We Are the Swing Vote

In a post from October titled “Tipping the Scales“, I wrote that although non-believers are still outnumbered by the conventionally religious, there are encouraging signs of recent growth and increasing organization among atheists and agnostics, signs which

…may well be the grains of sand that presage a much larger slide in the near future, and lead to a much more dramatic tipping of the scales.

If I were inclined to claim supernatural foresight for myself, I might try to turn that statement into a proof of my prophetic powers. It seems to have come true more literally than I intended it, according to this article from Bloomberg News about one major cause of the Republicans’ midterm defeat:

With Democrats and Republicans voting largely along party lines, the election hinged on independents, who split 57 percent to 39 percent for Democrats, according to an exit poll conducted for U.S. television networks.

….Two key subgroups are becoming crucial within the independent vote: the young and the non-religious, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center in Washington.

…In the end, the non-religious were probably more influential, according to the Pew analysis. While voters who regularly attend church services voted solidly Republican, as they did four years ago, those who never go to church shifted, with 67 percent of them voting Democratic, compared to 55 percent four years ago.

“All year, people talked about the Democrats’ God problem,” said Keeter. “In this election you might reframe that and say the Republicans had trouble appealing beyond the traditionally religious.”

As this article points out, the Republicans’ usual tactic of winning elections – swinging hard to the right and firing up their base of religious fundamentalists with tough talk on culture-war issues like gay-bashing and abortion bans – did not avail them this year. While the Republicans did draw a majority of the fundamentalist vote, as they usually do, it was not enough to deliver them the election. On the contrary, whatever motivational effect this tactic had on their core supporters was more than compensated for by the fact that it repulsed a far larger percentage of independent swing voters who turned away from the Republicans and delivered the election to the Democrats.

And, as the article goes on to point out, the non-religious are becoming one of the most important groups of independent voters – which is hardly surprising considering they make up about 15% of the population, about one in seven people. That is a major fraction of the American electorate, far larger than many religious denominations, and more than enough to swing an election. Up until now, the non-religious have been largely a silent minority, neglected by politicians from both sides. But in this election, they seem to have found their voice, and they spoke decisively. Americans are tired of Republican politicians who spend their terms of office doing nothing, or worse, passing laws that actively harm the country, and then win re-election by whipping up their most blindly loyal followers into a frenzy of hatred and fear every few years to get them to vote in droves.

I hope politicians from both parties take note that winning elections solely by pandering to national religiosity is a tactic whose time is past. The religious electorate is saturated with political messages and appeals for support, and their loyalties are fairly well established. But the public is so evenly divided that targeting theists alone will no longer win elections as it once did. On the contrary, in a divided country, reaching out to the non-religious may be a crucial tie-breaking way to win office – and in the future, as our numbers grow, this will only become more true.

If the non-religious are truly becoming a key swing vote, this is likely to be devastating to the Republican party’s electoral hopes, and that makes it a hopeful sign indeed for the future of America. Although a substantial percentage of atheists are libertarians who in theory would agree with Republican economic policies, the truth is that the Republican party has now become merged in all but name with the most radical and theocratic elements of American fundamentalism. Rather than champions of the free market, Republicans have become the champions of religious authoritarianism: on topics from abortion and contraception to gay marriage, from recreational gambling to euthanasia and assisted suicide, the Republicans’ most identifiable and defining characteristic is a desire to barge into other people’s lives and control those other people’s lives according to their own set of fiercely dogmatic and repressive religious beliefs. It is obvious that the religiously unorthodox would have excellent reason to fight and overcome these aims, and they now appear to be doing so. If the American electorate, led by the non-religious, has at last recognized this political philosophy for what it is and soundly rejected it, then there is reason to hope that our country’s future will truly be bright.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Christopher

    While I do appreciate the fact that non-believers are finally being recognized as important constituants for politicians to attract, I must admit that I really don’t see any legitimate changes taking place in society for a long time because those same politicians love maintaining the status quo.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Whipping them up into a frenzy of hatred and fear is just about right. Except the current administration has been doing that weekly rather than just at election time.

    I would hope that voters thinking about the economy would realize that even the best economic policy doesn’t work that well when set against a backdrop of rotting education infrastructure and political alienation on a world stage. If you’re dumb and your neighbours don’t like you, it’s going to hurt you financially eventually.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    …I must admit that I really don’t see any legitimate changes taking place in society for a long time because those same politicians love maintaining the status quo.

    I agree that politicians tend to be leery of change, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case with this election. The Iraq war has been and continues to be a horrendous catastrophe, and most of the Republicans’ domestic policies have worked out little better. Even politicians can become fed up with the way this country is going, and some excellent candidates were elected in this cycle. I remain hopeful that the new Congress will carry through with the change this country clearly wants them to deliver. Of course, if they forget why the voters put them in office, then it will be our task to remind them.