Demographic Changes Pose an Issue for Republicans, Not Democrats

Discussions about the demographic changes we’re undergoing in this country usually focus on the predictions that, by mid-century, white people will no longer represent a majority in this country. There is also the fact that the gender gap continues to widen in the Trump era, especially among white suburban women. But Ron Brownstein points to another demographic shift that hasn’t gotten as much attention.

In [Public Religion Research Institute] surveys, [Chief Executive Officer Robert P. Jones] notes, evangelical Christians have declined from about 21% of the total population in 2008 to 15% this year. That erosion, Jones says, has been “asymmetrical,” with younger and better-educated members becoming the most likely to leave the faith. That’s left behind a group that is older and more uniformly conservative.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the shrinking group of older white evangelical Christians is Trump’s base of support.

Mike Podhorzer, AFL-CIO’s political director, suggests that if we want to have a better understanding of white, non-college educated voters, we need to stop lumping them into one, catch-all category. What really distinguishes a Trump-supporting white voter from one who doesn’t isn’t education or even gender, it’s whether or not that voter is evangelical.

But it’s not just Trump. Brownstein uses exit data from the 2018 midterm elections to demonstrate that, when it comes to the much-discussed “white working class,” it is actually white evangelical Christians who are the Republican base.

As you can see, white evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly Republican, regardless of their education level. On the other hand, college educated non-evangelicals voted Democratic, while gender was the the issue with non-college educated, non-evangelicals.

As is often the case in these kinds of discussions, Brownstein focuses on the questions this data poses for Democrats.

In practical terms, the party and its presidential nominee in 2020 inevitably will try to turn out its new base and to regain blue-collar voters of both genders from Trump: the decision facing the party is not either/or. But Democrats will face a genuine choice of emphasis.

…the choice on how the party positions on racially tinged issues, such as immigration and police reform, will also likely be influenced by this debate. If Democrats believe they can recapture meaningful numbers of blue-collar whites from Trump they may hesitate about alienating them with vanguard liberal positions on social issues…in the hope of energizing younger and non-white voters.

That is the old conundrum of whether or not Democrats should emphasize so-called “social issues” (sometimes referred to dismissively as “cultural issues”). The nomenclature is interesting given that the terms are used to describe issues that more directly affect women and people of color. Gloria Steinem captured the disconnect by suggesting that we refer to men’s issues as “politics” and women’s issues as “culture.”

Racism has always been and will continue to be a deep undercurrent in almost every political discussion. But keep in mind that white evangelical Christians are the only ones who want abortion to be illegal in most/all cases, continue to be against same-sex marriage, and, along with white Catholics, want Trump to build his wall on our southern border.

The more important question Brownstein’s data raises is what it means for Republicans. Over the years, they’ve done their best to completely alienate women and people of color. Those efforts have only increased exponentially with Trump’s election.

The combination of the Republican embrace of “alternative facts” and the president’s ignorant, delusional bullying has hurt the GOP’s support among non-evangelical white voters—especially women. That leaves their strongest base of support among white evangelicals, who are dwindling in numbers.

Republicans have been forecasting their awareness of this dilemma at some level with their attempts to gerrymander congressional districts, suppress the vote, and embrace other anti-democratic measures. This is also why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed recently that stacking the federal courts was his most consequential political accomplishment. He knows that a conservative judiciary will long outlast his party’s ability to be electorally successful.

I’m still baffled as to why these demographic changes are so often posed as an issue for Democrats, rather than Republicans. It could be that no one believes that the GOP is interested in altering their politics of resentment, which are mired in xenophobia. That is certainly the message they’ve been sending loud and clear for decades now. But buying into Republican intransigence as dispositive is how the rest of us continue to make white men the center of our political discussions by insisting that Democrats grapple with the question of how to win them over.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .