“We're going to start saying 'Merry Christmas' again,” President-elect Donald Trump recently told a rally of his fans in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Google Trends data suggest that the so-called “war on Christmas” was canceled for lack of interest sometime around 2006, a year after the publication of the book of the same name. So Trump's determination to bring it back in 2016 — he's been talking about it all campaign season — may seem like something of a puzzle.
But of course, the fight against “political correctness” was one of the central themes of Trump's successful presidential campaign. A backlash against the (real or imagined) political correctness of the Democratic Party, the coastal elite and the mainstream media resonated with white working-class voters in the key states that put him over the 270 electoral vote threshold.
Public Policy Polling (PPP) is out this week with a new survey that untangles some of the tortured politics of holiday greetings. The firm asked 1,224 voters whether they preferred “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Some of the findings turn the politics of “Merry Christmas” on its head.
Only 9 percent of Americans preferred the nondenominational greeting, vs. 45 percent who prefer a traditional “Merry Christmas." (46 percent said they didn't care.)
Only 3 percent of respondents said they'd be personally offended if somebody said “Merry Christmas” to them. But 13 percent said “Happy Holidays” would be offensive to them.
So, individuals who opt for the more inclusive, nondenominational “Happy Holidays” may end up offending more people than if they'd just said “Merry Christmas” in the first place.
Interestingly, the demographic groups most offended by “Happy Holidays” include strong conservatives (21 percent), Gary Johnson voters (20 percent), Trump supporters (18 percent) and all men (18 percent). These are the same groups of people that tend to say there is too much political correctness in society, yielding a paradox: The folks who complain the most about political correctness are the ones who are the most offended by what they see as “incorrect” speech.
To frame it another way, conservatives often caricature liberals as too quick to take offense over politically incorrect speech. But in the PPP poll, people who described themselves as “very conservative” were more than twice as likely to be offended by “Happy Holidays” (21 percent) as “very liberal” respondents were to be offended by “Merry Christmas” (10 percent).
Again, the thing to keep in mind here is that the outrage and offense-taking is happening primarily within a small contingent of die-hard ideologues on both sides: Over 80 percent of Americans aren't offended by either holiday greeting. Only a third of voters believe that there's any “war on Christmas” at all, according to PPP's poll. To the extent that such a war exists, it's being fought by committed partisans at the margins of the parties.
Trump's repeated invocations of the Christmas conflict suggest that he's trying to make it a more mainstream issue within his coalition. But the polling suggests he's facing an uphill battle. In 2012, for instance, PPP found that 68 percent of Republicans believed there was a “war on Christmas.”
Today, only 57 percent of Republicans say the same.