This is mostly a condensed transcript from the Ezra Klein podcast entitled “Behind the panic in white, Christian America.” I’ve woven in a bit of context from another of his podcasts, “What deliberative democracy can, and can’t, do.” That one isn’t nearly as compelling; the most important insights are included in what I’ve written here, or you can get them from the from this 3-minute youtube instead. And I’ve added a few of my own thoughts, inspired by these sources, at the end.
If you are engaged in the political conversation, you should probably be listening to Ezra Klein. This episode in particular was quite transformatively insightful for me – I’ve been digesting it for over a week. It’s 100% worth your time; if you think this transcript is interesting, really, you should give it a listen.
But what this essay does is somewhat ambitious. It explains Trump’s rise to power, and it frames the core issues underlying the current electorate and the upcoming election. Hope you think it’s as interesting as I did.
The Recent Political Evolution of America: from Bipartisanship to Polarization
It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that this election is fundamentally about the Civil Rights Act. Yes, that civil rights act. And what that means is that, like it or not, this election is about race.
First, some context.
From 1960 to about 1980, the Democrats had a vice grip on the House and Senate. This was a period of unusual bipartisan cooperation – because the only way for the Republicans to get anything done was to work with the Democrats, and because there were inevitable factions within the Democratic party, so they’d often reach across the aisle to get things done.
In 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights act. Since then, Southern Conservatives have drained from the Democratic party to the Republican party. As a consequence, both parties have become more homogeneous. While the Democrats became a little more liberal, the Republicans became considerably more conservative.
So by the 1980s, Congress had become competitive for the first time in a generation. Consequently the underlying incentive structure changed: if you can win the majority, the best way to achieve your policy objectives is to do so. The best way to win the majority is to undermine or, even better, destroy the opposition party. Bipartisan actions help the majority party look effective, so cooperation became contraband. Bipartisan actions are rare, and continue to become even more so.
On the White Christian Hegemony
Historically, white protestantism was the civic and moral glue that held American public life together. The upside of this cultural hegemony was to create a kind of common language, to establish the moral framework for the country that may not have been universally shared, but was that what was dominant enough that it gave a kind of coherent moral language to the debates in the country.
Through the 50 years from 1960 to 2010, the country was comfortably white and majority Christian, but the Christians were pretty factionalized. For example, in the 1960s, the fact that Kennedy was was a Catholic was deeply concerning, because there were serious worries that it would mean the Pope would be running the country. But largely as a reaction to the civil rights movement, white Christians increasingly flocked together. And with the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s and 1980s, those divisions became ever less important.
But the white Christian hegemony ended over the last decade. In fact, it flipped during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. In 2008, when Obama was running for the office, the country was 54% white Christian. In 2016, the country was only 43% white Christian, and it’s down to 41% today. That’s about a 1.3 percentage point drop every year for the last decade.
There’s a couple things going on. “White Christian” is both a racial and religious measure, so part of it is the relative decline in number of whites in this country. The other and more intriguing piece is that young people are leaving Christian churches in droves. The median age of every white Christian group is going up: they’re aging out. Young adults 18 to 29 are less than half as likely to be Christian than older Americans: fewer than 3 in 10 of younger Americans are Christians, but nearly 7 in 10 American seniors are. That is pretty stark. Simultaneously, there is an interesting rise in the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation. 1 in 10 seniors today claim no religious affiliation, but 40% of Americans under the age of 30 claim no religious affiliation.
However, this hasn’t been reflected in our elected leadership, because again, these older Christians are becoming a lot more united — and they turn out to vote. They can no longer take their power for granted, which means that their identity group now includes a lot of people it didn’t used to. It has become more unified around shared values. It may be a shrinking demographic group, but in unity it has expanded its political power. In the 2018 midterms they were only 15% of the country, but they were 26% of the voters. They are a pretty uniform, connected group: they go to church, and encourage each other to vote.
In contrast, the younger demographic are not a group per se. They are unified mostly by their diversity: hard core atheists, new agers, wiccans, people who dabble in Buddhism but do not self-identify, even Christians who have rejected the institutional forms of church, but still pray. It’s not one thing. So the numbers may make it seem like white Christians are losing more power than they really are; they are going to be still the probably the most powerful group for as long as we can project.
The Moral Degradation of America
Political power runs 10 years behind demography and cultural power runs 10 years ahead of it.— Ezra Klein
What you see when you turn on the television or what you see when you look at a Nike ad or a Gillette ad is a vision of a country that is still 20 or 30 years from being the actual country. The America that Christians see on TV, and in magazines, or on billboards, is very different than the one they’re familiar with. The changes they see in some important cultural legislation is different than what they are familiar with. And the changes they see are threatening.
Based on the polling, the pattern is unambiguous: most white Christians believe America is on a downhill slide, while strong majorities in most other groups in the country say things are improving.
Consider same-sex marriage. If you plot support for same-sex marriage on the same graph as the population of white Christians, you can see they are inversely correlated: one rises as the other drops, from majority to non-majority. In 2008, only 4 in 10 Americans supported same-sex marriage; by 2016, it’s only 4 in 10 opposed. If you’re a conservative white Christian and opposing gay rights has been a key political expression, and you see this flip on an issue that was at the top of your political agenda, it is a head spinning kind of change.
The same sort of thing is happening with trans rights. There’s a real effort to make it clear that you cannot be transphobic in polite society, to make it clear that transphobia is small-minded and wrong – much like being racist. But many white Christians feel that their faith, or at least their tribe, requires them to speak out against it. So a lot of these folks feel that this has been done to them: their faith has been made into something like being racist. They feel that what has happened to them is not inclusive: there has been a drawing of the boundary and they are on the outside of it.
Things have come to seem chaotic. They used to know where things were, now they don’t. There’s a sort of moral and social vertigo that many of these people are feeling. It has to do with the speed, and that it’s happening around, and above, and behind them. They feel that in the last decade the rules of politics have been changed on them. It’s not that they hold opinions that are losing, but that they hold opinions that they are no longer allowed to hold in some fundamental way. At some level, it feels as though nobody’s playing by the rules. While it’s not actually recent, there’s a feeling that there’s been a sharp change. It feels to the people on the wrong side of it like somebody is somehow cheating, and that the only way for them to fight back is to somehow do the same thing.
“Do you think that a political candidate who has committed an immoral act in their private life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life?”– Polling question by Robert Jones
To a white Christian, this all represents a country turned so far against Christianity, a fundamental moral looseness that has gone so far that trying to win a losing fight with inclusive approaches, trying to be nice to your enemies, simply doesn’t work. You have to go into all out war. You have to understand yourself as being in a time of emergency. I think it has a lot to do with the sort of Flight 93 apocalypticism that that preceded Donald Trump’s election: this idea that you have to rush the cockpit, and maybe you crash anyway, but you have to try, because otherwise what America’s going to become is just too disgusting to to be worth trying to save.
There is a polling question Robert Jones mentions about a candidate’s character and how much it matters: “Do you think that a political candidate who has committed an immoral act in their private life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life?” We asked this question first in 2011, and only 30% of white evangelicals said yes, about what you’d expect from a group that calls itself moral values voters: your private life carries into your public life. But they asked the same question in the fall of 2016, and that number went to 72% of white evangelicals. Seventy two percent say that private indiscretions do not suggest that a politician will be unethical in office.
What white Christian voters were looking for in 2016 wasn’t an evangelical, but a street fighter.
The Only Thing Worse than Being a Slave
One of the early tropes in early evangelical theory is that there is a sense that things are divinely ordained, it all fits in a hierarchical ordering typically. Men and women have complementary roles, and men are over women. God created whites and blacks differently; they should be kept in separate spaces. In early evangelical theology, there was no mincing words: God created whites to sort of be in the place of directing and managing labor, and created African Americans to be doing the labor. This was central to evangelical theology.
In fact, in 1845 the southern Baptists split from their Northern brethren than over the issue of missionaries who owned slaves, the right of Southerners to own slaves and still be held up as missionaries in good standing. That same year Frederick Douglass published his autobiography. At the end he has an appendix where he takes on his experiences with white Christianity. It is scathing and heartbreaking. He says, essentially, “my experience and the experience of other enslaved people has been this: the next worst thing after being a slave, was being the slave of a Christian Master, because they in fact treated us worse than non-Christians – precisely because they had a kind of moral and religious backing to their cruelty that serve to curb their own human impulses to empathy.” It’s just a remarkably damning statement.
