President Trump got the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord(s) earlier this month. This week, in the first of two episodes dedicated to analyze this event, Luciano explains what is the Paris Climate Accord, why it is important, and the limits of this international agreement. Juhem discusses the public opinion on climate change and introduces the concept of “Trumpslating”: the art of translating the President’s statements into something that makes sense.
This week in The Benito Juárez Experience we digest the news from earlier this month about the United States withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreements. Luciano does an excellent job explaining the importance and the limitations of the Paris agreements. I pitch in with some comments about the complexity of American public opinion regarding climate change.
I draw from two main data sources: the Religion, Values, and Climate Change Survey published by Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion on November 2014 (I worked on the design and analysis of this poll back when I was at PRRI); and the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey from the Spring 2015. The PRRI poll says a lot about what Americans think about climate change while the Pew poll puts some of those opinions in a global context.
The PRRI survey developed three categories of attitudes about climate change: believers (who think it is happening), sympathizes (who agree it is a thing but not very concerned), and skeptics (who doubt CC is an actual thing). Luckily, the largest group is the “believers.” Unfortunately, less than half the USA population fits in this category.
We know that most Americans do not fully believe climate change is an actual event worth acting upon. But it gets worse. Even those who are classified as “believers” are not particularly concerned. This second chart, from the same poll, shows that when asked about their level of concern, less than half of believers say they are very concerned. Only 3-in-10 Americans are very concerned about climate change. Among “sympathizers” just 4-in-10 have some level of concern (a combination of “very” and “somewhat” concerned).
The reason for why even those Americans who think that climate chants an issue are not very concerned about the issue is due to a very weird strand of “American Exceptionalism.” In this case, most Americans think that climate change is a problem that the rest of the world has to deal with because it is not an American problem. The figure below shows how this plays out.
A majority of Americans think that “people in poorer developng countries” will be impacted “a great deal” by climate change. Only one-third of Americans think that climate change will climate change will impact people in the USA a great deal. It is a very selfish and foolish position. On one level, it is quite arrogant to believe that your country will be spared of the effects of something that will affect the whole damn planet. On another level it is also very foolish…in what ways is our country insulated from something that’s going on globally?
The Pew poll provides some context of how out of line Americans’ opinions are compared to the rest of the planet. As Luciano points out in the podcast, the USA is one of the largest polluters in the planet. So, we bear a lot of the responsibility for this problem. And that’s what the rest of the planet thinks. A majority of people in the rest of the world think that rich countries should bear more of the cost of addressing the climate change crisis compared to developing countries. Only in the USA more people say that developing countries should bear more of the cost. This suggests that Americans are just afraid that they’ll have to give up their gas guzzlers and all-night Christmas lights.
The USA is also a bit of an outlier in how imminent the harm caused by climate change will start affecting people. Only the Middle East (an oil-producing region, I may add) is less likely to say the danger is “now” than “in the next few years”. Moreover the USA and the Middle East also have the largest proportions of denialism since just about 7-in-10 gave an answer that indicate they think climate change is a threat.
I hope this post puts some of my comments in a better context. These charts and the reports they come from (as well as other public opinion data) also stress the need for more action, including political organization around this issue. While the Peoples’ Climate March was a great idea, these opinion patterns precede the Trump presidency. And I fear they will get worse.
In the Financial Times, Gary Silverman explores why Evangelical Protestants in the Bible Belt “lost God and found Trump.” He rightly points out that
Trump was backed by 81 per cent of white voters who identified themselves as evangelical Christians, more than recent Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney and John McCain, according to the Pew Research Center, and more even than George W Bush, whose strategist Karl Rove made wooing them a priority of the campaign.
Silverman interviews various evangelical figures in his quest for a satisfactory answer but he’s missing two of the most important variables in the equation: age and partisanship. Evangelicals didn’t support Trump because they “lost God.” They are as devout as they’ve always been. But their politics have become more conservative. They are the Republican base.
A comparison of white evangelical Protestants in the 2007 and 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Surveys shows that overall the cohort has become much older in the near decade between the surveys.
In 2007 a majority of white evangelicals were under the age of 50 but in 2014 a majority were older than 50 years of age. This has made them a prime Fox News constituency (white and old).
They’re more Republican and conservative
As they have gotten older, they here also become more conservative. Their ideology has become slightly more conservative (60 percent In 2014 vs. 55 percent in 2007). The movement is the result of a decline of moderates
Their conservative shift was accompanied by an even stronger shift toward the Republican Party as it relates to partisan preference. A 9-percentage point gain to be exact. In 2007 a majority (56 percent) said they were Republicans but in 2014, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) said so.
