My view makes me unpopular with everyone, so it seems. For those on the left, the notion I’m sticking to, that a cultural and demographic firewall probably won Obama the presidency and will do so for Democrats for years to come sounds condescending, a kind of veiled insult to many Democratic voters as if they are mind-numb automatons being moved by social forces beyond their control. For those on the right, the firewall thesis is a major lapse of faith in America, a denial of her exceptionalism and resilience, the pitiful bemoaning of the defeated raising an unpatriotic white flag prophesying the forfeiture of founding principles and doom of America. One accuses me of failing to give enough credit. The other accuses me of failing to fail well.
But neither is correct. I can honestly say that my conclusions about the future of the American electorate is not motivated by condescension or defeatism. I’m simply trying to go where I have seen the data taking me for years. Before this election, not because of it, I predicted that the future for the GOP was bleak (no matter who won). I don’t deny that the only option the GOP has left at this point is to try and reach out to Latino voters, but I just happen to believe that this too will fail. And so I must take issue with the optimism seen in one of my favorite writers, Historian Philip Jenkins. He writes today:
Some commentators noted that 2012 marked the victory of a new Democratic coalition, which is young, urban, multi-ethnic, and significantly less religious. And that is the point at which I would like to ask, What is wrong with this picture?
Let’s think of the next twenty or thirty years, as the US moves to its polychrome future, with the steady growth of Latinos, Asian Americans, and African-Americans.And these are “irreligious” communities? Mexicans, Central Americans, South Asians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos, Nigerians and other Africans, old-stock black Americans … am I not describing some of the most actively religious sections of the US population? And with the exception of South Asians, also the most passionately Christian. By mid-century, Latinos and Asians could make up 80 percent of US Catholics, and they are already very well represented among Pentecostal and evangelical churches. Go to any college campus and watch the ethnic makeup of the Christian organizations. These are the leaders of tomorrow’s churches, and usually they are not old-stock whites. Often, they are first or second generation immigrants.
Undeniably, any Republican or conservative movement has to acknowledge the demographic shifts currently in progress if it wants to survive, and above all that has to mean recognizing the ethnic transformation. A party based wholly on the support of older, white, rural and small-town America is destined for the scrapheap – especially if white America is beginning to secularize. Nor is that broadening of the ethnic base necessarily that difficult: George W. Bush scored well among Latinos as recently as 2004, before the acute rise in tensions over immigration. There is no logical reason why Republicans should be doing so badly among so many of the newer ethnic communities – Christian, Muslim and Hindu – who are deeply committed to entrepreneurship, and who desperately want and need pro-business policies.
At the same time, though, an ethnic reorientation certainly does not imply taking aboard the whole liberal social agenda, which is anathema to so many of those newer groups, largely on religious grounds. The cities of a future majority-minority America could well be marked by powerful ethnic churches and religious institutions with distinctly conservative positions on issues of morality and sexuality. (Prior to September 11, morality issues actually led many Muslim voters to favor Republicans as their natural allies).
I wonder whether we might see a political shift quite similar to that among white ethnics in the 1960s and 1970s, when moral and religious concerns dragged millions of voters away from their traditional Democratic moorings, to become a solid conservative voting bloc.
The End of White America? Well, hardly…. But assuredly not the collapse of the politics of religion and morality, faith and family. If a future Republican Party can’t build on that base, they deserve to be obliterated.
Essentially, Jenkins is saying that if the GOP must turn to ethnic-minorities to stave off future disaster, so what? That shouldn’t be too hard since these are highly religious, culturally conservative, folk just waiting for a good reason to vote Republican if the GOP will just bring their gospel to them. They’ll buy what the GOP is selling if the GOP just makes the offer. But I’m not buying what Jenkins and others are selling for the following reasons (believe me, I’d like to be wrong):
Their religiosity isn’t necessarily a win for the GOP. My colleague and I did a study on Latino political behavior, where we compared Latino evangelicals, Catholics and seculars. First, the number of seculars among Latinos is growing (13% in 2008, 17% today), as it is with the rest of the population, and as with the rest of the population, that’s not good news for the GOP. Second, while Latino evangelicals are more politically conservative than Latino seculars or Catholics, they makeup only 23% of all Latinos (unchanged in 4 years) and committed Catholics makeup 24%, meaning less than half of Latinos are seriously religious in behavior; indeed, only 40% report attending church regularly). In 2012, only 39% of Latino evangelicals voted for Romney anyways, and they are by far the most politically conservative of Latinos. Moreover, a majority of Latino evangelicals are still not identifying with or voting with the GOP (43% identify as Republicans while 50% identify as Democrats). Moreover, these numbers probably look worse for the GOP in 2012, since 71% of Latinos voted for Obama and that was up from 2008 (67%). Just found it: no change for Latino Dem identity over all since 2008, but among the Latino evangelicals? In 2008 50% of Latino evangelicals identified with the Dems; 52% did in 2012. Third, Latinos are not as socially conservative as Jenkins suggests, even among Latino evangelicals. Just recently, and for the first time, a majority of Latinos began supporting same-sex marriage. And even the most likely GOP voters, evangelical Latinos, a strong majority favors universal health insurance. Even if Latino religiosity grows, that doesn’t necessarily translate into votes for Republicans either. Black Protestants, whose numbers have been falling as a share of total blacks and the population (despite the claim of Jenkins), are a case in point (source). Studies show that the more Black Protestants go to church, the more Democratic they become. They don’t fit the culture war profile, where heavy religiosity is associated with political conservatism and support the GOP. Now, this is not the case currently with Latinos, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise to me if it became the case off and on in the future.
