Democrats Are in Trouble Because They Seem Irreligious

Roundup: Media's Take

Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of California legislative and congressional campaigns, writing in the LAT (Jan. 25, 2004):

Not since the 1928 elections have the Republicans retained control of both Congress and the White House. Now that 76-year-old record may be about to fall: President Bush is looking stronger with the economy picking up, and Republicans seem likely not only to hold on to control of both houses of Congress but also to increase their numbers.

A GOP gerrymander of Democratic districts in Texas will probably add six to eight Republicans to the House. Every other big state is so heavily gerrymandered that no other major changes are likely. This means the GOP majority in the House is expected to grow by at least half a dozen seats.

The Rothenberg Political Report says that six Democratic Senate seats are in danger of falling to Republicans — five in the South — while only three GOP-held seats are similarly vulnerable. The Democratic minority will almost certainly have fewer seats in the next Congress than it has today.

How did we ever get to this: The nation's historic-majority Democratic Party reduced to a declining minority, and the second-banana Republicans suddenly running everything?

A good place to start is 1928, because U.S. politics seems to run in roughly 60-year cycles.

From the Civil War until 1928, Republicans were dominant, building a coalition from Civil War veterans, farm states and the emerging West. From the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 until 1994, Democrats held both houses of Congress for all but four years and the White House for most of that time, especially in the New Deal years. They also held the most governorships and a majority of state legislatures. The New Deal coalition of the Southern poor, ethnic and minority voters and urban liberals held together, more or less, for six decades.

The big change on the national stage occurred in 1994, when the GOP achieved dominance in the South and its border states, and not on traditional economic issues but on cultural ones. While the Democrats have held their own in the industrial North and New England, they have declined in the South and much of the West over the last 40 years to a point of near-extinction. "Angry white males" in their pickups with gun racks have brought about fundamental political change by doing nothing more than shifting their loyalties from Democrats, based on economics, to Republicans, based on culture and values.

With Democrats getting down to the serious business of choosing an opponent to Bush, they face a basic issue: Can they reverse the cultural alienation that has cost them so many of their former core supporters? Watching their candidates pander to every socially liberal interest group suggests they cannot — indeed do not — even acknowledge their predicament.

The lesson of Al Gore's defeat in 2000 is not Florida, which he would have won had he just gotten as many votes as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate there, but places like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, which didn't stray from their New Deal roots until 2000.

A cultural conservatism grounded in religion and traditional values is imbedded in the South and its border states and is now more important to their voters than economic issues. Among the best measures of how people voted in 2000 was church attendance. People who attended church regularly overwhelmingly supported Bush; those who didn't went for Gore.

The Democrats' problem goes beyond simply being irreligious. There's an undercurrent of hostility toward religion in the highest ranks of the party. The Democrats' dismissal of Bush's "faith-based initiative" is just one example of their hostility. Even on an issue like abortion rights, on which Democrats are with the majority of the public, intolerance of any dissent has alienated a mainstay of the New Deal coalition, Roman Catholics.

That's ironic, because the last time the Democrats were in as bad a shape as they are today, 1928, the issue that did them in was religion, specifically the nomination of the Catholic Al Smith for president. Then, the party seemed too religious; now its problem is no religion at all. The gamble Democrats made in 1928, nominating a Catholic for president, paid off handsomely in the half century after Smith, as legions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European Catholics joined Southern and Western Protestants to vote again and again for Democratic majorities. John F. Kennedy's Catholicism is now regarded as crucial to his election in 1960, and he remains the last non-Southern Democrat to win the White House.

Yet, Democrats seem to have forgotten how important religious identification was to their success. Many Catholics and conservative Protestants once regarded Republicans as country-club elitists with whom they had little or nothing in common. A Southern Baptist named Harry S. Truman won in 1948 with solid Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant support.

Today, churchgoing Catholic voters are leaving the Democratic fold with accelerating speed, as are many traditional Protestants. The crucial and growing Latino constituency is more religious — and more Catholic — than mainstream Democrats, and it could be next.

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