On the Democratic side there was an identical 9-percentage point loss. Thus, the GOP party ID advantage increased from +26 to +44. An incredible 18-point gap in just under a decade. These political changes in identification have policy consequences.
White evangelical’s attitudes toward government have soured accordingly. In 2007 a little over one-third (36 percent ) of evangelicals preferred a bigger government with more services while a majority (53 percent) prefund a smaller government.
The 17-point gap in preference for small government became a whopping 50-point gap in 2014. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of white evangelicals prefer a smaller government. Just about 1-in-5 (22 percent) went a bigger government.
Still worship the same God
Contrary to Silverman’s assessment, evangelicals haven’t lost God. If there’s one area where this cohort is consistent it’s on their views on God and the Bible. Nearly 8 in 10 consider religion to be “very important” in their lives.
Other aspects of religious life have also remained constant. They report praying at least daily at similar rates in both surveys. They also report nearly identical rates of participation in prayer services.
Unfortunately, Silverman omits any discussion about race. The evidence that Trump’s support was driven by racism has moved from the anecdotal to the empirical. Not all evangelicals supported Trump as such high rates, only white ones.
This primarily old, white, and Southern cohort wanted America to be “great” again. That included harking back to the days of segregation and a less “politically correct” time when attacks on racial minorities were extralegal. It is not surprising then, that white evangelicals are the most likely to want to turn the clock back to 1950. Until we admit the fact that politically white evangelicals are driven by bigotry and prejudice , we will continue seeing these “deep” analyses that say a lot and not too much simultaneously.
Evangelicals never lost God. With Barack Obama in the White House, the yearning for a glorious age when black Americans knew their place and the only brown men theyknew was Ricky Ricardo became stronger. Trump promised restoration. He may be an unlikely Messiah, butif you know their politics, you know the piety is just for show.
Puerto Rico Speaker of the House Carlos “Johnny” Méndez led 40 days of prayer and fasting to “help” the island get out of its current crises despite obvious legal concerns regarding church-state separation (and the fact that prayer doesn’t solve anything). Luciano tells the story of what happened and who opposed the government-led religious activity. Juhem provides some historical and anecdotal evidence of why these acts by politicians are commonplace in Puerto Rico.
Over the weekend Donald Trump addressed the graduating class at Liberty University, the fundamentalist college founded by the late Jerry Falwell and now led by his son Jerry Jr. It was Trump’s first commencement speech and the venue indicated that he was there to pay a favor. White evangelical Protestants supported Trump like the had not supported other GOP candidates in recorded history. His speech should concerns all of us who cares about the secular state and maintaining the growth that the secular population has enjoyed in the last decade.
David Niose and Rob Boston, two of the best and most experienced voices on issues of church-state separation have very gloomy reactions to the speech. While there’s some overlap in their assessments, they highlight some separate issues.
In speaking to his Christian audience, Trump was brazen in his you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours rhetoric, reminding evangelicals that their policy goals are his. “I am so proud as your president to have helped you along over the past short period of time,” he said, referring to last week’s controversial executive order instructing the IRS to do everything possible to allow churches and religious groups to participate in politics. Turning to his host Jerry Falwell, Jr. (son of the college’s founder), he bragged, “I said I was going to do it, and Jerry, I did it. And a lot of people are very happy with what’s taken place. . . We did some very important signings.”
Of course, here Trump refers to his infamous executive order on religious freedom. As Mark Silk notes, the EO really amounts to not a lot in practice. This doesn’t mean that we should take our guard down. The Religious Right has the Johnson Amendment on the cutting board and Republicans hold power in all three branches of the federal government.
“America has always been the land of dreams because America is a nation of true believers,” Trump declared. “When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth they prayed. When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our creator four times, because in America we don’t worship government, we worship God. That is why our elected officials put their hands on the Bible and say, ‘So help me God,’ as they take the oath of office. It is why our currency proudly declares, ‘In God we trust,’ and it’s why we proudly proclaim that we are one nation under God every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance. The story of America is the story of an adventure that began with deep faith, big dreams and humble beginnings.”
He’s right to be concerned. With the Religious Right-led GOP in power many issues of church-state separation are already coming up and will continue to come up. It is possible that we will get into a social and political environment where people on the fence, such as many nones, will stop identifying as such and return to their old religious labels. This could happen because people may fear the social, economic, and political consequences of not identifying as or been seen as religious.
