What really happened in the 1992 presidential election? And what does it tell us about American politics at the turn of the century? Although postmortems are always a tricky business, interpreting the 1992 election is particularly so. The defeat of an incumbent President, the election of the first “baby boomer” by a slim plurality, and the extraordinary campaign of an independent candidate are only the more obvious reasons for the special attention that 1992 is likely to be paid in the history books. But the question is, how will historians understand this election? They will certainly fail to do so adequately unless they offer proper recognition to the crucial influence of religious and cultural factors.
Most accounts of the 1992 election hinge on the economy. Bush lost, it is said, because the economy was sick and Republicans did not offer a plausible cure. As the sign in Clinton's campaign headquarters read: “It's the economy, stupid!” This interpretation of the election fits nicely with the conventional view of American politics, held by academics and journalists alike, that party coalitions and electoral outcomes are rooted in economic self-interest. Thus, the combination of voters' economic status, the performance of the economy—and governmental policies affecting both—serves as the primary motivation for the vote. From this perspective, disputes over abortion, gay rights, and other so-called “social issues” are, at most, temporary diversions from normal economic preoccupations. Some observers have even reinterpreted social issue and foreign policy controversies as expressions of economic distress, arguing, in effect, that the only real values in politics are material ones.
This conventional wisdom is not so much wrong as wrongly stated. While economic conditions clearly influence the vote, and often dramatically, the effects of such conditions are channeled through the cultural bedrock of the American party system. Most pundits and scholars do not realize that the basic “building blocs” of American party coalitions have always been cultural groups, whether in 1852, 1892, 1932, or 1992. And religious traditions, comprised of denominations and churches with shared values and worldviews, have always been among the most important of these. Year in and year out, the reaction to parties, candidates, and issues on the part of Evangelical, Mainline, and Black Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Seculars is critical to understanding elections. The conventional wisdom, then, has it backwards: cultural affinities constitute the long-term basis of electoral alignments, introducing fundamental values into politics and structuring the debate over them, while economic forces generate temporary disruptions of these culturally defined alignments.
Thus while economic distress was critical to the electoral outcome in 1992, its effects are best understood within the cultural context of the vote. Religious traditions tied most closely to the Republican Party were less swayed by economic considerations than were their Democratic counterparts, and the least religiously observant voters in both traditions were the ones most influenced by economic woes. But of even greater significance, the conventional economic interpretation masks vital shifts in the cultural basis of party coalitions that were clearly visible in the election returns.
Simply put, the historic conflict between rival coalitions of religious traditions is being replaced by a new division between more-religious and less-religious people across traditions. This emerging alignment opens new fault lines in the cultural bedrock of party coalitions and rechannels the effects of short-term economic conditions as well. The beginnings of this new alignment were recognized in Robert Wuthnow's discovery of the “restructuring of American religion,” in Richard John Neuhaus' complaint about the “naked public square,” and in James Davison Hunter's warnings of “culture wars.” These divisions appeared first among elites but are now poised to play a major role among the citizenry at large.
The notion that economics is the foundation of American partisan alignments has a rich pedigree, reaching back to the Federalist Papers, forward through Karl Marx and his followers, to modern, positivist social science. What is often forgotten is that assertions of economic primacy in public life often were—and still are—part of a distinctive political agenda. Consensus-oriented political leaders, advocates of economic modernization, and professional social scientists have all argued, in one way or another, that economic self-interest does—and should—matter most in politics. Political elites typically want to avoid the animosity associated with religious and cultural disputes, business leaders seek to promote the growth and stability of a modern industrial economy, and social scientists hope to construct objective, “value-free” theories of society. Although these goals may well be meritorious, the almost credal commitment to the primacy of economics has been intellectually costly, obscuring key elements of American politics.
Other perspectives have been available: a veritable host of historians—Paul Kleppner, Robert Swierenga, Richard Jensen, and Ronald Formisano, to name only a few—have demonstrated that American political parties have always been coalitions of “ethnocultural” or “ethnoreligious” groups rather than economic or class-based alliances. The Whigs, and later the Republicans, were the party of the culturally dominant Protestant churches. This coalition represented the cultural “haves” who sought to define the norms for the rest of the nation. In opposition, the Democrats represented the cultural “have-nots,” minority religions like Catholics, Jews, “free thinkers,” and some sectarian Protestants, such as Southern Baptists, who shared an interest in resisting majority impositions. And not surprisingly, individuals most committed to their churches and denominations participated most fully in these alliances. Of course, cultural and economic inequalities were often related, but because of the limited scope of both government and the economy, cultural differences usually prevailed. Although the exact composition of these partisan alliances varied by era, geography, and the salience of issues, the basic division between coalitions of competing religious traditions is still visible today.
