To a very large degree I follow politics like I do sport. In politics there is a scoreboard every so often in the form of elections and just like watching most sport discussion programs on the telly, there is a lot of pointless jibber-jabber and poppycock which is spoken. Think about it: the only real difference between sports commentary and political commentary is that the results of politics affect people's lives; whereas the the sport results do not. Both have play by play and colour commentators, both have former players who give their opinions and both have pundits who talk endless amounts of rubbish; in an average newspaper, the sport section and the section about politics and business are roughly the same size.
As someone who lives in that weird part of the world known as "Not America" I looked on in horror as the people of America successively knocked out all of the semi sensible people running for President, on both sides of the political divide, before they settled on a policy wonk who was being driven by Wall Street and an actual sociopath who was also being driven by Wall Street. In the end they chose the sociopath and have tried to back away from the fact repeatedly; with members of his own party still not entirely sure what they've done.
Had I been Grand Poohbah and Lord High Everything Else then it would have been a fight between the current Speaker Of The House Paul Ryan and long time Senator Bernie Sanders: that would have genuinely been a contest of ideas rather than the idiotic display of name calling which we ended up with.
Looking in from the outside, I am constantly surprised at the way that various demographic sections of the population are treated as items in a vending machine by both the media and the political parties themselves. "Push Button; Receive Votes" appears to be the modus operandi and if I happened to be living in the United States, I'm sure that I would resent being patronised like that. Latinos, Black, Uneducated, Middle Class etc. are all labels which are used to ring fence voters and for reasons that make little sense to me, those voters are mostly happy to be penned in. There is one label which really makes my brain hurt: "Evangelicals".
Right up front, it should be pointed out that the word Evangelical as it used in political circles is entirely different to how it is used within churches. The Greek word εὐαγγέλιον or "euangelion" comes from three roots" the prefix eu- which means "good", angelos which means a "messenger" and the neuter suffix -ion which means that the word is a common noun; thus "euangelion" means "good news" and specifically the good news of the gospel and the hope of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ's death, resurrection and by logical extension, atonement. In political circles though, this is more or less hurled onto the bonfire of euphemism and all that political commentators are concerned about are the mostly to white Anglo Saxon Protestant voters, who as a group have been dragged further to the economic and cultural right over the past forty years; I wanted to know how they got there.
Evangelicals as a thing didn't really exist before about 1960. They were equally as likely to vote for the Democratic Franklin D. Roosevelt as they were the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and were spread more or less evenly throughout the supporter bases of both parties. It wasn't until public opinion polling was taken up in the 1930s, that these results started to influence how the political parties saw the electorate. A more scientific approach to getting votes, divided into sections, various slices of the pie to be fought over and Evangelicals were just one of many.
The 1960 Presidential Election between Kennedy and Nixon was between a deeply flawed and morally dubious visionary and a revenge driven psychopath. Kennedy won and in doing so, pulled the Democratic Party violently away from many obviously racist policies in the south. After he was assassinated, Johnson continued to enact a lot of the policies which Kennedy had overseen and it is during this period that we see the Civil Rights Act passed. The weird thing is that in Republican land, Barry Goldwater who was a capitalist authoritarian, failed immensely at the 1964 election and for 1968, the Republican Party began to follow. Nixon was elected in due course an following the Watergate scandal, Ford became President, after never being on the ticket (Spiro Agnew had resigned in disgrace in 1973) and by 1976, the country threw out the Republican Party and elected Jimmy Carter. This is where the story gets insane.
Jimmy Carter probably had the most visible faith of any President during the twentieth century; so much so that he even gained the nickname of "the nation's Sunday School Teacher". Unfortunately, he became President during the middle of the 1970s oil crisis and was the one in charge during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Situation. Despite resolving the Iranian hostage crisis without needing to fire a shot and holding peace talks between Egyptian President Sanwar Adat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978, Carter was still seen as someone who could be picked off.
Given all that as background, I thought it really strange that as a block evangelicals would turn against such a visible Christian leader and vote in someone who had backed Goldwater in 1964 and hadn't really challenged Nixon during the Republican primaries in 1968.
In hunting down the root causes for the shift and adhesion of evangelicals to the Republican right, my first inkling was that it had to do with deeply moral issues like abortion and Roe v Wade. The problem with this is that the case Roe v Wade happened in 1973; which was 4 years before Jimmy Carter took office and therefore was impossible for him to have anything to do with affecting it, whatsoever. If it had anything to do with the appointment of Supreme Court judges, then unlike the 2016 election, the court had no vacancies and was generally considered to be 6-3 in favour of conservatives; besides which Roe v Wade was handed down 7-2 and so that further blows that line of thought out the window.
Once again the old adage from crime novels and court cases is instructive: "follow the money". In doing so, we find a trail which is truly worrying.
In 1975, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), unilaterally revoked the taxation exempt status of what it had determined to be as it called them, "segregation academies". Ever since Brown v Board Of Education (1954) had been handed down 9-0 by the Supreme Court, it had been illegal for educational institutions to discriminate against applicants and deny them entry, on the basis of race. Gerald Ford's administration had taken steps to crack down on the practice; especially in the south, which was mostly ruled southern Democrats. As you'd expect, these places didn't take this lying down and Bob Jones University took the IRS to court and lost.
The ruling of the court had implications for Liberty Christian Academy and Liberty University, and their founder Jerry Falwell and a chap called Paul Weyrich co-founded a political action committee called the Moral Majority in 1979 to tap into evangelical Christian churches and places, to recruit and cultivate grass roots action.
There wasn't anything particularly new about what the Moral Majority was doing but what they saw and were able to exploit was a group of people who felt that they hadn't been listened to. Once a narrative was weaved together where Christian values were being undermined, the facts that the court in Roe v Wade had been 6-3 conservative v liberals or that the IRS was probably right in its assessment about segregation under another name, then it didn't really matter what the truth actually was.
All of these things started swirling around and this helps to explain why evangelicals were co-opted into voting for Ronald Reagan and against someone of obvious displayed faith. As I write this in 2017, Jimmy Carter is still a Sunday School teacher at his local church despite being aged well into his 90s.
Incidentally, the IRS won its complaint against "segregationist academies" in 1982; and were forced to abandon a lot of their policies including bans on interracial dating. Those places including Bob Jones University, Liberty Christian Academy and Liberty University were also pursued by the IRS for back taxes as well. Make of that what you will.
Reagan served two terms in the White House and this was followed by a term from George HW Bush. 12 years is long time to be in the political wilderness and while the economic right was busy gutting all the labour laws, the libertarian left of the Democratic Party was busy rebuilding it's base into the position that they find themselves today.
Essentially an problem for Evangelicals today, when it comes to the realm of voting and elections, is that the Democratic Party has adopted a series of positions on moral issues which they disagree with and the Republican Party pays lip service to these things just so it can collect votes. It also doesn't help that America also combines first past the post voting with mass gerrymandering and voluntary voting, then vests the executive of the nation in one person and then pits that executive against the other two branches of government. That's a recipe for combative government, which if you read through the Federalist Papers is actually what people like Hamilton and Jefferson intended.
The world that we got to in 2017 is vastly different to the one in 1980 but it's worth remembering that people do tend to participate in politics in the same way that they follow a sporting team; the idea of a rational voter who carefully considers their vote is like the idea of a rational actor in economics - it's a nice idea but it just doesn't exist.