March 04, 2004,
The Reagan Catholics
Who they are. Where they come from. How they think. How to reach them.
People say that Catholics in America vote pretty much like other citizens but the people who say that usually lose the Catholic vote. A people's historical experience blows like a wind against snowflakes, driving enough of them now to the right, now to the left, to make a big difference in the final tally. There are two reasons why this is predominantly true of voters who happen to be Catholic.
First, Catholics tend to vote with higher regularity than anybody else but Jews. (In Chicago, some have been known to vote more than once, and in Boston some have voted after death, they enjoy voting so much). But 3 to 10 percent of this higher total vote tend to switch sides in presidential and senatorial (i.e., statewide) elections, sometimes changing for a Democrat, sometimes for a Republican. And these switchers are the most meaningful of voters, for their votes in effect count twice taking a vote out of the column they last voted under, and putting that vote in the other column this time. If you can get a switch voter to vote for you this time, your opposition has to find two votes to make up for that one.
Second, the nation's approximately 25 million Catholic voters are lucky enough to be fairly concentrated in a dozen high-electoral-vote states, including Florida, Texas, and California, as well as the northeast and north-central industrial belt from New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey through Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri.
It is also worth recalling that there are more than sixty million Catholics in America, and that some 25-30 million of them vote.
Their ethnic breakdown falls roughly into six major clusters. Nearly half the Irish or Scotch-Irish in America are Protestant, but something over ten million are Irish Catholics. There are also about ten million Eastern Europeans of various Slavic and other nationalities, such as Hungarians and Lithuanians. Nearly ten million American Catholics are of Italian background, quite entrepreneurial and small-business oriented. Another ten million are of German and French background, combined. Another million or two are of African descent, but most of the remainder the single largest, and newest, grouping are from one or another tradition in Latin America, and are Spanish-speaking. Curiously, the Italian Catholics are not quite equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, for in Eastern cities where the Irish ran the Democratic party, the Italians rebelled and went to the Republicans, where their feelings for their own small businesses also found a more sympathetic economic hearing. Some of the immigrants, especially the Germans and the Czechs, sought out their own farms in the Middle West and, in surprisingly large numbers, even as far south as Texas. So the cultural experience of Catholics in America is quite diverse, as were the earlier experiences they went through abroad.
Bottom line: A political campaign that can blow through the blizzard of Catholic votes and drive some 3 to 10 percent of them in its direction, and away from the place they fell last time, can harvest a great many of the richest electoral votes available anywhere.
Ronald Reagan understood that. He also had an unerring instinct for the way Catholics talk about life, a way that is significantly (if subtly) different from the mainstream Protestant way. Protestants seem to like to talk about the "individual," preferably a little rugged, disciplined, enterprising, and responsible and such talk is true to life, and all well and good, and Catholics, too, can get the hang of it. But the Catholic preoccupation is the "family," for when things have gone well in the family during the past thousand years, everyone has been happier and better off, and when things have gone badly, nothing tastes as good, not even success. For a thousand years, most Catholics, wherever their ancestors were then, learned to trust the family as the most reliable of all institutions, and thought it much better than sheer loneliness and isolation as an individual.
Ronald Reagan understood this instantly. When his pollster Richard Wirthlin told Reagan that four themes resonated most powerfully among voters, especially Catholics in the big electoral states, Reagan felt in his gut that these themes were on target. And so, beneath the radar of the national press, but quite openly and daily nonetheless, Reagan talked incessantly about "WORK, FAMILY, NEIGHBORHOOD, and PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH." These themes matched the Catholic experience with a special profundity.
It was for WORK that most Catholic immigrants came to these shores. Where there is no work, the family perishes. By "work" they don't quite mean the "Protestant work ethic"; they mean "the condition for survival." "Do not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned," Thomas Jefferson admonished government in his own inaugural. President Bush needs to talk about the two million new jobs created in this economy since he became president the ones turned up by the Household Survey, which appear to be the result of the more than three million new small self-employing businesses that Americans have started since 2000. These are the jobs that Democrats, reading the Labor Department survey of large companies, are overlooking. These new start-ups are signs of confidence and well-being, not of defeat. They are the result of increased higher education, and more varied professional skills.
It is important, however, to talk about WORK, WORK, WORK, not just jobs. Work is the fuller concept, the one with moral intonations. Work means commitment to others, sweat put out so that others can have better lives. "It is not for self-interest," if I may correct Adam Smith, "that most men endure the blood of the butcher shop or the heat of the bakery, but for their own loved ones, at home in the family."
Work is also the explanation for differential incomes among families and households. Higher-income households and families almost always have a higher number of workers. That's just common sense. But it holds up in the statistical tables, too. And full-time work results in considerably higher incomes than part-time work. Last year, the median income of families with two full-time workers was something like $76,000.