What about the other groups? Jenkins asks, “am I not describing some of the most actively religious sections of the US population?” Well, no, actually. I’ve already mentioned the religious decline among Black Protestants and the relatively modest religiosity of Latinos, but what about the next largest category Jenkins mentions, Asian Americans? Well, in fact Jenkins is NOT describing the most actively religious here either. Pew did a study on Asian-Americans and by all measures, they are less religious than the general population on any number of indices (79% believe in God compared to 90% gen-pop; 26% unaffiliated compared to 19% gen-pop; 39% say religion is important compared to 55% gen-pop; I could go on). Besides, this group, regardless of religious identity, went for Obama (73%; even greater support for Obama than among Latinos).
Basically, I’m saying that the religion of these groups doesn’t matter to the GOP if the religion of these groups doesn’t matter much to the politics of these groups, and by and large, it doesn’t. One would think that the GOP would have a better chance winning white Catholics than Latino ones, and the GOP can’t win that vote even in these conditions either.
Their religion isn’t the only thing about them, and the other things about them tend to trump their religion in importance and favor the Democrats. Many political scientists have noted that there are some groups for whom religion is simply not a statistically detectable force, once other characteristics are taken into account. White Catholics, for instance, seem to function this way. The same applies to Latino Catholics and applies for the most part to even committed Latino Catholics as well. Only evangelicalism and secularism, as “isms,” seems to drive the political behavior of folks in America. Instead, other factors like differences in income, education, financially dependency, marital status, gender, explain political behavior. And these factors are breaking for the Dems among Latinos. For instance, in 1960, 72% of Latinos were married, but that number is 48% today. And married folk are more Republican. Latinos too are increasingly influenced by a changing culture which is leaving traditionalism, conservatism, the base of the GOP, behind. As local communities lose their political identities and distinctiveness thanks to the nationalization and amalgamation of our national identity and culture, it’s the culture producers in Hollywood, Universities, and Journalism that influence us more and more. I’m saying that, thanks to nationalization of politics and culture over localism, it is increasingly California, and not Kansas, that most influences the American mind (or Katy Perry, not Billy Graham, if you prefer). Also, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among Latinos is 53% (national average is 41%), with 32% of all births to unmarried mothers coming from Latinos. Latinos have a relatively high poverty rate and welfare dependency rate (means-tested). Twenty-five percent live in poverty compared to 15% for the rest of the population. Child-poverty rates are even higher at 34% and the median income for Latino males (much lower for unmarried ones) is $23k (compare to $38k for white males). In terms of government assistance, of all families receiving TANF benefits (Temporary Aid to Needy Families), nearly a third are Latino (source). These facts come as good news for the Democrats and bad news, no matter how religious Latinos tend to be, for Republicans. And when it comes to beliefs about collective responsibility for the poor (spending on public assistance), Latinos of every faith tradition, including evangelicals, are not with the GOP. Today, about 66% of Americans do not favor cutting spending on government programs for the poor even to reduce the deficit; that number is 75% for Latinos (70% for Latino evangelicals; source is my own cited study abvoe). Also, 63% of Americans favor raising taxes on those earning $250k or more; I don’t have the numbers, but I bet it is significantly higher for Latinos (UPDATE: 65%, do).
Maybe, just maybe, it’s not just a matter of welcoming Latinos home to the GOP. Maybe, just maybe, Latinos are just not buying what the GOP is selling.