Politics as the New Religion for Progressive Democrats

Religiously unaffiliated voters, who may or may not be associated with other civic institutions, seem most excited about supporting or donating to causes, going to rallies, and expressing opinions online, among other activities.

People take part in a March for Our Lives demonstration demanding gun control in Seattle, Washington, in March. (Jason Redmond / Reuters)

The voters who are most amped for the 2018 elections look elite in nearly every way. They are Democrats, college-educated, and largely secular. They are likely to be women, but they’re not necessarily white or particularly young. These are the people who might post rants about Donald Trump on Facebook or harass their friends to donate to Planned Parenthood. They may sign petitions on Change.org or follow the Facebook page of the U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, even though they don’t live in Texas. Maybe they attended the Women’s March two years ago, or the March for Our Lives this spring.

This is the sketch that emerges from a new poll by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute, which looks at Americans’ civic engagement in the lead-up to November’s midterms. With Democrats fired up in opposition to Trump and the Republican majority in both houses of Congress, it’s no shock that liberal voters are leading the way with political activism. “Whoever is in the losing party tends to be more energized,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “They have something to win back.”

It’s the segment that’s surprising: Religiously unaffiliated voters, who may or may not be associated with other civic institutions, seem most excited about supporting or donating to causes, going to rallies, and expressing opinions online, among other activities. Political engagement may be providing these Americans with a new form of identity. And in turn, they may be helping to solidify the new identity of the Democratic Party.

Democrats have traditionally had a strong base of religious voters. A decade ago, more than 80 percent of self-identified Democrats were affiliated with some sort of religion, according to the Pew Research Center. The party was nearly one-quarter Catholic and nearly one-half Protestant, including mainline, evangelical, and historically black denominations. By 2014, those numbers had shifted significantly: Pew found that 28 percent of Democrats identified as religiously unaffiliated.

This year, the God gap also seems to be an enthusiasm gap. In the new PRRI survey of 1,811 respondents, conducted this year in August and September, religiously unaffiliated Democrats were more than twice as likely to have attended a rally within the past 12 months compared with their religious peers. During that time, they were significantly more likely to have contacted an elected official or to have donated to a candidate or cause. And nearly half of religiously unaffiliated Democrats said they had bought or boycotted a product for political reasons or posted political opinions online, compared with roughly one-quarter of their religious peers. “Culturally, this is the subgroup of the Democratic Party that feels most at odds with the direction of the country and what the Trump administration is doing,” said Dan Cox, the research director at PRRI. “These secular Democrats also tend to be the most liberal.”

Secular Democrats were also much more likely to say they’re angry about what’s going on in the country today: Forty-one percent described themselves this way, compared with 28 percent of religious Democrats. Of all the groups highlighted in the data—divided by race, education, geographic region, and more—secular Democrats were the most likely to say they’re feeling this rage. This may shape the political landscape: “There’s no emotion that’s more linked to activism and engagement than anger,” Cox said.

The data on religiously unaffiliated Democrats combines with other statistics to form a rough picture of the voters who have been getting the most civically involved over the past year. Across the board, college graduates were significantly more likely than their nongraduate peers to have signed petitions, volunteered for or donated to a cause, attended rallies, liked a campaign online, called their representative, or changed what they bought for political reasons. Women were also more likely to have done many of these things than men, and they were five percentage points more likely to say they had become more civically engaged over the past two years. In general, Democrats beat out Republicans on a number of measures of civic engagement, especially when it comes to online activism: They were twice as likely to have signed an online petition, encouraged friends or family to get political online, or posted about issues they care about.

So what does all of this mean for the 2018 elections? While many Democrats seem to be more politically fired up than Republicans, it’s not clear that this will translate into big wins at the ballot box: Eighty-one percent of Democrats said they’ll absolutely or probably vote in November, compared with 82 percent of Republicans. But this wave of political energy may say something about the identity of Democratic voters—particularly those who don’t have strong religious or institutional ties. “There’s a sociological story you can tell about this community,” said Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts who is writing a book on what he calls “political hobbyism.” “This online world of political identity … is basically acting as a replacement for people who maybe a generation or two before would identify as Catholic or as Jewish or as Irish or Italian.”

Think of it as the Pod Save America voter: largely elite, politically plugged-in, constantly discussing the Republicans’ latest political shenanigans at dinner parties—and more focused on national problems than local affairs. “You see Democrats who will say on surveys that their most important issues are the environment or racial equality, and they take absolutely no interest in voting in local primaries or local municipal elections, where a lot of those issues are worked out,” Hersh said. “It’s a lot more gratifying to be talking about the Kavanaugh hearing.”

This sketch doesn’t necessarily capture what’s happening on the ground in Democratic and progressive organizing circles, said Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. “I have met more churchgoing progressive women in the world of … political organizing than I had ever met in my previous 15 years of living in basically the same communities,” she said. It may be challenging to understand these people through a national poll: While it’s easy for Democrats to talk about their angry Facebook posts, it’s more difficult to capture the kind of political transformation that Putnam is seeing among local groups in Pennsylvania. She met one group of women who knew each other largely through Girl Scouts and chartered a bus to the Women’s March in 2017. They have stayed involved in local politics ever since, Putnam said, even securing seats on the local town council. “The spark may have been about Trump,” she said. “But that story … stopped being about Trump a long time ago.”

Perhaps the takeaway from this data, then, is that the Democratic Party is going through a transformative moment of both sentiment and identity. Many liberals are feeling anger, and finding ways to express that. The elite part of the party, especially those who are well educated, is most engaged. And for these people, progressive politics may offer a form of meaning making, especially if they are disconnected from other forms of ethnic or religious identity.

As for what happens in November, this heightened form of political engagement among liberals is only one piece of evidence about what will transpire. The more important shifts will be longer-term. “The Democratic Party is undergoing a fundamental transformation. It’s not going to occur over one election cycle,” Cox said. “So much of this is wrapped up in people’s ideas of who they are and where they belong. And that reflects on what kind of country they want, what kind of leaders they want, and, perhaps even more importantly, what kind of leaders they don’t want.”

This project is supported by grants from the Joyce, Kresge, and McKnight Foundations.