And that helps to explain why the best of all anti-poverty programs is the marriage-based family. (These days, it is not enough to say family; one must speak with precision about the marriage-based family). Of all married-couple families, some 93 or 94 percent have escaped from poverty, and the rest are certain to do so soon. If the married-couple family has at least one full-time job, an even higher percentage is out of poverty; that number is headed even higher. Marriage and full-time work are the greatest engines of upward mobility for people in this country, and the main reasons for America's worldwide pre-eminence.
But FAMILY is important not only for economic reasons. For most men, in particular, it is the reason for being. Males who can otherwise be young and irresponsible are willing to undergo many difficulties in order to give their wives and children the best lives they know how. Nothing so motivates a man as having a family. And in every family, the mother is always the bulwark, the center, the mainstay, the great strength of all the others.
These are the two greatest of daily realities: WORK and the FAMILY.
Most of the Catholic immigrants in this country tried to cluster their homes within walking distance of their parish church. That is how Catholics became America's number-one NEIGHBORHOOD people. In fact, in many cities, Catholics refer to their neighborhoods not by their secular or geographical names, but by the name of their parish churches: "We live over in Little Flower" or "out by St. Benedict's" or "close in by Sacred Heart." The Catholic Church has always organized itself territorially, as near its families as it can. Catholics are "neighborhood people."
That's why what is happening on local streets, and in local places of employment, and in local schools is of such great emotional importance to Catholic peoples. Sometimes such things matter far more than what is happening nationally or statewide. Local issues are trump.
The Democratic party has long benefited from its strong base in local urban politics, at the precinct and ward level. Since the 1970s, though, the national Democratic party has taken its main cultural signals from the New York press and the Hollywood elites and the university experts, rather than from the old Mayor Daleys of the world. That is how Ronald Reagan went over the head of the Democratic establishment, and under the radar of the national media culture, directly to the hearts and minds of neighborhood people.
Not surprisingly, the big issues for "neighborhood people" are work and family the awful assaults on their own family values by television and cinema and music, and even in "progressive" public-school textbooks. They also hate witnessing the deterioration of their neighborhoods into greenhouses for unprecedented crime, ugly graffiti, and lack of public discipline. In response, Reagan put together WORK, FAMILY, and NEIGHBORHOOD in his platform. He made clear whose side he was on in the culture wars.
Finally, after four years of Jimmy Carter, and with the memory of the McGovern peacenik campaign still in mind, the Catholics of the 1980s understood that, even though they hated to see their sons go off to war (no greater sacrifice had ever been asked of them), but if you want peace, you must prepare for war. Softness will not bring peace; only firmness and power will. So they responded enthusiastically to Reagan's resolve to face our dangers directly, rather than hide from them, buried under a blanket of vain wishfulness. They liked his plans for strength, and they believed looking back on all of human history that peace comes only from strength. So, naturally, they loved the resolve expressed in PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH. That fit their experience. Against playground bullies, cowardice never worked, and neither did avoidance. Sooner or later a self-respecting lad had to be prepared to fight, and then the bullying stopped. It was always that way. Catholic fathers taught their sons how to defend themselves with their fists and their wrestling abilities. Then the tormenting stopped.
Thus, WORK, FAMILY, NEIGHBORHOOD, and STRENGTH (or more exactly, PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH) resonate with Catholic traditions and experiences. The language and symbols of what is called "the Protestant ethic" are rather different. The characteristics that Catholics respond best to, spontaneously, are not discipline, order, frugality, self-control although all these are valued, too but rather PLAY, HEARTINESS, BROTHERLINESS, NEIGHBORLINESS, TOGETHERNESS, and TOUGHNESS UNDER PRESSURE. WIT goes a long way, too, and a good laugh. And a sense of death and suffering; a tragic sense. "There's no point in being Irish unless you realize that sooner or later the world will break your heart," Senator Moynihan once said. There has been a lot of suffering among Catholic families in America, over the years. They have been pretty plain folk, not many privileged or spoiled by fortune.
Another theme has become prominent among Catholics since Reagan's time, however, and that is concern for the poor. Catholics are now, for the most part, numbered among the affluent. Their instinct for compassion and obligation to others leads them to want the nation to do more for the poor. Alas, Democrats are usually quicker to talk about this theme than Republicans. But Democrats don't quite get it: Almost all their programs to help the poor end up failing.
Besides, Democrats don't recognize that the poor just keep coming. There are always streams of the world's poor coming into America, at least a million a year. The result is that even if ten million people escape upwards out of poverty each decade, by the next U.S. census there are ten million newly arrived poor to take their places. Statistically, it looks like we aren't making much progress. But in fact, we are. Otherwise the percentage of the poor would keep going up by large steps, instead of constantly declining by small increments, as we stay just ahead of the inflow.
