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Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Another element in the disassembly of the Democratic majority
The CW coalesces.
Some scholars point to the Democratic National Convention of 1972 as not only the moment Democrats edged toward secularism but the event that created the religious rift in American politics. Before 1972, both major parties were essentially indistinguishable in their approach to religion. The activist cores of both were dominated by members of mainstream religious groups: the GOP by mainline Protestants and the Democratic Party by Catholics and Jews.
But the Democratic delegation that nominated South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president at the '72 convention represented a profound shift from what had been the cultural consensus in American politics. Whereas only 5% of Americans could be considered secular in 1972, fully 24% of first-time Democratic delegates that year were self-identified agnostics, atheists or people who rarely, if ever, set foot in a house of worship. This new activist base encouraged a growing number of Democratic politicians to tone down their appeal to religious voters and to seek a higher wall separating church and state. With little regard for the traditionalist sensitivities of religious people within or outside of the party, the Democrats also embraced progressive stances on feminism and homosexuality that the public had never openly debated.
Meanwhile, the Republican delegation — and by extension the party platform — remained unchanged, and the GOP essentially became the party of tradition and religion by default. 'The partisan differences that emerged in 1972,' writes University of Maryland political scientist Geoffrey Layman, 'were not caused by any sudden increase in the religious and cultural traditionalism of the Republican activists but by the pervasive secularism and cultural liberalism of the Democratic supporters of George McGovern.'
Over the next generation, the shift in the Democratic Party pushed many religious voters, including the traditionally Democratic bloc of Southern evangelicals, into the arms of the Republican Party. In the 1980s, a shrewd GOP leadership discovered that the newly politicized evangelical population could be the engine of a remarkable late-century political comeback. By 2004, pollsters found that voters considered the Republican Party 'more friendly' toward religion than the Democratic Party.
The Republican party has become more religious because the Democrats became self-consciously secular, and the turning point wasn’t the 1992 or the 2000 elections but the putsch of 1972, when secularist delegates—to quote Phillips, quoting Layman—suddenly “constituted the largest ‘religious’ bloc among Democratic delegates.” Yet having noted this rather significant fact, Phillips sets it aside and returns blithely to his preferred narrative, which is the transformation of the GOP into America’s first “religious party.” But that’s not what happened at all—or rather, it’s the second half of the story, the Republican reaction against the Democrats’ decision to become the first major party in American history to pander to a sizable bloc of aggressively secular voters.
This was very much a strategic electoral move on their part. As Mark Stricherz pointed out last year in a Commonweal essay titled “Goodbye Catholics,” Democrats in the McGovern era were faced with the crack-up of the old New Deal coalition and made a conscious decision to jettison blue-collar voters in favor of what a 1969 memo called “a different political and social group with rising educational levels, affluence, and . . . greater cultural sophistication.” At the time, pursuing a coalition of younger voters, minorities, and affluent suburbanites seemed a better bet than trying to hang on to socially conservative voters, especially given that all the energy in the party seemed to be coming from the Left. But it required the Democrats to identify with a segment of the population—self-identified secularists and nonbelievers—that has grown rapidly over the past three decades and grown more assertive along the way. Which in turn has alienated the devout plurality of Americans and left the Democratic party stuck just shy of majority status for the better part of a generation.
So the rise of the Religious Right, and the growing “religion gap” that Phillips describes but fails to understand, aren’t new things in American history but a reaction to a new thing: to an old political party newly dependent on a bloc of voters who reject the role that religion has traditionally played in American political life. The hysteria over theocracy, in turn, represents an attempt to rewrite the history of the United States to suit these voters’ prejudices, by setting a year zero somewhere around 1970 and casting everything that’s happened since as a battle between progress and atavism, reason and fundamentalism, the Enlightenment and the medieval dark.
The Year Zero really was somewhere around 1970, but the successors to the Democratic Party haven't completely liquidated their entire inheritance yet, so they still have to pretend to some continuity.
Secularists first appeared as a political force within a major party at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Prior to then, neither party contained many secularists nor showed many signs of moral or cultural progressivism. Moreover, prior to the late 1960s, there was something of a tacit commitment among elites in both parties to the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings regarding authority, sexual mores, and the family. This consensus was shattered in 1972 when the Democratic party was captured by a faction whose cultural reform agenda was perceived by many (both inside and outside the convention) as antagonistic to traditional religious values.
The 1972 Democratic convention* set in motion a political dynamic that continues to the present. The ascendancy of secularists in the Democratic party had long-term consequences for the relative attractiveness of each party for members of different religious groups. The Democratic party became more appealing to secularists and religious modernists and less attractive to traditionalists. The secularist putsch in the Democratic party had the opposite effect on its rival, which over time came to be seen as more hospitable to religious traditionalists and less appealing to more secular Republicans. What was at first an intraparty culture war among Democratic elites became by the 1980s an interparty culture war.
60 percent of first-time white delegates at the  Democratic convention in New York City either claimed no attachment to religion or displayed the minimal attachment by attending worship services "a few times a year" or less. About 5 percent of first-time delegates at the Republican convention in Houston identified themselves as secularists, a figure that had not budged for 20 years.
*Actually the McGovern committee delegate selection rules for the 1972 convention, but that's inside baseball. Not, however, sufficiently inside to justify both Douthat and Bolce and De Maio's use of the very loaded term putsch, even as a quoted reference. There was a takover by the insurgent wing, but it happened the old fashioned way: by manipulating the party rules to screw over their opponents.
The consistent thread is that the insurgents within the Democratic party replaced a larger population segment with a smaller one, hoping that passion (and the inevitable movement of history) would compensate for the lack of numbers.
Thus are majorities dismembered.
posted by Kelly |