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Why did Donald Trump lose the 2020 election so decisively?

In a country as large and diverse as the U.S., there’s no single reason that explains the result. Women and people of color backed Joe Biden by large margins. Liberal young voters turned out in record-breaking numbers. The suburbs swung toward Biden, possibly boosted by the Black Lives Matter protests that signified a dawning awareness of racial injustice among whites.

But there’s one factor that explains our divided nation better than any other – one that, to use Plato’s analogy, carves the American electorate at the joints. Writing in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank puts it this way:

But much of the Trump 2020 phenomenon can be explained by a far simpler way of looking at the electorate: There are White evangelical Christians — and there is everybody else.

With each new generation, America is becoming increasingly diverse, secular and multicultural. But while the rest of the nation is in flux, white evangelical Christians have remained obstinately motionless. For decades, they’ve been the core voting bloc of the Republican party, holding views that set them apart from the rest of society. Part of this package is the standard culture-war issues like anti-LGBTQ discrimination and attacking abortion, contraception and sex education.

But these are just the surface issues of the evangelical worldview. The larger and more significant part is a longing for a semi-mythical past when white male dominance went unchallenged. Donald Trump spoke to this sense of grievance and entitlement more than any candidate in recent memory, and as a result, he’s beloved by evangelical Christians despite his behavior flagrantly contradicting every moral principle they claim to stand for.

The Institute’s American Values Survey from September found overwhelming majorities of White evangelical Protestants saying that police killings of African Americans were “isolated incidents,” and that Confederate flags and monuments are symbols of Southern pride rather than racism.

…Majorities of White evangelical Protestants don’t see the pandemic as a critical issue (they’re less likely than others to wear masks), believe society has become too “soft and feminine,” oppose same-sex marriage, think Trump was called by God to lead and don’t believe he encouraged white supremacist groups.

…Americans are deeply, and for the moment immutably, divided by whether or not they’re nostalgic for what had long been a White-dominated country.

Political researcher Ryan Burge puts it in similar terms:

Against the backdrop of the entire country, white evangelicals are a minority – only 15% of the American population and shrinking. But they show up and vote consistently, which has allowed them to keep asserting political power:

White evangelicals are only 15 percent of the population, but their share of the electorate was 28 percent, according to Edison Research exit polling, and 23 percent, according to the Associated Press version. Though exit polls are imprecise, it seems clear that White evangelicals maintained the roughly 26 percent proportion of the electorate they’ve occupied since 2008, even though their proportion of the population has steadily shrunk from 21 percent in 2008.

…Because they maintained their roughly 80 percent support for Republicans (76 percent and 81 percent in the two exit polls) of recent years, it also means some 40 percent of Trump voters came from a group that is only 15 percent of America.

Granted, this isn’t as simple as saying that evangelicals are devoted to their cause and progressives are lazy or unwilling to fight for what they believe in. It stems from a fundamental difference in how the parties mobilize their voters.

If there’s anything Republican leaders are good at, it’s making fear and threat the basis of their worldview. Every election, they scream that their very way of life is in danger, that the other side is pure evil coming to destroy all they hold dear, and that progressive victory means dictatorship and gulags and reeducation camps and armed mobs roaming the streets (because those things are only OK when Republicans do them, obviously).

Because evangelicals are gullible, they swallow these wild lies and race to the polls because they’re convinced that they’re defending the barricades of civilization. It’s no wonder they show up in huge numbers. Even at that, they wouldn’t be such a political juggernaut except that they get a boost from America’s undemocratic institutions – a gerrymandered House that dilutes the influence of liberal cities, and a Senate that privileges small, thinly populated rural states.

But here’s the problem that Republican leaders are running into now: getting white evangelicals to vote is subject to diminishing returns. They may try their utmost to pump up fear and bigotry, eking out a few more points of turnout, buying themselves one more election cycle. However, that can’t change the fact that they’re an aging and dwindling minority. Worse for them, the harder they lean on these tactics, the more they drive away everyone outside their most hardcore supporters. They’re clinging to their current power at the cost of their future.

Americans, especially young Americans, are becoming less religious. And just as more-religious people are more conservative, less-religious people are trending more liberal. Even better for us, atheists and agnostics are incredibly politically active and engaged – yes, even more so than evangelicals. We don’t need apocalyptic lies to motivate us to do the right thing. It’s true that outright atheists are a minority among the larger demographic of the non-religious, but – to use a biblical analogy – we’re like the yeast that makes the dough rise.

And when elections are routinely decided by narrow margins in a handful of swing states, even a small shift can make a big difference. Ryan Burge writes that the “nones” may have been the critical factor in Biden’s victory:

However, according to preliminary analysis of the CCES 2020 data, Biden did 14 points better than Clinton and Trump did 14 points worse than he did in 2016. Consider the fact that over 20% of Americans identify as nothing in particular – that’s a huge swing in raw votes.

It’s a perilous exercise to determine how much these changes in voting behavior shifted voting totals because we don’t have a good sense of turnout for these groups just yet, but I think it’s completely fair to say that these shifts generated a two percentage point swing for Biden nationwide. There were five states where the gap between the candidates was less than two percentage points (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina). Four of those five went for the Biden – and the nones were between 28 and 37% of the population in those key states.

We’re rapidly approaching the scenario that I wrote about in 2018, in “The Twilight of American Evangelicals“. The entire Republican political strategy is predicated on high evangelical turnout, and as the younger generations slip through their fingers, it’s going to become near-impossible for them to win outside conservative strongholds:

Only 10 percent of Americans under 30 identify as white evangelicals. The exodus of youth is so swift that demographers now predict that evangelicals will likely cease being a major political force in presidential elections by 2024.

Donald Trump’s defeat, despite the fanatic devotion of his evangelical base, was the first ray of light from the dawning of this secular era. This doesn’t mean the end of the culture wars or the imminent arrival of a liberal utopia – we’ll always have things to fight about – but it likely does mean that the time when the most noxious figures of the religious right could set the tone and the agenda of American politics is coming to a close. And that can only be a good thing. It will make us a little more tolerant, a little more deliberative, a little more forward-looking. It’s a small step, the same way that moral progress has always happened.

There’s more to say about America’s demographic shift and the coming post-Christian era. Next week, I’ll write more about what’s driving these changes, as well as why we should be optimistic that they’ll not only continue but accelerate.

Image credit: Diego Teschi via Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...