Thursday, November 11, 2004

Being Out of Touch, Revisited

The discussion of the Democrats' loss last Tuesday has taken an interesting turn.

First we heard, from Democrats as well as from Republicans, that the sleeper issue of the election was "moral values," particularly the moral values of those in opposition to gay marriage. Thus: the consitutional amendments banning gay marriage and/or civil unions passing in all 11 states in which they were on the ballot; and more voters citing moral values than any other single issue as the most important factor for their vote.

This interpretation of events has been used both by Democrats to wring their hands over the forces of intolerance which seem to have put Bush back in office; and by the Republicans, who blame the Democrats for being out-of-touch elitists with a snobbish disregard for the values of mainstream America.

In recent days, however, pundits and columinists have begun suggesting that this reading of the election is itself "out of touch." E.J. Dionne from the Post and David Brooks from the Times have both argued in recent columns that it was not the "moral values" zealots who won the election for Bush and for the Republicans in the Senate. According to Brooks, it was the judgment of ordinary Americans about the war in Iraq and the war on terror that gave Bush the victory.

As Brooks put it, "He won because 53 percent of voters approved of his performance as president. Fifty-eight percent of them trust Bush to fight terrorism. They had roughly equal confidence in Bush and Kerry to handle the economy. Most approved of the decision to go to war in Iraq. Most see it as part of the war on terror." ("The Values-Vote Myth")

Again the conclusion is supplemented by a little snicker: evidently the former interpretation of Bush's victory was a way for the Democrats to feel superior to the Republicans, even in defeat. And as such, it just reinforces the charge of elitism.

Brooks and the others who have defended this view are confused. The original analysis, that the "moral values" crowd gave Bush the win, was based on exit polls in which voters identified the most important issue to them. This doesn't mean that more people voted on the basis of values than did every other issue combined. It just means that, had those who voted on "moral values" gone 80-20 for Kerry instead of Bush, it would have easily made up the difference of 140,000 in the Ohio popular vote, as well as the 3.5 million popular vote difference across the country. Overall, roughly 20% of the 120 million voters, or 24 million, were self-described evangelicals. Bush's 80% of 24 million is about 19 million votes-- obviously far greater than the 3.5 million by which he won.

This is also true of those voters who voted for Bush because of the war on terror or the war in Iraq. Had that group voted for Kerry in the percentages it voted for Bush, Kerry would have won.

Being a deciding factor in an election doesn't entail being a majority. I've argued before that the Democrats aren't out of touch with regards to values of mainstream America; but they did lose the election to the "moral values" minority.

What exit polls indicate, then, is the influence of both the mainstreamers and the evangelicals. So whether Brooks and Dionne like it or not, Bush owes his victory, in part, to the "moral values" crowd. This is why Rove appeared on Fox News two days after the election and promised that only judges who strictly interpret the constitution would be appointed to federal positions. (This is code for overturning Roe. v. Wade, since the right to abortion isn't "in" the constitution per se. It's implied, say defenders, by the right you have to control what happens to your body.)

What about gay marriage or gay civil unions? Well, desipte Frank Rich's assessment that Blue is winning the culture war, we'll have to wait and see. (As far as I can tell, by this Rich only seems to mean that Reality TV, the latest Jackson-family perversions, and other choice programming are plugging up our TV screens. I'm not sure, however, that this is the culture war the Democrats really want to win.)

None of this prevents Brooks from reiterating the charge that Democrats are out of touch. This time it has something to do with not being familiar with life in what Brooks calls "exurbia." But the elitism charge doesn't even make sense when it's not applied to values. Those who voted for Kerry because of Iraq aren't "out of touch" because they don't hold the same opinion as do the folks living in exurbia. You aren't "out of touch" with someone you disagree with; you're in touch with what you think is wrong. Polling right before the election indicates that 1/3 of Bush supporters think weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. As of November 2nd, that was just plain wrong. 70% of Bush supporters think that evidence of a clear collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda has been discovered. I suppose that some conservatives would insist that there were some meetings somewhere between affiliates of Iraq and relatives of Al Qaeda; but anyway according to the nonpartisan 9-11 Commission Report, there was no significant collaboration between the two.

Anyone with a mild interest in world affairs and a radio or TV knows these facts, since he has heard them repeated indefinitely. Is the charge that the Democrats aren't in touch with those who don't have even a mild interest in world affairs?

It's a good thing, Republicans, that David Brooks isn't replacing Karl Rove as lead election strategist. According to Brooks, just about the most sophisticated thing we can say about the election results is "In the first place, there is an immense diversity of opinion within regions, towns and families. Second, the values divide is a complex layering of conflicting views about faith, leadership, individualism, American exceptionalism, suburbia, Wal-Mart, decorum, economic opportunity, natural law, manliness, bourgeois virtues and a zillion other issues." (Ibid.)

Thanks, David. Incisive. I hope for their sake the Democrats will keep that in mind come 2008.

What's really under discussion here? I don't think it's who did vote for whom. I think it's whom you, Sir, ought to have voted for!

You ought to have voted Republican, says Brooks, since the majority of reasonable Americans regarded him as successful in the war on terror; and you ought to have voted with the normal, reasonable folks.

You ought to have voted Democrat, says Gary Wills, since (hopefully) you don't regard the Virgin Birth as something that ought to be taught alongside the theory of evolution by natural selection. You do like the Enlightenment, don't you?

In a way all this assessment comes down to is a minature post-campaign campaign. Sheer insistance sometimes feels as if it can reverse the course of actual events. But it cannot. It can't make Kerry win, and it can't make all those folks on the coasts vote Republican.

We already cast our ballots.


At November 11, 2004 at 6:41 PM, Blogger Mithras The Prophet said...

You have so many words, and so well-ordered. Here's a few scattershot reactions:
1. Brooks is a putz. He thinks every issue can be boiled down to a few demographic anecdotes. Humph.
2. As for being out of touch with reality and world affairs, a Zogby poll found half of New Yorkers think the government knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance and consciously failed to act. So we Blues don't exactly have a monopoly on being well-informed.
3. Interesting thoughts about the "deciding factor." So I guess a "deciding factor" is the most contigent, would you say that's right?

Example: Bush would have won 70% of the white evangelical vote under any circumstance, but perhaps the gay marriage issue helped bring a few more to the polls, which might not have happened had the Massachusetts ruling gone 4-3 the other way.

Or: Four years ago national security was not on people's minds the way it was this time. Were that not the case, Bush would have lost; but since it is, and because Kerry never projected the get-tough attitude that makes people feel safe, Bush won.

But that last one underlines the shaky nature of these explanations. Things could have been different... but they weren't. How different could they have been, really? It sucks one down a pit of determinism and despair. Hmmm. perhaps you could fill in with a little discussion of what you philosopher types think of causation explanations to begin with?


Post a Comment

<< Home