Monday, July 5, 2021

Murc's Law on Steroids

"Explaining the Rise of Americans With No Religious Preference:Politics and Generations", GSS Social Change Report no. 46, 2001.

In around 2000 researchers for the General Social Survey (GSS) noticed a startling development in the 1990s: after a long period (at least 20 years) in which the number of Americans claiming to have no religious faith had remained steady at around 7%, it had doubled in a decade to 14%. Other surveys were finding around the same pattern. What was going on?

Michael Hout and Claude Fischer (paper linked in the picture caption above) looked, and found that the change wasn't actually about religion, but politics:

Briefly summarized, we find that the increase was not a statistical aberration, that it was not connected to a loss of religious piety, and, most dramatically, that it was connected to politics. The case is not airtight, but the preponderance of evidence implicates politics as the cause of changing religious identification. Throughout American history, many adults maintained an identification with the religion in which they were raised, in spite of infrequent attendance at religious service. In the 1990s many of the people who had this kind of weak attachment to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by breaking their weak attachment to organized religion. People with religious commitments and people with conservative political views did not contribute to the trend....

an aversion to mixing conservative politics with religion and demographic changes combine to account for it. Neither private piety nor core beliefs about God have changed, so we conclude that the trend toward no religious preference cannot be interpreted as secularization. 

Demographic changes, meaning extended schooling period and delayed family formation for young people, contributed to the church dropout rate, but the main thing was that the increasing rightwing politicization of Christian denominations (I assume that's mainly Evangelical and Catholic) was driving people out

That is, people born in the cohort between 1960 and 1974, liberals and moderates, continued to believe in God and practice prayer—they just stopped going to church, apparently because they didn't like being lectured on "family values" issues of abortion, gay rights, or school prayer, while the news was full of stories on religious people revolting against government spending on controversial art exhibits, murdering abortion providers, and persecuting President Clinton over his sex life. Hout's and Fischer's data is pretty robust: church was changing in the Clinton years, and a lot of people really just didn't like where it was going.

Now comes the esteemed journalist Kevin Drum with the news that the secularization trend has continued over the past 20 years (see above), with liberals becoming less involved in organized religion even as they become more favorable to immigration, gun control, liberalized abortion law, gay marriage, and tax hikes, while conservative attitudes on all these matters remain more or less the same, but offers his own interpretation of who's to blame:

If you hate the culture wars, blame liberals

Why? Because, he says, the median Democratic voter has been shifting left over the period since 1994, while the median Republican voter hasn't been shifting right:

Which is not exactly true, by the way, if you look at the damn chart: the Democratic median has gone down about two points on Drum's left-right scale, from 4 to 2 since 2004, and the GOP median has gone up about the same, from 5 to 7. Moreover, the modal peak Democrat, the kind there are the most of, where the numerical concentration is, looks to be about the same as the median, at 2, while the modal peak Republican is right of the median at a radical 8.5 to 9. Nevertheless it does seem true that the overall leftness of Democrats' attitudes has increased more than the overall rightness of the GOP's.

That's attitudes. But as No More Mister Nice Blog points out, political action on these issues has been going the other way for the whole period:

Democratic politicians haven't radically expanded abortion access, even in blue states, while Republican politicians have radically restricted access, and nearly every D.C. Republican calls for a total or near-total ban on abortion. How are we stoking a culture war when Republicans are the ones who continually upend the status quo?

On guns, Republican states are rapidly expanding access, and the federal ban on assault weapons expired during the period Drum covers. Democrats have introduced a few restrictions in blue states that make firearm ownership marginally more difficult, but the tilt is in Republicans' favor, based on what Republican politicians have done with their power.

Republicans also continued with a program of radically regressive tax cuts through the Bush and Trump administrations, while under Clinton and Obama Democrats adopted austerity principles in spite of Democratic voters' enthusiastic belief in taxing the rich.

It's true that Democrats have gotten their way on same-sex marriage, but not without a huge boost from the Roberts Supreme Court, and very wide bipartisan agreement, as a firm majority of Republicans have come to back it too, in an apparent exception to their culture-war consistency: 

In short, I suspect that an in-depth look at these data would show a continuation and broadening of the pattern Hout and Fischer saw in the unchurching phenomenon 20 years ago: conservative organizations, not just religious institutions but media conglomerates like the Murdoch empire and of course the conservative political party, are driving people, in particular younger people, away, with their relentless prosecution of a culture-war agenda that most people just don't like. 

Drum's mistake is a prime example, I think, of Murc's Law, the celebrated dictum of the Lawyers, Guns & Money commenter known as Murc identifying the belief among the punditry that Republicans never actually do anything:

the widespread assumption that only Democrats have any agency or causal influence over American politics.

When some voter says he had to vote for Trump because Clinton was so mean to the White Working Class, for instance ("She said 'deplorable'!"), he's taken completely seriously, and the punditry is out demanding that Democrats be more understanding and empathetic. But when we see the longstanding and pervasive pattern in which religiously bigoted Republicans work to make life difficult for everybody who deviates from their theocratic line, Drum scratches his head and wonders why liberals are polarizing the country. Really?

I don't think I really do hate culture wars, to be honest, as long as my side is winning, as it certainly is, over the long term, as the past 30 years have shown. I hate being continually asked to feel compassion and attempt to compromise with my enemies when nobody ever asks anything of them, though. And I hate the political war in which the enemies are allowed to cheat to compensate for the fact that they're in the minority, like a political golf handicap—what kind of war is that, for fuck's sake?—and I'm still supposed to feel sorry for them. Why don't you invite them to compromise?

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