Saturday, November 06, 2004

Reassuring the left of their moral superiority

David Brooks offers this column in the New York Times in which he calls the "values-vote myth" an attempt by the commentariat to "reassure liberals that they are morally superior to the people who just defeated them." (Hat tip: Real Clear Politics)

In past years, the story line has involved Angry White Males, or Willie Horton-bashing racists. This year, the official story is that throngs of homophobic, Red America values-voters surged to the polls to put George Bush over the top.

This theory certainly flatters liberals, and it is certainly wrong.

Here are the facts. As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center points out, there was no disproportionate surge in the evangelical vote this year. Evangelicals made up the same share of the electorate this year as they did in 2000. There was no increase in the percentage of voters who are pro-life. Sixteen percent of voters said abortions should be illegal in all circumstances. There was no increase in the percentage of voters who say they pray daily.

While this may come as a blow to lefties who want to believe that President Bush's election is the fault of all those snake-handling proles in flyover country, it should also serve to remind us evangelicals that we haven't got carte blanche to push for favored legislation.

Much of the misinterpretation of this election derives from a poorly worded question in the exit polls. When asked about the issue that most influenced their vote, voters were given the option of saying "moral values." But that phrase can mean anything - or nothing. Who doesn't vote on moral values? If you ask an inept question, you get a misleading result.

The reality is that this was a broad victory for the president. [Emphasis added.] Bush did better this year than he did in 2000 in 45 out of the 50 states. He did better in New York, Connecticut and, amazingly, Massachusetts. That's hardly the Bible Belt. Bush, on the other hand, did not gain significantly in the 11 states with gay marriage referendums.

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.

There's the key pull-quote: This was a broad victory for the President. And in that sense all of us traditionally conservative voters can be pleased. In spite of the campaign for Kerry by the mainstream news media, the people of this country stood by President Bush for a wide variety of reasons, including, but certainly not limited to (or not mainly because of) moral values.

The red and blue maps that have been popping up in the papers again this week are certainly striking, but they conceal as much as they reveal. I've spent the past four years traveling to 36 states and writing millions of words trying to understand this values divide, and I can tell you there is no one explanation. It's ridiculous to say, as some liberals have this week, that we are perpetually refighting the Scopes trial, with the metro forces of enlightenment and reason arrayed against the retro forces of dogma and reaction.

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.

But the same insularity that caused many liberals to lose touch with the rest of the country now causes them to simplify, misunderstand and condescend to the people who voted for Bush. If you want to understand why Democrats keep losing elections, just listen to some coastal and university town liberals talk about how conformist and intolerant people in Red America are. It makes you wonder: why is it that people who are completely closed-minded talk endlessly about how open-minded they are?

The left needs reassurance that they're still morally superior to the rest of us. They'll believe the "values vote myth" because it makes them feel good. But the results of the election suggest that there is a growing conservative majority in this country.

On the other hand, evangelicals may wish to believe the values vote myth because it makes them feel like they now have political capital to spend. And unlike the man who buried his talents, believe it's their duty to invest it. If this is true--if I'm wrong and this is now the time to act--then it's important to invest it wisely and not go on a spending spree.

I still think progress on abortion and marriage issues is best achieved through changing people's hearts and minds.

UPDATE: The Anchoress sums it up a bit better than I did.

I am watching the right just as closely as the left, and wondering if some of the far-right aren't in danger of overplaying their hand by asserting themselves too aggressively, too quickly. We shall see.

President Bush has won with a mandate, but we still have to LIVE with the 53 million who voted against him, and that can't be done if extremists on either side are allowed too much power. Zealotry (I don't mean enthusiasm but REAL, closed-minded, obsessive zealotry) on either end won't serve the nation or our ideals.

Well said.


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