My hope is that Republicans will design more and more of their programs to help move the poor out of poverty more steadily, and at a faster pace. Republicans should talk more openly about the poor, and think more systematically about the poor, and relate to the poor everything they are doing.
For instance, the best single program for reducing poverty is to encourage and strengthen, and come to the help of, the MARRIAGE-BASED FAMILY. The second is to promote WORK among the poor, especially at least one full-time job, and not least for the children of the poor, so that each family has more than one income producer. Second only to marriage, nothing so propels the poor up from poverty as many hands working in unison to bring the family out of poverty.
The third great focus should be the health and safety of the NEIGHBORHOOD, and neighborhood associations, and caregivers. No other institutions can compare to America's churches for the depth of motivation, hours of service, and range of assistance that they offer the poor. No other force teaches concern for the poor as thoroughly or as deeply as our churches. No one can count himself a good Jew or a good Christian unless he or she cares for the widow, the orphan, and all those down on their luck and in need.
Improving on the Reagan list, therefore, I would add CONCERN FOR THE POOR to the other four themes mentioned above. They all go together anyway.
Finally, I believe the concept of "universal family capital" or "the ownership society" is a great overarching set of programs and policies to serve the above five themes. Indeed, this theme will most distinguish the 21st century from the 20th century. The guiding motif of the public policy of the 20th century was "income redistribution," to which end the power of the state was greatly enhanced. Far more just, and far more likely to succeed, is a program to start every new family off in life with a small but vitalizing stake in capital ownership.
This aim will begin to be realized when Social Security assistance and medical assistance are provided in the form of resources placed under each individual's personal management, to be inherited (whatever remains unspent) by his children or other family heirs, rather than falling back again into the hands of the government, as such money does now.
Few things are as beneficial to families as (at least) a modest capital fund for them to own from the beginning, that can assist in paying for higher education, or buying a home (and thereby escaping the fruitless treadmill of renting).
So there they are WORK, THE MARRIAGE-BASED FAMILY, NEIGHBORHOOD, PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH, and CARE FOR THE POOR five lively and powerful social and political themes. They can help everybody, but they are tuned especially for the Catholic ear. I believe with Reagan and just a little beyond Reagan that these are the best principles to communicate when trying to reach Catholic voters. As it happens, these themes express nicely in one coherent vision virtually every priority President Bush has set before the nation these past four years, although not quite in these precise terms. When it comes to American Catholics, this president like Reagan before him understands.
In short, I believe they fit.
Finally, it needs to be said that emphasis on THE RIGHT TO LIFE has its roots in the preceding five themes, especially love for the family, and concern for the helpless and most needy ones. The Catholic tenderness toward the Mother of God, who was called "full of grace" by the angel even before Christ came into her womb, also contributes to a keen sense for one more phenomenon: No truly Catholic mother refers to what is moving within her womb as "my fetus," but only as "my baby." In the company of a strong and open family, new life is not to be violently destroyed, but instead welcomed with gratitude and love. Generous commitments to family and to life go hand in hand.
Reagan understood this, as he understood the Catholic mindset.
On this point more than on the other five, it seems that those Catholics who go to Mass at least three times a month are far more likely to be strongly pro-life than those who have not been to Mass since their First Communion at age seven, or their marriage in the church years ago, or even those who attend only a few times a year.
More than other Americans, Catholics tend to identify themselves as Catholics even if they no longer practice their faith ("Once a Catholic, always a Catholic"). Whether or not they practice is a strong, although not perfect, predictor of their convictions on the question of life v. abortion, as well as other matters, such as cloning, homosexual marriage, etc. Those without moorings in Catholic belief tend more readily to adapt to the mores of the culture around them. Often, they don't even know the strong Catholic arguments.
Therefore, on examining poll numbers about "Catholic opinion" it is crucial to distinguish between regularly practicing Catholics and those who only residually still call themselves Catholic.
On the other five themes, it is the culture of having been Catholic, an almost unconscious historical memory, that gives these themes lingering and strong resonance. Regarding the culture of life, pro-abortion propaganda has been so strong for so long that it is not only, but mostly the more profoundly religious who cleave to the arguments against abortion. These find it as profoundly abhorrent as Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists found slavery. As Lincoln argued against Douglas, "pro-choice" is untenable. No one can choose slavery for himself nor abortion. "Choice" does not make slavery palatable, and it does not prettify abortion.
But these conclusions are learned by argument, and by experience. By contrast, the other five themes have by now been much more settled in the subconscious experience the various Catholic peoples in America have absorbed through their families and neighborhoods.
Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak's own website is www.michaelnovak.net.