These cultural alliances were necessitated by basic features of the American constitutional system. The First Amendment's establishment and free exercise provisions guaranteed two things: that there would be no state-sanctioned religion, and that there would be an extraordinary variety of churches, denominations, and cultural groups. But this same system also established single-member districts to elect the Congress and an Electoral College to choose the President, both of which fostered the familiar “two party system.” The conjunction of the parties' goal to maximize votes and the desire of religious communities to voice their values made the aggregating of diverse groups into opposing coalitions both necessary and effective. Indeed, disputes between (and sometimes within) these cultural combines structured and restructured political debate, clothing the public square with a richly woven tapestry of values. Thus, American party politics has always involved “cultural wars,” and the genius of our system has been its ability to contain these conflicts within civil and even productive bounds.
For most contemporary political scientists, however, the cultural basis for party coalitions, if recognized at all, ended with the New Deal, the historical backdrop for interpretations of contemporary politics. According to conventional wisdom, the New Deal era saw the elevation of economic issues to the center of the public agenda: the failures of laissez-faire economic policies were redressed by national programs intended to redistribute income, creating in their wake a powerful new class-based alignment that pitted the economic “have-nots” against the “haves.”
Although not without considerable validity, this interpretation is much enriched by adding to the picture the profound cultural forces behind the New Deal. Long before the 1929 stock market crash, the dominant WASP social and political ethos was under intense pressure from rival cultures with roots in European Catholic and Jewish immigration and concentrated in burgeoning metropolitan areas. In many respects, the New Deal was less about income redistribution than about the recognition of “group rights” benefitting these cultural challengers, a recognition embedded in such policies as the fostering of labor unions, public works programs, and social insurance. Even the makeup of the resulting New Deal electoral coalition is most easily described in religious and cultural terms: an alliance of Catholic and Jewish ethnics, with help from Southern and Black Protestants, and a leavening of urban cosmopolitans.
The key point is this: in order to have political relevance, economic conditions must be interpreted. Religion and culture supply a powerful framework for such interpretation, providing both the larger worldview and the more specific values by which voters may understand the contemporary world. Since religion and culture are deeply embedded in the way people are raised and in the communities in which they live, this framework remains quite stable, changing only gradually even in the fast-paced modern world. But by the same token, the nationalization—and globalization—of markets means that changes in economic conditions nowadays affect all religious and cultural groups simultaneously. Thus it is cultural alignments that provide the foundation of electoral politics, setting the context for the impact of more immediate economic concerns.
Unfortunately, most political scientists and many survey researchers have missed this pattern, either because they tend to ignore history or because they do not understand religion. As a result, little intellectual capital has been invested in the arduous task of understanding America's bewildering array of religious and cultural groups. This neglect has been particularly costly for understanding the variegated electoral faces of Protestantism: even today, most polls use the term “Protestant” as if it were a meaningful category.
Gradually, however, the realities of cultural politics are becoming evident even to secular academics, and some political scientists have developed survey items that distinguish among religious traditions as well as levels of religious commitment (the latter measured by church attendance, devotional practices, and the like).
To oversimplify a complex picture, these new approaches reveal three politically relevant groups among Protestants: the Mainline, Evangelical, and Black Protestant traditions. Combined with more accurate identification of Catholics, Jews, and Seculars (or religiously uncommitted), as well as other smaller traditions, these categories allow analysts to identify both the continuity of historic religious coalitions and the transformations currently underway. The picture is enhanced even more by taking into account levels of religious commitment. In the past, the religiously committed in each tradition were at the forefront of the rival coalitions. In an important contemporary transformation, coalitions increasingly pit the religiously committed within each tradition against those with little or no commitment.
