Primary Anarchy: Populism and Resentment Trump Ideology This Election

By Reese, Thomas | National Catholic Reporter, June 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

Primary Anarchy: Populism and Resentment Trump Ideology This Election


Reese, Thomas, National Catholic Reporter


I have not written anything about the primary elections this year, partly because everyone has been commenting on them, and partly because I found them so depressing.

I also held off from writing because the exit polls rarely provided data about Catholic voters. When it comes to religion, the only religious people pollsters and secular pundits care about are the evangelicals.

But it has been quite a ride. Here are four lessons we have learned from this election season.

* First, religious leaders who play politics are generals without armies.

We already knew that from earlier elections when Catholics ignored the bishops and voted for pro choice candidates, but now it has been confirmed that evangelical leaders are also generals without troops. For the most part, the leadership loved Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, but they could not deliver the vote for him.

It is true that evangelicals who go to church liked Cruz better than those who stayed home on Sunday, but as a group, evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.

Earlier election cycles had shown similar results for Catholics. Those who went to church on Sunday were more likely to reflect the views of Catholic bishops and vote Republican. But Catholics, especially Hispanics, were more likely to vote Democratic than were white Protestants.

We even saw a similar phenomenon among black ministers in 2008. At the beginning, they saw Barack Obama as a young upstart and they backed their old friend, Hillary Clinton. Black ministers switched to Obama only after their people ran off without them. The leaders had to play catch-up.

The lesson from all this is that religious leaders do not command many troops. When they do have a following, they are simply reflecting the views already held by their congregations.

* Second, economic concerns trump values. Populism trumps ideology

Abortion and gay marriage got little traction during this year's primaries. Trump waffled all over the place on abortion, but only the media cared.

Republicans are now trying to make bathrooms a political issue, but although it is currently making a splash in the media, it is not clear that transgender politics is going to have an impact on the November election.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders got attention and support by stressing economic issues: inequality, Wall Street and the big banks. But his appeal to college students may have had more to do with promises of free tuition than concern about social justice.

Meanwhile, on economic issues, Trump ran to the left of the Republican field. He made job losses from trade agreements into an electoral issue even though his clothing line was made abroad. And the traditional Republican obsession about the debt did not mean much to a man who has gone through four bankruptcies.

* Third, character does not matter, except for your opponent's.

When it comes to conservative evangelicals, it would be impossible to describe a worse candidate in terms of character than Trump: multiple divorces, a braggart about his sexual exploits, a casino owner, and an egomaniac who says he does not need to ask God for forgiveness. Yet evangelicals ignore all this while obsessing over Clinton's emails.

Likewise, secular progressives, who normally would never put sex and morality in the same sentence, say they are appalled by Trump's personal life. After decades of saying that personal morality does not matter, like Captain Renault, they are "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

* Fourth, this primary season could be titled "The Revenge of the White Male Working-Class Voter."

The Democrats began losing Southern whites with the enactment of civil rights legislation during the Johnson administration. Busing and other integration battles in the North angered the white working class outside the South. …

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