Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Elite and the Majority

Are the Democrats out of touch with the majority of Americans? Are the Democrats arrogant or elitists? We ought to try our best to understand these questions before we turn to the pundits to answer them for us. Just what is the accusation, here?

Sometimes when the accusation is leveled, it seems to amount to the claim that Democrats don't share the values of the majority of Americans. Now there are two significant parts to this understanding of the charge. First, there is the claim that Democrats and Republicans don't have the same values. Second, there is the claim that Republican values are the values of the majority of Americans. Let me take a closer look at each part.

Do Democrats and Republicans have the same values? This is actually itself a complex question, but I want to ignore the complexity to pursue a different issue. And I think that in one sense of the question, it is patent that Democrats and Republicans differ on issues of right and wrong. Sometimes this is presented by partisans as a difference over whether there is a (moral) right and wrong; but I think it is fairly clear that this isn't an accurate characterization of the issue. We might more accurately paraphrase the divide as one between those who regard certain behaviors as permissable and those who regard them as impermissable. Just because you permit a certain behavior doesn't mean you think there is no question of right and wrong about it.

But the simple point, which is, surprisingly enough, not often made, is this: if two people are morally different, then one of them can't be legitimately accused of arrogance for simply differing from the other. For if you differ from me, then I differ from you; so you aren't, on your own, any more "arrogant" for differing from me than I am for differing from you!

Perhaps this sounds like an academic riddle but I think it's a point worth making. For I have heard on several occasions the accusation that the east coast doesn't share the values of America. But the east coast is part of America; it's America's east coast! So what is really meant is, the east coast doesn't share the values of elsewhere in America. But that is no fault especially of the east coast-- at least, not any more than it is the fault of elsewhere in America that is fails to share the values of the east coast.

All the weight of the accusation, then, is placed on the second part. This, remember, is the claim that Republican values are the values of the majority of America. For it is one thing for two individuals to merely differ from each other on moral issues. But it is another thing for one person to stubbornly insist against the throngs that his view is the right one.

So are Republican values the values of the majority? Here I think the pundits are quite misleading. It is true that in the 11 states that had constitutional amendments banning gay marriage on the ballot November 2nd, every single one passed. And most of them passed by double-digit margins; the closest was Oregon, which passed 57% to 43%. That is roughly the margin by which George Bush lost the state of New York to John Kerry. (I.e., it wasn't close.) But of all the people that cast ballots on November 2nd, 60% told exit pollers that they favored gay civil unions or gay marriage. (NPR Weekend Edition, Nov 6)

What's going on here?

No doubt there was some confusion as to just what the initiatives on the ballot asked of the voters. But beyond this there is the question of majorities within states versus majorities across the country. It doesn't take a degree in statistics to understand that what 68% of Ohio favors, much less of the country may. This may account for why in Ohio the majority of those who voted on Tuesday may want to constitutionally disallow for gay civil unions, while the iniative for a US Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a women couldn't make it past first base in the US congress.

Furthermore, consider this. Most of those opposed to gay marriage cite religious beliefs as the reasons for their position. But polling over a long term has indicated that only between 30 - 40% of Americans attend church at least once a week. (There is a wide range in this number due to the fact that people tend to overreport what they perceive to be virtuous activities.) This is a clear minority. Are we supposed to believe that there are 100's of millions of Americans who don't feel strongly enough about religion to go to church once a week but strongly enough to amend the constitution to prevent gay marriage? Or is it that the rest of the "majority" comes from those Americans abstractly concerned about the dangers of mere "redefinition" of an institution itself?

I doubt this is right; but if it is, then the gap the Democrats face really isn't one of deeply held "moral values." Redefinition isn't a value at all. We redefined the franchise by giving it to blacks and women; and I take it a majority of Americans regards this as a moral triumph. We Americans redefined government by making it "by and for the people." If you polled people about these institutional "redefinitions," they would no doubt agree them to have been wise and moral.