We are in for a wild ride in the 3 3/4 years we have left in this mess. Trump may not be an evangelical, but he knows they got him elected. More important, they know it.
…the Religious Right runs circles (politically) around secular Americans.
In a new piece in Politico Magazine, skeptic Michael Shermer shows that his skepticism is limited to religion and pseudoscience. In other aspects of life, such as politics, he delves into conspiracy theory. Basically, Shermer thinks evangelicals are getting conned by Trump (they are, but not because of the reasons he thinkss).
Trump was elected president despite being the least religious major candidate in the 2016 field. Looked at this way, Trump isn’t the evangelicals’ savior. He’s just another data point in America’s long march away from religion.
Of course, this assumes that evangelicals voted for Trump because he was one of their own. They voted for him because he is:
A Republican. As Pew shows, white evangelicals have been a core constituency of the GOP for a long time. They just voted for the candidate representing the party they prefer (and against the candidate they totally hate).
A racist. A recent analysis of the American National Election Study by Prof. Thomas Wood who found that:
Since 1988, we’ve never seen such a clear correspondence between vote choice and racial perceptions. The biggest movement was among those who voted for the Democrat, who were far less likely to agree with attitudes coded as more racially biased.
Nineteen eighty eight was the year of the infamous “Willie Horton” and “Revolving Door” ads. The GOP had not been as explicitly racist in its appeals for nearly two decades. But the Obama presidency and Latinx and Asian-American presence have reignited a nativist streak in the GOP not seen since the 1924 immigration quotas law.
His use of the phrase “evangelicals” is telling. Shermer, who is not a very sensitive fellow on issues of race, doesn’t call Trump’s religious base for what it is: white and evangelical. The vast majority of blacks are evangelical, and they didn’t vote for Trump. The polling firm Latino Decisions found in its election eve poll that 60 percent of “born again” Latinx (Latinx evangélicos) voted for Clinton. These data show that Trump’s appeal to “evangelicals” was mostly limited to white ones.
Aside from pushing the “Trump is a closeted secular” conspiracy, Shermer sounds naive in his approach to politics and totally ignorant of American history. He’s politically naive as he ignores the reasons for why the Religious Right is so powerful.
The Religious Right emerged as a force in American politics not because it was pandered to, but because it made it an effort to get politicians to pay attention to them. Or by becoming politicians themselves. Shermer expects that because there’s a large number of secular Americans now, politicians will automatically seek our votes. They won’t, as I have explainedbefore.
Amazingly, for a man who rails against identity politics, he seems fine with claiming victory for secularism because the President is not that religious (according to Shermer). Cheerleading the victory of a megalomaniac, sexist, racist con man is fine as long as it can serve as a f-u to religious American voters. Thankfully, not all of us have such low standards in our identity politics.
Recently I served as guest and, later, host of Secular Nation, the podcast of the Atheist Alliance of America. In my guest appearance I talk about secularism and politics in the Trump Era with Aron Ra and Justin Scott of Eastern Iowa Atheists. In the show I hosted I interview Dr. Ron Millar, the PAC coordinator for the Freethought Equality Fund, a secular PAC.
For my guest hosting appearance I wanted to focus on the great work the PAC did in 2016, one of the few bright spots our movement had in this past election. You can listen to the show here. Ron discusses the process of finding and endorsing candidates, the importance of having more secular Americans running for office, and other issues. As a backgrounder I want to show some information about the PAC’s work last year.
The Fund endorsed 35 candidates in 17 states. Arizona led the way with 9 candidates, nearly one-quarter of the candidate pool. The states are quite diverse. There are hotbeds of American secularism such as Washington, Oregon and New Hampshire with multiple candidates. But there are also places like Utah, Missouri, and Tennessee.
One aspect we didn’t discuss in the podcast was the variety of offices that the candidates ran for. It wasn’t a matter of local offices. Most ran for state (legislative) offices and the second largest cohort competed for federal (Congress) offices.
Last but not least, the Fund was very successful with its endorsed candidates. The majority won their races. In the podcast Ron goes a little bit into detail into who was more likely to succeed.
I am not normally obsessed with presidential approval ratings. But since the election of Donald Trump as President I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between approval and governing. A popular President can use it as leverage, think post-9/11 George W. Bush. An unpopular President that is also incompetent, like our current Commander-in-Chief, may have trouble making policy even with a friendly Congress.
