Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2004 / 4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
An election all about values
The puzzle of the 2004 election is why it should be as close as 2000. Why aren't the Democrats way ahead? After all, the vast bulk of middle- and working-class Americans are being financially squeezed between slowly rising wages and escalating costs for oil, healthcare, and education, and the war on terrorism is seen through the prism of TV news on Iraq, which focuses on horrific pictures of terrorist violence.
Yet President Bush retains a narrow lead in many national polls and is doing well in many battleground states, and the Republicans continue to lead at the congressional level. What's up? The Democrats, you'd think, would be able to exploit the fact that many workers are no longer on an automatic escalator to the middle class. In the mid-1960s, when auto and steelworker unionists could enjoy a middle-class life with one paycheck, three quarters of them didn't have a high school degree. Today, when most people don't work in factories, American households still have a modest median income of roughly $43,000 a year. More people work in doctors' offices than in auto plants, and in dry cleaners than in steel mills. But their economic condition bears little resemblance to that of the suburban, college-educated professional we hear so much about. Middle-class and working-class incomes have barely budged in the past several decades, and a huge gap has opened up between the top 20 percent of the income spectrum, especially those with college degrees and advanced degrees, and those with only a high school diploma or who are high school dropouts.
The Democratic Party should be riding a wave here. It has always cast itself as the party of the little guy, fighting against the GOP, the party of the wealthy. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the Democrats began to focus less on economics than on social conditions. At a time of declining real wages, Democrats were seen to be more concerned with liberal social programs to promote the particular interests of blacks, gays, women, and other groups. This pushed a lot of traditional Democrats into the Republican column construction and blue-collar workers, homemakers, military veterans, cops, evangelicals, rural residents, and many ethnics. When Jimmy Carter lost control of the American economy, producing some three years of double-digit inflation, Reagan's antitax, small-government message became appealing. The Reagan Democrats emerged, consolidating the wide disaffection of white working-class workers brought about by the Vietnam War and conflicts around race in the 1960s.
"Hip-ocracy." The beginnings of a cultural war could be discerned. Many conservatives, churchgoing people who played by the rules, saw 1960s and 1970s radicals who rejected them and their ideas of accomplishment leading to a breakdown in the social order. The efforts of the New Left to weaken oppressive authority ended up corroding all authority. Weary of the unraveling of the orderly, coherent, moral community they once relied on, Americans rejected the hedonism of Woodstock, in which individual choice and uninhibited, personal expression trumped all. Hollywood came to epitomize for them this narcissism and repudiation of conventional values. They were tired of the new counterculture of radical change, seeing in the New Left a contempt for middle America and its values, reflected in fathers abandoning their families, the delegitimization of the sanctity of marriage, raising children without clear moral guideposts all of which, in their minds, led to increased criminality, drug abuse, people being recast as society's victims rather than accepting responsibility for their own actions. They yearned to restore the authority of public institutions and to remove some of the violence and sexuality in TV programs, records, and computer games, whose content they ascribed to the liberals who write the screenplays for TV and movies.
Against this backdrop, the Democratic Party saw its leadership shifting away from its working-class and middle-class roots, away from moral traditionalists, especially families that go to church, away from those who live in unfashionable tract suburbs and even in working-class neighborhoods. The Democratic Party was increasingly identifying more with the rising elites of the information and entertainment age what commentator Joel Kotkin calls the "hip-ocracy" of well-educated people, high-tech tycoons, Hollywood moguls and celebrities, Wall Street financiers, and an academic world of people with graduate degrees a new social elite, much more liberal than the country at large. Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" and "It's the economy, stupid!" reflected the need to reconnect with the traditional Democratic middle-class constituencies, but then he exacerbated the concern over moral values and family issues with his personal behavior.
