There are two ways to think about the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focuses on the religion "ghosts" in some recent coverage of the modern Democratic Party's fortunes at the state and national levels.
First of all, there are some basic facts that I think all journalists can see.
The Democrats are way, way, way down when to comes to controlling state legislatures. The same thing is true when it comes to electing governors.
At the same time, the Republicans now control the U.S. House, Senate and the White House. But let it be noted that (a) there have been many close, close contests there and (b) Democrats easily control the states and cities that shape American public discourse, in terms of entertainment, higher education and news.
Democrats have some obvious demographic trends on their side -- with massive support among ethnic groups, the super-rich tech sector and the rapidly growing portion of the U.S. population that is young, urban, single and religiously unaffiliated.
Now, in my recent post ("NBC News on dazed Democrats left in lurch: Decline rooted in race, alone, or 'culture'?") I dug into a long, long feature that basically said the Democrats are having problems with working-class, heartland, white Americans for one reason and one reason only -- the party's history of fighting racism. The story alluded to vague "cultural" issues, but never mentioned, to cite on glaring omission, the role Roe v. Wade played in the creation of the Religious Right and the rise of the (Ronald) Reagan Democrats.
"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I worked through all of that, including the fact that -- in the early exit-poll data from Donald Trump's win -- it appears that the "pew gap" remained in effect, favoring the GOP. What is the "pew gap"? Here is a chunk of my "On Religion" column about the 2016 election results:
The so-called "God gap" (also known as the "pew gap") held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton by a 31-point margin, 62 percent to 31 percent. ...
Meanwhile, white Catholics supported Trump by a 23-point margin -- 60 percent to 37 percent -- compared with Mitt Romney's 19-point victory in that crucial swing-vote niche. Hispanic Catholics supported Clinton by a 41-point margin, 67 percent to 26 percent.
Clinton also drew overwhelming support from the growing coalition of Americans who are religious liberals, unbelievers or among the so-called "nones," people with no ties to any religious tradition. In the end, nearly 70 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans voted for Clinton, compared with 26 percent for Trump.
Note the two sides of that equation.
There's no question who the Democrats are winning, and losing, right now, when it comes to matters of faith. The question is how these trends affect the party with it's historic base among working-class, labor-union, often Catholic households in -- you got it -- Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Then there is the Bible Belt.
None of that made it into the NBC News report, with was absolutely faith-free in terms of the facts and trends it examined.
Was this report uniquely haunted? Would others stick with the race-alone thesis, when exploring the Democratic Party's current woes?
Well, right after we recorded the podcast I ran into a long, long Politico story with this double-decker headline:
Democrats in the Wilderness
Inside a decimated party’s not-so-certain revival strategy
What's this one like, when it comes to issues of religion, culture, morality, etc.? This time, instead of race, it appears that American politics pivots on economics and economics alone.
Once again, one would have to be a fool to ignore the role of economics in the 2016 race, especially in the Rust Belt and other working-class regions. But is that the whole story? Is that the only story? For the Politico, the political problem is ...
What’s clear from interviews with several dozen top Democratic politicians and operatives at all levels, however, is that there is no comeback strategy -- just a collection of half-formed ideas, all of them challenged by reality. And for whatever scheme they come up with, Democrats don’t even have a flag-carrier. Barack Obama? He doesn’t want the job. Hillary Clinton? Too damaged. Bernie Sanders? Too socialist. Joe Biden? Too tied to Obama. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer? Too Washington. Elizabeth Warren? Maybe. And all of them old, old, old.
The Democrats’ desolation is staggering. But part of the problem is that it’s easy to point to signs that maybe things aren’t so bad. After all, Clinton did beat Trump by 2.8 million votes, Obama’s approval rating is nearly 60 percent, polls show Democrats way ahead of the GOP on many issues and demographics suggest that gap will only grow. But they are stuck in the minority in Congress with no end in sight, have only 16 governors left and face 32 state legislatures fully under GOP control. Their top leaders in the House are all over 70. Their top leaders in the Senate are all over 60. Under Obama, Democrats have lost 1,034 seats at the state and federal level -- there’s no bench, no bench for a bench, virtually no one able to speak for the party as a whole.
Then there is the one and only issue that matters ...
What scares many Democrats about Trump isn’t any particular campaign pledge -- his promises to build a wall or keep out Muslims or shut down Obamacare. Those are fights they can wrap their heads around. No, the existential, hair-on-fire threat to the Democratic Party is just how easy it was for Trump to sneak around their flank and rob them of an issue they thought was theirs alone -- economic populism -- even as they partied at fundraisers in Hollywood and the Hamptons.
It so happens that the most prominent advocate of this view -- Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren -- is, for the moment, the party’s most plausible standard-bearer in 2020. The mission now, Warren believes, can be summed up in five words: Take back populism from Trump. “The American people know what they want,” she said in an interview, urging an emphasis on economic opportunity. “If Donald Trump and his Republican Party can’t deliver on any of that, then the American people will see that he’s not on their side.”
By all means, read it all. Look for any hint that the editors in the Politico newsroom have read exit polls and other research about American politics over the past quarter century or more.
This raises an obvious question: Are these journalists failing to see the religion ghosts in these events, or is it the Democratic Party insiders? Is the answer simply "yes"?
The Politico piece ends with this:
Anson Kaye, one of Clinton’s top media consultants, has been spending the weeks since the election giving a presentation on what happened and what he thinks has to happen now. It ends like this: “Trump is a radical. / Which makes him an opportunity. / Values first. / Stand up (for the little guy/against bullies/in the line of fire) / Talk like a normal person. / Protect the right to vote. / Treat 2018 like a national election. / Target governors and state legislators.”
Then on the final slide: “Be clear-eyed about the America we live in.”
Yes, journalists, be clear-eyed as you look at the exit polls. Look for the rather obvious ghosts in those numbers. Listen to the voices.