Trump was never popular to begin with. As it was said ad nauseam during the 2016 campaign both Trump and Hillary Clinton were the most unpopular candidates for President ever (since public opinion started tracking such a thing). It is not surprising that now that he’s President he has enjoyed no honeymoon period, just breaking even at 45% of both approval and disapproval in the first Gallup poll measuring his ratings. That is the lowest among the Presidents since 1969.
Barack Obama, the only one of the last four President who won a majority of the vote had the approval of two-thirds of the country in his first Gallup appearance in 2009. His predecessor George W. Bush had the approval of nearly 60% of the country in 2001 even though (like Trump) he didn’t win the popular vote and (unlike Trump) his Electoral College victory was handed to him by the Supreme Court. Even Bill Clinton in 1993 had 58% approval following an election that he won by a plurality in a 3-way popular vote.
Before Trump the least popular presidents were Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George H.W. Bush in 1989. Both had 51% approval, 6 percentage points higher than Trump’s. Unlike Trump these two Presidents were not unpopular. In fact, none of the Presidents who preceded Trump in the Oval Office were unpopular.
On average, all elected Presidents since Nixon had majority approval (58%). This ranged from 51% (Reagan and Bush I) to 67% (Obama). The average disapproval for Trump’s last 7 predecessors was 13%. Disapproval ranged from 5% (Nixon) to 25% (Bush II).
Trump’s first approval was 24% lower than the average recently sworn-in President. His disapproval was nearly 4 times higher than the average President since 1969 and nearly twice than George W. Bush, his most unpopular predecessor.
That leaves us with one additional number: those who did not have an opinion. Since 1969 nearly 3-in-10 Americans have not expressed an opinion of the new President. It makes sense, these polls are often taken in the first couple of weeks of an administration. Many people without strong opinions may want to wait and see how the new Commander-in-Chief does. In other words, the honeymoon period is a combination of positive opinion (approval), and willingness to cut some slack (no opinion). Even the last 3 Presidents in a more polarized environment have averaged 20% no opinion. Trump’s margin of error is much smaller. Only 10% of Americans did not have an opinion of him.
While approval ratings may rise and fall as Presidents get in trouble or out of it, as they accomplish goals or botch them, they start with a lot of leeway. Trump’s first numbers suggest that the vast majority of Americans have an opinion formed of him and what he’s going to do while in office.
As I write this Trump’s approval stands at 41% while his disapproval has increased to 53%. Right now 94% of the country has an opinion of his performance and it is not a good one. With executive orders, a friendly Congress, and his sheer incompetence he can still inflict a lot of damage. But he’s vulnerable even if he thinks the normal rules of engagement do not apply to him.
The Republican Party as of now stands united but as Trump increasingly becomes a liability we will witness more Republicans willing to break with him. Maybe not on their sweet tax cuts, but on issues that they don’t care much about but now feel bound to follow out fear of igniting the wrath of the President’s base. You will see the seams starting to fall apart in the Senate.
Senators have different electoral incentives since they have staggered terms. The first Republican Senators smelling blood on the Michael Flynn saga do not face election next year.
The GOPers calling for Flynn investigation are mostly in the Senate and not up for re-election
With a Democratic base energized in these first weeks and a bumbling President, expect a few more to start opposing in the longer term if the bad ratings continue. House Republicans will be harder to move, they have safe districts. Expect the few vulnerable ones to start considering their exit strategies.
Of course, it is possible for Trump to improve or have other external events to have people outside his base rallying in his favor. One potential event that has been suggested is a terrorist attack. George W. Bush initially became widely popular after the 9/11/2001 attacks. But Donald Trump is not George W. Bush. The younger Bush was more charismatic than our current President. Also, Bush used the attacks to try to unify the country (in his own way). Trump is incapable of doing that, he will use the opportunity to tweet an “I told you so” message.
I think it will be very hard for Trump to gain net positive approval ratings. He’s certainly way over his head, most people dislike him, and once Republicans see that he’s more a distraction than an asset, opposition will line up within the GOP. I think he is incapable of uniting the country in case of a tragedy or a war. The latter will more likely be seen with the suspicion that Bush II never received. Finally, I think that when his approval ratings among the voters of his own party (currently at 88%) start dropping and hopefully reach and surpass the Nixon line (50% was his Republican approval at his lowest point), he will get a primary challenge. While his policies matter, his approvals (or lack of) will be of great help in his downfall.
Edit 2/15/2017 to fix a mention of GWB approval rating.