Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Trying to Reach the Evangelicals, On Purpose

Apparently it's fashionable among liberal bloggers (and non-bloggers) to wonder out loud about how Democrats can court the evangelical vote. For instance, Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise writes on the topic, concluding:
I don't know whether Democrats can find equally compelling areas of common ground with evangelical groups today. Perhaps Democrats can make common cause with evangelical groups over economic justice, peace, or other issues of mutual concern. The alliance between the religious right and the corporate right may seem inevitable in retrospect, but it too is built on a sometimes uneasy compromise. Proponents of religious alternative outreach are urging Democrats to cultivate compromise in the other direction (economic interests over cultural interests). Whether such outreach is feasible remains an empirical question.
While Lindsay seems to harbor at least some hope of someday getting more evangelical votes, I do not, and to be honest, I don't want them. The evangelicals who don't already vote Democrat (and there are some; my parents make at least two) aren't the sort who are swayed by economic policies. The ones who are concerned with economic policy are likely to harbor a conservative, hyper-individualist, free market view of economic issues, and any talk of something like universal healthcare or government-funded arts or environmental programs will turn them off immediately. If we talked about gun-control, prison reform, or progressive taxation, we might cause these evangelicals to have an aneurysm. Then there are those who don't vote Democrat for moral and religious reasons. These are the people who vote based on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, sex education, evolution, and the like. There simply is no reaching these two classes of evangelicals without compromising our core values, and as Lindsay herself says, "Compromise outreach to is morally unacceptable and politically naive."

Instead of focusing on evangelicals, Democrats should be focusing on the people who do sometimes vote Democratic. Some of these voters may be evangelicals, and they may even hold some of the views that the untouchable evangelicals hold, but they don't vote on these issues alone. The way to get to them is to make it clear that Democrats will do more for them, in the short-term and the long-term, than Republicans will. People like me seem to think this is obvious, but the swing voters, evangelical or not, don't see it. So, it's not as obvious as we think, and we liberals got to do a better job of expressing ourselves and getting the message out there.

My one true hope, and I think this is a genuine possibility, is that the Democratic party will become more liberal, not less so, by recognizing that the conservative moral and economic voters are out of their reach, and focusing on what differentiates us from them. When survey after survey shows that a substantial majority of Americans support universal health care, why do we de-emphasize this issue in elections? Because we think we will lose the ultra-conservative voters? We've already lost them. The more we talk about trying to win them, the further we get from what we should be talking about.


Anonymous said...

I think you are right on the evangelical vote. Conservative evangelical voters are not a monolithic group, and insofar as they are genuinely a swing group, tend to vote along other lines than just religious ones. But I'm not sure those who vote along moral and religious lines are so unreachable; after all, there is a large contingent of Democrat voters who vote along moral and religious lines, and (what is more) share similar moral and religious views with their Republican counterparts - just with a different ranking of priorities. I think evangelicals as a rule tend to vote with a lesser-of-two-evils mindset; and which seems the lesser of two evils simply has a lot to do with which moral issues are really brought home to them.

I think. The problem with building one's political approach on things like this is that voter perspectives, unlike actual voting patterns, are known almost entirely through anecdotal evidence, and it's never clear to me whether my views of evangelicals as a whole are more or less right, or simply a fluke due to the sample I know. 

Posted by Brandon

Anonymous said...

Chris, I think you're absolutely right. If I were in charge of the Democratic party, I wouldn't allocate significant resources for evangelical outreach. It's a losing strategy to play to other parties' natural contingencies.

The only exception would be to continue and expand our work with black evangelical churches. We have a long history of cooperation with these groups and many shared values and interests.

All I'm saying is that if Democrats are so excited about evangelical outreach, everyone ought to be clear about what options are totally wacko and/or morally wrong and which are merely unpromising.  

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein

Anonymous said...

Brandon, I think there is a substantial subgroup within the larger evangelical population that really is untouchable. These are the people who vote almost entirely on issues like abortion, and now gay rights. They will never vote Democratic as long as Democrats favor reproductive rights and don't come out full force against gay marriage (there are other issues as well, but those are the two big ones right now). The evangelical voters that fall into this category that I know from personal experience are almost all southern evangelicals, in Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. They are represented fairly well by the Repuplican Party of Texas' platform. Reaching out to these voters is a lost cause.