Despite the importance of economic conditions in 1992, then, religious and cultural alignments were very much in evidence in voting patterns. These alignments, in turn, are best understood in terms of a major cultural shift underway for more than a generation, but by no means complete. Since the New Deal a series of slow, but steady, changes has brought the cultural hegemony of Mainline Protestantism to an end, and with it the predominant set of values associated with the old term, “Protestant.” These cultural changes are too familiar to require elaboration here: rapid upward mobility, the expansion of higher education, the growth and development of the mass media, the end of legal segregation, and alterations in women's roles. We can illustrate the political implications of this cultural shift by examining the transitions in voting patterns of the major religious traditions between 1960 and 1992.
Mainline Protestants were traditionally the backbone of the Republican coalition. Their large numbers (approximately two-fifths of the population in 1960), their relatively high levels of religious commitment and political activity, and their conservative opinions on most issues all combined to produce formidable support for the GOP up and down the ticket. In the 1960 presidential election, for example, 69 percent of Mainliners voted Republican. By 1992, however, the situation had changed dramatically. Sharp declines in relative numbers (to about one-fifth of the population), even sharper reduction in religious commitment, and deep divisions on social issues sapped the Mainline's political strength and undermined its dominant position in the Republican Party. George Bush received only 39 percent of Mainline votes in the three-way race (or 50 percent of the two-party vote). Only their customarily high turnout and overrepresentation among GOP elites kept Mainliners from becoming distinctly junior partners in the Republican coalition. Interestingly enough, social issues such as abortion and gay rights were not central to Mainline defections from Bush in 1992. Rather, most defectors exhibited low levels of religious commitment and were dramatically influenced by short-term economic factors. Even so, few Mainline voters defected to Clinton, preferring the more culturally congenial Ross Perot.
If, over the past twenty years, the GOP had to rely primarily on Mainline Protestants, the party would have suffered electoral disasters far greater than that in 1992. But the Republicans benefitted greatly from changes within another religious tradition, as Evangelical Protestants simultaneously moved away from Democratic partisanship and toward both greater political involvement and
Republican partisanship. Beginning with their reaction to the Catholic John F. Kennedy's presence on the Democratic ticket in 1960 (when 60 percent voted Republican), Evangelicals steadily moved away from preference for Democratic candidates, a movement interrupted only temporarily by the candidacies of Southerners Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, the latter a fellow Evangelical. By 1992, Evangelicals were George Bush's best supporters, giving him 56 percent of their votes in the three-way race (and 67 percent of the two-party vote); and to a greater extent than ever before they backed Republican candidates all the way down the ticket. This shift was amplified by the Evangelicals' steady religious market share since 1960 (about one-quarter of the population) and consistent conservatism on social and foreign policy issues—a conservatism that gave evidence of expanding to include traditional Republican economic issues. And their voting turnout increased somewhat since 1960, although still lagging a bit behind their Mainline cousins in 1992.
Thus a combination of factors has united white Protestants in the same coalition, with the former senior partner becoming a junior one in terms of total vote support for the GOP. Like all such coalitions, this new alignment is fraught with internal tensions, particularly over social issues. How these tensions will be resolved is a matter of conjecture, but in 1992 the new partners and their social issue conservatism helped George Bush far more than they hurt him. Not only did religious conservatives provide Bush with a lion's share of his votes, but they also expressed more positive views of the economy, largely interpreting the recession through the lens of their cultural allegiance. Given this situation, it is not surprising that few Evangelicals voted for Perot, and that those few who did showed lower levels of religious commitment.
In 1960, the Kennedy campaign achieved a record Democratic vote (82 percent) from Roman Catholics. The large size of this constituency (one-fifth of the adult population), their high levels of religious commitment and turnout, and strongly liberal opinions on the issues of the day all combined to make Catholics a formidable Democratic voting bloc. Between 1960 and 1992, Catholics increased in relative numbers (to almost one-quarter of the population), but experienced a decline in religious commitment that paralleled the Protestant Mainline. Following which, as in the Mainline, serious rifts opened among Catholics on social and economic issues. The result was increased Catholic defection to the GOP, but by two very different groups: traditionalists motivated by social and foreign policy issues, and the less religiously observant enticed by Reagan's promises of prosperity. In 1992, many of the fair-weather Catholic “economic Republicans” returned to the Democratic fold, giving Bill Clinton 45 percent of the Catholic vote in the three-way race (59 percent of the two-party vote). But just as religiously committed Evangelical and Mainline Protestants were much more likely to vote Republican than their nominally religious brethren, regularly attending white Catholics gave Bush a narrow plurality over Clinton (41 percent to 39 percent), while less-observant Catholics gave Clinton a bigger margin (44 percent to 33 percent). Again, as with the Protestants, Catholic Perot voters were drawn from the least religiously observant.
