Wednesday, June 02, 2004Both political parties have been rightly focusing on the Hispanic vote. It is an inescapable fact that if the Latino vote continues to favor Democrats, then over the next several decades the Republicans will be condemned to minority status. This is because the percentage of the population which describes itself as Hispanic is rising steadily, and so far they are 60-40 Democratic most of the time. They aren't mobilized politically yet (their turnout rates are substantially below that of almost any other major voting bloc), but they will be someday, and the only way the Republicans are going to survive is if they can make that group competitive.
But I'm not going to talk about them. What I believe needs to be discussed is the other potentially large immigrant group which has yet to mobilize: other religions. Sectarian politics has always played a key role in U.S. politics. In the early republic most Episcopalians were Federalist and most Baptists were Jeffersonians. When the Catholic vote became appreciable, they became Democrats. Fundamentalist Christianity manifested first in the Democratic party (William Jennings Bryan is a good example), but after a period of acquiescence they then mobilized within the Republican party in the 1980's and 1990's, while the rising secular vote found a home within the Democratic party. Part of this split is regional, but there is some distinct and theological underpinning to the connection between religious identity and party affiliation (note the individualism of fundamentalist Protestantism with the social responsibilities inherent in Catholicism). Finally, there is the Jewish vote, which has been reliably Democratic at least since Harry Truman.
This is all going to change very soon. With new waves of immigration and some domestic conversion, we can expect the religious dynamic to alter considerably. We know that Latinos are generally Catholic, but we have yet to learn how their Catholicism will influence their politics (although there is some evidence that they are socially more conservative than older U.S. Catholics) But the more interesting question is, where are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists going to fit in? The Muslim community in particular is growing quickly, and there are now as many Muslims and Jews in America. It is unclear whether their growth will slow after 9/11. If it doesn't, they will soon become a significant bloc. The Asian Indian and East Asian populations are also growing quickly, and have yet to adhere strongly to either party.
The Republican hypothesis is that all of the devout, of any religion, will gather in the GOP. By appealing to conservative social morality and speaking in broad terms about faith and traditionalism, they hope to win over these millions of new voters. And they did have an edge until recently with Muslim voters through counter-mobilization against Jews. Bush won about 70% of Muslim vote.
Let me repeat: used to have an edge. Polling among Arab-Americans, the largest Muslim group in America, has Bush with a 70% disapproval rating. That's a big shift, and I'm betting that they are going to turn out at a much greater rate than previously. All the Democrats have to do is put up posters of Ashcroft.
This may only be a one-time opportunity for Democrats, since it would be very difficult to keep Muslims and Jews under the same tent. The only feasible strategy for doing so might be to aggressively push for a Middle East Peace Plan, which might sacrifice some of the more extreme voters on both sides of the issue but keep the rest.
The larger difficulty for the Republican strategy is the exclusivity of the Christian Right. They are clearly anti-Muslim and often anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic, and there is some generally pro-white mentality here. So Democrats might be able to appeal to these groups under the banner of religious tolerance and ethnic diversity, painting the Republicans as a threat to their religious liberty and social status. The left would have to play down its social liberalism in this scenario, which would have the added benefit of appealing to working-class Christians. But to do so might be to jettison one of the things that makes us Democrats in the first place. Which is a problem.
I'm not sure how all of this is going to play out. Stay tuned.