capable of drowning them out, and control of major media outlets is a big part of this.

  3. Power Says:

    Interesting POV. I agree with a lot of your points especially where you, so accurately, defined the two parties.


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