The electoral contributions of two smaller religious traditions, Jews and Black Protestants, should be noted as well. Jews are both culturally and economically liberal, and have been solidly Democratic since long before 1960. As for the Black Protestants, prior to 1964 they included a significant Republican minority, but since then have been overwhelmingly Democratic. Both groups were crucial elements of Clinton's coalition in 1992; and although there are religious conservatives in both traditions, the GOP has made only marginal inroads among them so far.
Almost unnoticed has been the growth and political relevance of the Secular segment of the population. Given the sporadic attention given to religion by survey researchers, it has been difficult to track the expansion of this group with certainty. The best estimates suggest that Seculars constituted less than one-tenth of the population in 1960, but had expanded to at least one-fifth by 1992. Although many observers see this growth only as evidence of the increasing irrelevance of religion, the nonreligious represent an important cultural group, as liberal on social issues as the most committed religious people are conservative. Seculars tend to vote Democratic at all levels, with 54 percent supporting Kennedy in 1960, but there have been exceptions to this pattern; in 1980, 68 percent voted for Ronald Reagan on the basis of short-term economic considerations. In 1992, however, Seculars moved dramatically back into the Democratic column, with 55 percent supporting Clinton in a three-way race (73 percent of the two-party vote). While Seculars constitute a partial replacement for the departed Evangelicals in the Democratic coalition, their impact has been lessened by their low rates of turnout.
In sum, then, 1992 voting patterns reveal historic cultural alignments, albeit reshuffled by the cultural changes of the last generation, and modified by the short-term effects of a weak economy. Bush attracted a coalition of Evangelical and Mainline Protestants, joined by some strongly religious Catholics, while Clinton won with a coalition of less religiously adherent Catholics, most Blacks, Jews, and Seculars, and with a smattering of Protestants. Perot picked up the votes of the economically disaffected with low religious commitments.
These patterns show the limitations of defining electoral alignments largely in terms of short-term economic factors. Evangelical and high-commitment Mainline Protestants were generally less affluent and hence most affected by the recession, and yet they stood most firmly behind Bush. Meanwhile, Jewish and Secular voters were generally more affluent and least burdened by hard times, yet they were among the strongest supporters of Bill Clinton. Economic conditions had their largest effect among Perot's supporters, who were the most disconnected from social and political life—a fact reflected in their intense disgust with government and politics. Beyond demonstrating the power of culture in electoral alignments, however, 1992 reveals the effects of a generation of cultural polarization, and the emergence of a new kind of electoral alignment.
The new cultural politics in 1992 differs from past alignments in kind rather than degree. The historic conflict between coalitions of rival religious traditions is being replaced by a new division between more-religious and less-religious people across those traditions. Our analysis suggests that one of the emerging coalitions will be united by belief in God, an understanding that such belief has implications for public life, and a preference for religious language in political discourse. The opposite coalition will be united by nontheistic or at least nonorthodox beliefs, the policy implications of such beliefs, and hostility to religious language in political debate. If this analysis is correct, Evangelicals and committed members of other religious traditions could find themselves united in the Republican Party facing Seculars and less committed members in other traditions among the Democrats.
From this perspective, contemporary social issue disputes, such as that over abortion, are not temporary aberrations, but rather the stuff of future politics, where an agenda of “traditional values” confronts an agenda of “personal liberation” or what Ronald Inglehart has called, somewhat misleadingly, “postmaterial” values. Such disputes include a host of related issues, such as women's rights, birth control, sex education, gay rights, and regulation of pornography, and with only a little difficulty could be expanded to broader topics such as family policy, health insurance, public school curricula, employment practices, and funding for the arts. More important, such political agendas might eventually incorporate economic questions like taxes, business regulation, and free trade. Finally, voters tied firmly to either coalition would then interpret changing economic conditions in light of these prior, cultural, allegiances.
