by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
I feel like a write about the nones a lot. But, I keep going down the rabbit hole and it seems like there’s no bottom. Here are some quick facts about the nones.
According to the General Social Survey, they are as large as evangelicals and Catholics for the first time in 2018.
According to the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, they are the largest religious group in the United States and still growing.
If you are white and liberal in the U.S. there’s a 50/50 chance you are a religious none. Only a third of white conservatives are evangelicals, for comparison.
These shifts in America’s religious makeup should have major implications for the political landscape.
I’ve written previously about how atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particulars are distinct political entities – but I wanted to take a wide view into the nones as a political force in American politics. I am trying to answer questions like: how liberal are they really? How have their politics shifted in the last decade? And, what do they do at the ballot box?
First, let me place nones in their proper place in political space. The above graph is the calculated partisan mean for both the entire sample of the General Social Survey as well as just the nones going back to its inception in 1972. The 95% confidence intervals are represented by the shaded ribbons. One could argue that the nones were no different than the American public in general all the way into the early 1990’s. Even into the millennium the differences between the two groups was substantively small. If one is looking for an inflection point, the year 2000 provides that. At this point the nones begin to slide toward the Democratic Party. The second significant movement happened in 2008, when the nones jumped toward the Democrats substantially which coincides with the landslide election of Barack Obama. Since 2008, though, there has been no real change in their average party ID. In fact, if anything, there’s been a very slight slide back toward the center of the political spectrum. If one perceives the nones as being a group of incredibly liberal voters, that’s not reinforced by the data. Instead, we see a group that is just to the left of the average American.
While the GSS data gives us a long view of the movement in partisanship, the sample size is too small for geographic analyses. Instead, the CCES is my go-to data source; with samples ranging from 30,000 to 65,000, the CCES gives us a great deal of statistical power. The graph above indicates the average partisan identity for the nones in each state in 2008 (in blue) and 2018 (in yellow). 95% confidence intervals are indicated by the horizontal lines. If one were to believe that the nones have shifted strongly to the left in the last decade this data provides no support for that assertion. In fact, there are exactly zero instances where a state’s nones are more Democratic in 2018 than they were in 2008. That’s right – none. However, in some key states the nones have actually moved to the right. In places like Ohio and Wisconsin, the nones are more Republican today than they were a decade ago. That isn’t good news for Democrats as they are trying to take back the White House in 2020. If you want to compare 2008, 2012, and 2018, I visualized that as well.
Also, I wanted to see in which states the nones were the most distinct politically from the general population of that state. It stands to reason that it would be harder to be a none in a state where you would be really far away from the political mainstream of your friends and neighbors. Or it was actually easier to become a none if your politics were far different than the rest of the religious community of your state. The dumbbell plot visualizes that. The red circles indicate the average partisanship for the state as a whole, while the blue circles are the mean party identification of for the nones. For instance, a none in South Dakota is 25.8% more Democratic than the average South Dakotan. In most cases, a none is at least 10% more Democratic than the state in which they live. However, that seems to be more a function of how blue a state is overall. For instance, a none in California is just 7.1% more Democratic than the state of California as a whole.
Do those partisan shifts show up at the ballot box? I calculated the two-party vote for the nones in each state in the last three presidential elections and visualized that in the three maps below. Do you see any type of blue wave? I do, but it’s going in the wrong direction – there’s a whole lot more blue on the map in 2008 than there was in 2016. That reflects the fact that President Obama won a lot of states in his first election, including places like Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina. But the Democrats have been losing ground with nones ever since. That is especially consequential in these battleground states.
If you are a none and also a liberal, you might be disheartened to hear this news, but it was inevitable if you think about religious demography. In order for the nones to grow at such an unbelievable pace, they have to absorb from other religious groups. Religious demography is a zero-sum game. If the nones get 5% larger that means other religious groups have to get 5% smaller. Mainline Protestants used to be 30% of the population in the 1970s. Now they are 10% of the population. It stands to reason that many of them became nones. But here’s the kicker. Mainline Protestants aren’t that liberal. As a matter of fact, mainline Protestants as not much more liberal than evangelicals. So, if some of these mainliners became nones the net effect may be that the nones became more conservative on average.
One of the classic texts in the sociology of religion is Richard Neibuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Neibuhr argues that fracture is the inevitable result of any movement trying to bring in more members. Churches are constantly trying to attract more people and that will result in alienating established members. Those disaffected old timers will inevitably leave to start their own church to cater to their type of people. Obviously, the nones aren’t split up in denominations. But, it stands to reason that the nones will become, as a whole, more politically conservative as they add new members. The media loves to write stories about people who play against type. For instance, stories that describe young, white evangelicals as liberals pop up on a regular basis. I can imagine a time when the media starts writing stories about a new brand of political conservative atheist. This rightward tilt may lead to some of the old guard making very public displays of how their brand of atheism/agnosticism differs from the new converts. While the nones are a reasonably solid voting bloc for Democrats today, that might not be true in the near future. Social science may one day have to fight over how many types of nones there are. In fact, we already are. I personally look forward to that challenge.