NBC News on dazed Democrats left in lurch: Decline rooted in race, alone, or 'culture'?

The very first item posted here at GetReligion -- written on Feb. 1, 2004 and the site went live the next day -- had this headline: "What we do, why we do it."

That was a long time ago. This piece, obviously, was a statement of purpose for the blog. Several million words of writing later, there are lots of things in it that I would update (and I have, here and here), but few things I would change.

In that first post, co-founder Doug Leblanc and I introduced the concept of mainstream news stories being "haunted" by religion "ghosts" -- a term your GetReligionistas are still using today. And I am about to use it again right now while probing a lengthy NBC News piece that ran online with this dramatic double-decker headline: 

Democrats: Left in the Lurch
The curious decline and uncertain future of the Democratic Party

Before we look at a few haunted passages in this long story, let's flash back to GetReligion Day 1 and review our whole "ghost" thing. The essay starts like this:

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.
They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.
One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.
A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

According to this NBC News feature, the current distressed state of the Democratic Party at the level of state and national races (including Hillary Clinton's loss to Citizen Donald Trump) is based on race and maybe this other strange something that has to do with the culture of cities vs. people in rural America, or working-class people vs. elites, or something.

But the key R-word is "race," not You Know What. It's "race" and race alone.

Let's chase the ghost through this thing, starting right up top:

The story of the 2016 election -- the defection of white working class voters -- mirrors the story of the Democratic Party.
Just as the Republicans have gone from the party of Lincoln to the party of Trump, the Democratic Party has undergone its own radical transformation from a Southern white party to a Northern cosmopolitan one.

To their credit, the folks at NBC spend lots of time dealing with race and Democratic Party history. That's good, because only a fool would deny that race plays a major role in this decades-long political drama. The question is whether racial issues alone are in play.

For example, what is the precise meaning of "cosmopolitan" in that reference to Northern culture, when contrasted with Southern culture? 

Later on, there is this. Read carefully:

The uneasy New Deal Coalition began to fray along the issue of civil rights. As John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson pushed for racial equality, their fellow Democrats in the South, like George Wallace, fought it tooth and nail. When Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Texan reportedly lamented, “We have lost the South for a generation.”
That’s when Republicans aimed their sights on the Solid South and on working class white Democrats everywhere. The GOP’s Southern Strategy played up racial grievances and highlighted cultural differences to lure voters away from a party that was drifting towards its liberal and urban wings.
Later, as a persistent wage gap grew between upper and lower income earners, many were turned off by Democrats’ embrace of free trade policies and the growing dominance of coastal elites, who seemed to look down their noses at “flyover country.”

Once again, what is the content hidden in those vague, vague words "cultural differences," when describing how the GOP began courting, well, Bible Belt people in the late 1960s and into the 1970s? Could anyone write the history of the Religious Right (and, thus, the Ronald Reagan Democrats) without mentioning Jan. 22, 1973?

Apparently, the producers at NBC News think that issues of faith, morality, demographics, education and culture had nothing to do with the political earthquakes of that era. It was race and race alone.

Thus, the story spends -- with good cause -- lots of digital ink on subjects such as gerrymandering and racial identity politics. For example, attempts to create safe congressional districts for African-American Democrats played a major role in creating urban vs. rural divides in state governments. This has often hurt Democrats, as a whole.

Nevertheless, it's clear that something else is going on, that other issues are in the mix. But what are they?

The ghosts are still there. Can you spot them here?

Without dramatic geographical shifts, the trend will only get worse for Democrats as both parties’ voters increasingly gravitate toward politically like-minded communities without even realizing it, a phenomenon laid out in Bill Bishop’s 2004 book “The Big Sort.”
Politics is becoming a bigger part of people’s identity, Bishop said, and a reliable indicator of what kind of car you drive, TV you watch, or food you eat. And with more mobility than ever, Americans naturally end up clustering together with people like them, leading to more politically polarized communities.

To make a long story short, debates about the "pew gap" -- years of evidence that people who are active in worship tend to vote for more culturally conservative candidates -- never show up in this long NBC feature. For example, while "young voters" are discussed, there's nothing here about the rise of the "nones" (the religiously unaffiliated) in Democratic Party life.

Does that matter?

Consider this long passage from one of my 2012 posts linked to the Pew Forum and the whole "Nones on the rise" media storm. The news hook for this post, of course, is the 2012 presidential race and the voting patterns seen in the exit polls.

The nation froze in place in an amazing state of gridlock. Things pretty much remain the same on the nation's hot-button moral, cultural and religious issues. ... 
As election night plodded on, I kept thinking about University of Akron scholar John Green and that recent Pew Forum "Nones" study and America's growing coalition on the secular and religious left. To be specific, I flashed back to a Media Project seminar in the summer of 2008, when Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.
On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.
In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations. ... Add it all up, Green said in 2009, and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.
The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality -- the pluses and the minuses -- of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies. 

Dear NBC people: Might these trends -- in the post-Roe vs. Wade world -- have played SOME role in the rise of the Reagan Democrats and, in 2016, Trump's victories in heartland and Bible Belt regions with a high percentage of working-class voters? 

If that isn't enough for you, let's dig into this classic passage in an Atlantic Monthly feature -- "Blue Movie: The 'morality gap' is becoming the key variable in American politics" -- about the life and political times of Bill Clinton.

I have shared this before, but it is highly relevant to this haunted NBC News feature.

Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.
Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors – and better indicators of partisan inclination -- than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter (black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic).
It is an axiom of American politics that people vote their pocketbooks, and for seventy years the key political divisions in the United States were indeed economic. The Democratic and Republican Parties were aligned, as a general rule, with different economic interests. Electoral fortunes rose and fell with economic cycles. But over the past several elections a new political configuration has begun to emerge -- one that has transformed the composition of the parties and is beginning to alter their relative chances for ballot-box success. What is the force behind this transformation? In a word, sex.

Does this negate the economic issues in recent campaigns? Of course not. Does it mean that race is irrelevant? Of course not.

Still, journalists (even at NBC News) must ask: Are moral, cultural and religious issues a key element of the "cosmopolitan" vs. "working class," the urban vs. heartland, the blue vs. red divide in American politics? Is this part of the struggles that are ahead for the coalition that currently rules the Democratic Party?

How did NBC News miss the ghost in this important political story?

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