This kind of alignment is new to the United States, but divisions of this sort have been common in European democracies for centuries. While it is unclear how quickly such an alignment will solidify, it will introduce a new set of values into public life and restructure the debate about them, supplementing, if not replacing, older cultural alignments. If the resulting structure seems complex, we should remember Walter Dean Burnham's observation that each succeeding realignment of American voting habits leaves behind a residue never entirely absorbed into the “new” structure of political debate.
Indeed, one must resist the temptation to think of this emerging alignment in terms of the conventional liberal-conservative continuum. The “religious” coalition, for example, might break the mold on welfare policy by combining generosity with curbs on anti-social behavior, or the “secular” alliance could redefine a family policy to balance the concerns of adults with the needs of children. In fact, such departures from present thinking are quite likely because these new coalitions will require significant adjustments among participating religious traditions. For instance, more orthodox Evangelical and Mainline Protestants will have to learn to cooperate among themselves, as well as with traditionalist Catholics and Jews, and with other religious conservatives, such as Mormons. Likewise, less orthodox religionists and Seculars will need to develop a firm moral and ethical basis for their politics. Both sides will need to define themselves in positive terms rather than only in opposition to the real or imagined excesses of the other.
What the new alignment is sure to bring, however, is an end to the historic dominance of large, pluralistic denominations, such as the United Methodist and Roman Catholic churches, which have presumed to speak broadly for societal values. Once the linchpins of the traditional party coalitions, these bodies will increasingly come under pressure from both the religious right and the secular left. As a result, their ability to maintain a distinctive voice in public debate, let alone a consensual one, will be extremely difficult.
Which side of this new alignment will prevail? At this juncture it is unclear who are the cultural “haves” and who are the “have-nots.” This situation can be illustrated by the new core constituencies of the GOP and the Democrats, Evangelicals and Seculars, respectively. Both groups like to claim that they are “disadvantaged” in the public square and victims of “cultural aggression,” but neither is lacking in resources for offense or defense. The vast institutional empire of Evangelicals, ranging from thousands of local churches to publishing houses, colleges, and mass media outlets, is quite impressive. But Seculars are linked closely to the nation's educational, journalistic, and scientific establishments to an equally impressive extent. Will the negative consequences of secularization bring the religious alliance more recruits? Will the continued advance of modernity give the nonreligious coalition better weaponry? Or will an even division of power obtain? While any final judgment is premature, the strong connections of the religious alliance to the grassroots suggest that the religious coalition may have an advantage in the immediate future, but that secularizing forces may gain the upper hand in the longer run.
Some observers find the emergence of this new alignment troubling because it generates unfamiliar kinds of conflict, but in a democracy conflict is often a prelude to consensus. Although there is no guarantee that cultural disputes can be kept within reasonable bounds, suppressing disagreement will not maintain the peace. Some disagreements are resolvable only by agreements to disagree or acceptance of the provisional nature of victories and defeats. After all, unhappiness with social and political outcomes is not disastrous if the losing positions were based on principle and if the political system provided a fair hearing for all sides. The view that a good politics requires a detailed, preexisting consensus on values is as unwarranted as the notion that economics alone drives politics. In fact, the present restructuring of electoral alignments is a potent means of bringing neglected values to the fore and organizing the debate about them.
A cultural perspective on the 1992 election, then, suggests three conclusions. First, the conventional wisdom on the role of economic factors in elections is overstated; even in a year when such short-term factors were particularly strong, they operated within the context of long-term cultural alignments. Second, the basic building blocs of party coalitions are cultural groups, chief among them religious traditions, and continuity and change among these blocs is of lasting importance. Finally, a new cultural underpinning to party alignments emerged in 1992, pitting coalitions of more-and less-religious people against one another.
These conclusions suggest that the “public square” has never been—and can never be—denuded of values, despite the best efforts of some groups to promote the historically false argument that American society is based on a strict separation of faith and public life. The answer to the “naked public square,” George Weigel reminds us, is to reconstruct civil society on the basis of common values. Cultural disputes have always been—and always will be—integral parts of American elections, but, as Stephen Carter argues, an enhanced appreciation of religion is an effective antidote to cultural “warfare.” In any case, it is clear that contemporary observers and future historians alike ignore religious and cultural factors at their peril.
Messrs. Kellstedt, Green, Guth & Smidt are professors of political science at Wheaton College, the University of Akron, Furman University, and Calvin College respectively.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?