Lindsay, I'm afraid that more and more African American evangelical churches are drifting toward the single-issue voter block, with abortion and gay marriage. Tbey are also becoming less interested in traditional Democratic civil rights measures, like affirmative action. I really don't know how to reach out to those churches, or whether it's even possible. I think the best thing for Democrats to do is just stick to their message, make it clearer, direct the portions of that message that are attractive to specific groups to those groups, and recognize that certain portions of the population are just lost to us. I think that's what you were saying too.  

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

Speaking as an evangelical and as somebody who has voted for Democrats, I think one of the biggest things that could be done is get to know us. Seriously, when I read post-election opinions about evangelicals I sometimes wonder if any of these columnists even know any evangelicals.

Another thing is that it seems like a lot of people think that voting for religious reasons is a bad thing. My faith affects my entire life and the position I take on every issue and I'm not going to vote for a candidate who expects me to ignore my faith. (This only happens, of course, when people disagree with my position. Apparently, it is a commendable thing when my faith influences my anti-death penalty stance or my deep concern about the war. But if my faith influences my position on abortion that's horrible.)  

Posted by Macht

Anonymous said...

Macht, I agree entirely with your second post. I think you should vote based on your world-view, and to the extent that your religious beliefs shape that, you should vote based on your religious views. However, I don't think that Democrats should change their message because some people have religious views that disagree with our core values. If that means that you, or other evangelicals, don't vote Democratic, then so be it. However, there are plenty of evangelicals (and since you've voted Democratic before, I imagine you're one) whose religious views fit with some liberal values, and some whose religious views fit with them entirely, or to a greater extent than they fit with conservative values. We should be speaking to these evangelicals, but not because they're evangelicals. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

I think the best thing for Democrats to do is just stick to their message, make it clearer, direct the portions of that message that are attractive to specific groups to those groups, and recognize that certain portions of the population are just lost to us. I think that's what you were saying too.Yes, that's it. I'm holding out some hope for Black evangelical outreach on those terms. Our base is eroding in those communities, but we don't have to let it. Again it's an empirical question as to how many votes are really up for grabs and how well-placed we are to compete for them.

I agree that we should target people who sometimes vote Democrat. I suspect that there are already many Black evangelicals in that category, and many more who voted Democrat this time but might not do so again unless we work to keep their votes.  

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. Everything I have to say here is from a conservative perspective, but hopefully in the same spirit of candor without rancor.

I think that the morning-after recriminations where we saw people like Nancy Pelosi saying that the Democrats need to be talking about religion more are ultimately unhealthy for the Democrats as political strategies go. It's foolish to adopt a rhetorical strategy that both: 1) is already comfortably in the hands of your opponents, and 2) can't be gotten behind sincerely by the people who will have to go out and actually execute it.

I thought John Kerry hurt himself a lot by trying to invoke religion more towards the end of the campaign. He didn't have much experience trying to do so, and struck me as clumsy when he tried. Al Gore was much better on these points -- although he may have been a bit wooden as a speaker generally, he had a much better feel for the cadences and the style of Baptist preaching, and a lot more street credibility (at least in my outsider's perception) as a result.

But it's not just a matter of the candidate's personal handling of religious speech. A perusal of Kos or Alternet or other popular left-wing forums suggests that a lot of otherwise politically active leftists are personally uncomfortable with evangelicals; the "United States of Canada/Jesusland" map making the rounds illustrates this point. It is hard to believe that these people will suddenly feel comfortable making religious arguments to swing voters, or that if they try, they will do so successfully, without revealing any of their own discomfort.

That said, one area where I think the Democrats could improve their standing remarkably with the evangelicals inclined to vote their way is to disown the least tolerant of the speech directed against evangelicals broadly. Rather than talking up personal faith, Democratic politicians might more profitably focus on discouraging Jesusland talk. Or angry rants about evangelicals as idiots. I would not be at all surprised to learn that many evangelicals inclined to vote Democratic refrained from doing so not because they didn't agree, but because they felt personally insulted. As you say, these voters don't need to be appealed to "as evangelicals", but this is true in terms of negative rhetoric as well as positive. 

Posted by Semantic Compositions

Anonymous said...

SC, nice point. I've definitely been guilty of making snide remarks about evangelicals in general myself, though I usually only mean certain subgroups (I do it a lot, even, in discussions of evolutino or science in general). I imagine this will always be a problem as long as there are evangelicals who vote based on values that are anathema to liberals. The same thing happens in reverse, of course. The problem we have is recognizing that evangelicals is a heterogeneous group, especially in politics, and we should condemn the values and positions we find deplorable, not the group to which the holders of those values and positions happen to belong. 

Posted by Chris

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