Again, what group of people are asked the question about gay marriage makes a large difference in the answer received. According to a New York Times poll in December of 2003, among those 65 and older, roughly 60% of people think not only that gay marriage shouldn't be allowed, but that sexual relations between individuals of the same sex should be illegal. But ask those between 18 and 29 the same question, and roughly 60% go the other way.

I do not mean to suggest, though that a majority of Americans favor allowing for gay marriage. That is not true according to the New York Times poll cited above. What I do want to suggest is that the idea that the Democrats are stubbornly insisting on allowing for gay liberties (like the liberty to marry) in the face of overwhelming and reasonable opposition of the rest of America is inaccurate. And if that is what it the charge of being out of touch with the majority of Americans is supposed to amount to, I don't think the charge is correct.

(Really, this is more of a caricature than anything. 8 out of 10 voters in the Bronx voted for John Kerry. Are these folks the arrogant, out-of-touch elitists that supported the Democrats in 2004?)

I want to be careful here, however, since the point of my argument is not to construct a partisan defense of the Democrats. I'm more interested in understanding what the Democratic party is or isn't "doing wrong." I do think there are a lot of Democrats on both coasts that do think of themselves as more sophisticated than those in the heartland who voted for Bush. If we interpret this in terms of something we can evaluate, like the amount of education, then it may or may not be true. But often the sentiment is more like: mid-America is populated by hicks.

This feeling is a defensive reaction. I am sure it is no better or worse than what we would have heard out of Mississippi and Texas had George Bush not managed to win. In fact, it's no better or worse than what we are hearing: which is, the Democrats are a bunch of latte-sipping elitists who are out of touch with mainstream America and their values.


At November 7, 2004 at 5:24 PM, Blogger Random Sketchy Brainfart DOT COM dude said...

Dear Matt, I am a hick, but I live on the east coast of New York. What am I? Is it true that people in the heartland don't have lattes? (No, i know that a shop called Starbucks can be found there, too). Is Starbucks elitist for stealing its name from Melville's novel Moby Dick, or is it just lacking in creativity? Do you think it is funny that I thought Starbucks was a coffee before I knew it was a character or melville's, or is that strangely sad? I have so many questions of this how does GW succeed in being rich, elite, and a hick good earth man, while JK is rich (by default, that is marriage) and is just elite? I suppose the fact that he is from MA and not TX/CT does not help him out much. But what most of this makes me wonder is do we really know so little about our fellow states besides what we know of stereotypes and television? Or why is it so convenient to think in stereotypes? Do all rich people deserve to be hated, and are all un-rich people, by being un-rich, good? I'm not saying they're not true....
merely confused,
Logan hasler

At November 7, 2004 at 6:41 PM, Blogger Mithras The Prophet said...

Excellent breakdown of the question, Matt.

I think, however, that the "out of touch" attack does hinge on the first of your two parts as much as the second. While your analysis makes perfect logical sense -- that "Eastern" values are American values ex vi termini -- the attack rests on an appeal to a definition of what constitutes legitimate American values. That is: Eastern elites are out of touch with American values not just elsewhere in space, but also elsewhere in time -- with the historical traditions that constitute America in the popular imagination. Hence the appeal to "traditional" marriage etc.

Of course, values like slavery, xenophobia, genocide, second-class citizenship for women and ethnic minorities, segregation and antimiscegenation laws, marginalization of the economic underclass, etc. are presumably not the historical values implied. Or maybe they are, come to think of it.

Anyway, I think the economic populist message is the way out. As you so ably put it: Eight out of 10 voters in the Bronx voted for John Kerry. Are these folks the arrogant, out-of-touch elitists that supported the Democrats in 2004? Kerry made some appeal to "family values that value families", but I think the message didn't really come across. Recapturing a sense that things like health care, child care, and Social Security are an embodiment of mainstream -- and Democratic -- values is the first reasonable prong to take.

great blog, btw. cheers


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