This new elite is voting Democratic too. The Democratic vote has risen in the 261 wealthiest townships in America, in every election over the past two decades, to the point where it has gone from 25 percent in 1980 to a majority in the year 2000. This is no small number, for we now have a mass upper class of some 9 million households, or 15 percent of American families, with incomes over $100,000, roughly half of whom have a net worth in excess of $1 million, many of them big Democratic givers. For example, lawyers gave about $80 million to Democratic candidates by July 2004, dwarfing the $15 million given by the entire oil and gas industry. So much for the image that the rich support only the Republicans.
Rich and liberal. In this, John Kerry was a godsend for the Republicans. His image and persona were such that he lacked the common touch and had difficulty connecting to the experiences or values of middle- and working-class people. As with George W. Bush's father, also accused of lacking the common touch, Kerry sees the need to assume a middle-class awareness but can't do it convincingly. The photos of Kerry windsurfing or playing other elite sports have played into all these stereotypes of someone out of touch with the average man. Ironically, it was Bush who rejected many of his family's patrician ways, who seems comfortable in casual clothes and with chopping wood rather than yachting.
Middle America saw these educated liberals as a ruling elite, a collection of snobs who looked down upon ordinary people from the heights of their multiple academic degrees an upper class that believed it knew better and was more sophisticated than the average folks who live in the heartland. The Republicans, with populist support, tagged the liberals as "latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, school-busing, fetus-killing, tree-hugging, gun-fearing, morally relativist and secular humanist," as Jason Epstein summarized it in the New York Review of Books , and portrayed their elders as soft on communism, soft now on the new war on terrorism, and opposed to capital punishment.
The Republican Party and their media supporters began to cast the Democrats as the party of the wealthy, pampered, arrogant elites, while portraying themselves as the party of the hardworking, plain-speaking, common people of the heartland who, as Thomas Frank put it in his book What's the Matter With Kansas? , like country music and NASCAR. They identified themselves with traditional, moralistic people living in that part of the country that fills the ranks of the military and defends the flag, and juxtaposed them against the elites.
The distaste for elites that once was transformed easily into distrust of conservatism became transformed into distrust of liberalism. And so a culture gap opened up for many Americans. Their concern for family values and cultural issues trumped even economics.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the Republican use of cultural populism to mobilize voters, exploiting explosive social issues like abortion especially "partial-birth" abortions gay marriage, school prayer, and guns. Recent polls by both Time and MSNBC/Knight Ridder indicate that the number of voters who are responding primarily on moral and family-value issues like gay marriage and abortion has increased to between 15 and 18 percent; in the most recent Time poll, George Bush is winning over the culturally driven voters by 70 to 18 percent, a margin that shifts the overall poll findings by as much as 7 or 8 percentage points toward Bush. This is true, as well, in the battleground states, where the GOP margin on social issues is critical. MSNBC's polling firm indicated some 12 percent in Pennsylvania and 16 percent in Missouri would pick moral and family-values issues as the most important in determining their presidential vote this year, and Bush's lead over Kerry among these voters ranges from almost 8 to 1 in Oregon to more than 10 to 1 in Ohio and more than 12 to 1 in Missouri. In other swing states, including New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, Bush overwhelmingly tops Kerry on moral and family issues. In every state where Bush led that was measured, the moral-issues and family-values margin was more than his overall lead.
The paradox is that this is happening despite the fact that during the Bush administration the wealthy received disproportionate tax breaks and corporate America predominated in the councils of power. Many turned out to be among Bush's major contributors. It is happening even though, unlike during the 1980s, when corporate America was downsizing and corporations suffered along with the people they laid off, today corporate America is benefiting from outsourcing, through higher profits, while the people who are being laid off are the ones being hurt. It happened despite the fact that many social indicators whose epidemic growth created such a cultural divide in the 1960s and 1970s and provoked Middle America have begun to drop: crime, abortion, teen birth, divorce, teenage drinking. It happened despite growing middle-class economic distress, especially families' increasing difficulty of access to a college education for their children because of skyrocketing costs.
Cultural values, then, have clearly become much more powerful in the political makeup of America and Americans. This goes a long way, I think, toward explaining why the Democrats have had so much trouble gaining traction in a year they should have owned.
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© 2004, Mortimer Zuckerman