So as described above recently, all of this neat, ordained by God, hierarchical ordering has started breaking down. It has been challenged by the civil rights movement, and the women’s rights movement, and the gay rights movement, and more broadly by the egalitarian mindset. It’s no joke that the sociological changes over the last fifty years basically blow up that hierarchical way of thinking. It is a breakdown not just here and there of this issue or that, but a complete change in how each of those issues fits into the bigger whole. We no longer have a divinely ordered society where everybody kind of knows their social role, everybody plays it, and where essentially white men are at the top of it. Our political conversation is no longer founded on a tacit, unexamined agreement on that basic hierarchy.
What we are seeing in politics right now is a collision between egalitarian and hierarchical mindsets.
So liberals ask conservatives how in the world does allowing two men to marry threaten your heterosexual marriage, but that was never really the point. The point was that in the hierarchical world view, there’s one kind of proper and appropriate marriage and it has a very distinct role for male people and a very distinct role for female people. You’re not threatening their marriage, you’re threatening a hierarchical ideal on the concept, their moral conception of marriage. And for the white christians inside that world, the only alternative to it feels like a kind of free-for-all chaos. From their perspective, the battle is between a world that makes sense, and a world that is full of chaos and panic.
Of course it’s all identity politics, it always has been. But a unified, homogeneous identity is a much more powerful form of identity than one composed of many identities in coalition. Ten years ago, the Republican party was 80% white and Christian, and Democrats were half white and Christian. Today, self-identified Republicans are about 7 in 10 white and Christian, so not much change. In contrast, Democrats are only three and ten white and Christian, and the rest is a mix of religious people, irreligious people, non-religious people, and they’ll keep drifting further that way. So if those trends continue, we’re increasingly getting this dynamic where we will essentially have a white Christian party and then the party of kind of everybody else. But as mentioned above, the Democrats have the demographic winds at their back, because those groups are growing while the white christian Republican base is shrinking. It’s an inherent and deep kind of polarization.
But the Republicans will have an easy time motivating their base to get out and vote, while activating voters is much more complex among Democrats. If the Democrats are going to see real power in the next twenty years, it’ll be by finding themes that don’t necessarily unite, but at least motivate a significant portion of their big, disorganized, disunited group.
“We need someone to re-unify the country”
This is Don again, speaking for myself.
Have I mentioned that everything above is basically a transcription of the Ezra Klein interview? I probably should have. But the interview is better, and I really recommend listening to it.
For me, here’s how it all affects my thinking around the current election cycle.
In discussing what kind of leader the Democrats should look for, there are those who are looking for someone who can “reunify” the country. That really misses the point. “Reunification” tacitly yearns for those two brief decades of bipartisan cooperation, and Democrats are not going to be a dominant party like that in the foreseeable future, if ever. And implicit in “reunification” is the dream of unifying the country across the political spectrum, and if nothing else the observations in this interview make it clear that the Republican base is not interested in participating in an egalitarian, pluralistic country. They don’t want inclusion. Republicans yearn for a simpler, whiter, more Christian time, when the conversation was simple and left a lot of people out.
But more deeply, the question is not really about the electorate. The nature of our country is in question. Do we still live in a country whose hierarchy is ordained by god? Or do we live in a pluralistic, egalitarian, inclusive country? For me, the answer is clear – and, based on the demographics, the answer is inevitable. However, the most powerful, unified voting block in the country is fighting against it, and fighting hard and mean. Meanwhile, activating the diverse, squabbling, youthful coalition of the future is very challenging.
So that’s what this election is about. On the left, unifying the non-white and/or non-christian against the aging party of the past that is trying to make its final stranglehold on power a permanent one. On the right, motivating the White Christians to fight against the immoral forces of chaos trying to utterly demolish the moral basis of the country.
It’s not about national unity. It’ll never again be about conforming to a singular definition of what it means to be an American. Calls for that are really hidden calls for an America that never really was, and certainly never will be.
The election will hinge on whether the left can find a leader who at least motivates the squabbling, diverse, petulant group called “Democrats” to get off their couch and vote. It’s that simple: regardless of the Democratic nominee, Democrats either get behind that candidate and energetically fight for victory – or tacitly vote for Trump. Because his base is rushing the cockpit, and they are going to vote.
It really is that simple.