The Culture Gap

Thomas Frank (author of What’s The Matter With Kansas?), Howard Dean, and other liberals keep wondering why the Democratic Party can’t gain any traction with the American electorate. In Ohio’s Second Congressional District an Iraq war vet running as a centrist against an exceptionally weak candidate who was eminently defeatable only managed to come close in a special election. While Democrats are saying that this special election is some kind of a bellwether, the reality is something different. Despite the fact that voters are unsettled with the Iraq war, and Bush’s popularity is as low as it has ever been (although still above the 40% mark), the Democrats can’t seem to make much headway.

The reason is simple – it’s the culture, stupid.

Democrats have expressed bewilderment over Republican gains among lower-income, less-educated voters, saying they are voting against their economic self-interest by supporting Republican candidates. But the new Democracy Corps study concludes that cultural issues trump economic issues by a wide margin for many of these voters — giving the GOP a significant electoral advantage.

The study is based on focus groups of rural voters in Wisconsin and Arkansas and disaffected supporters of President Bush in Colorado and Kentucky. The good news for Democrats: All the groups expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and with the leadership of the president and the GOP-controlled Congress.

Then came the bad news: “As powerful as the concern over these issues is, the introduction of cultural themes — specifically gay marriage, abortion, the importance of the traditional family unit and the role of religion in public life — quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the national level,” the study said.

Those findings aren’t terrifically surprising, at least to Republicans. The GOP has been the party of “family values” for a long time now. The fact is that not only are the Democrats seen as being wrong on values issues, the Democrats don’t seem to understand the importance of the issue at all. The way in which Democrats reflexively show outright hostility to values themselves is deeply troubling to a major portion of the American electorate. As the Democratic pollsters found:

Many of these voters still favor Democrats on economic issues. But they see the Democrats as weak on national security, and on cultural and moral issues, they view Democrats as both inconsistent and hostile to traditional values. “Most referred to Democrats as ‘liberal’ on issues of morality, but some even go so far as to label them ‘immoral,’ ‘morally bankrupt,’ or even ‘anti-religious,’ ” according to the Democracy Corps analysis.

Again, no surprise there. The Democrats do tend to be anti-religious. Most Democratic activists seem to be militant atheists. Except, of course, when it’s close to an election. Then the Democrats are perfectly happy to stress their deep and abiding Christian faith – which only makes matters worse as the Democrats have a tendency to moralize, which makes them seem all the more hypocritical. For the vast majority of Christians in America, it takes more than just wrapping oneself in the Good Book to convince values voters – not even in the Republicans get a free pass on values issues from many values voters.

The underlying problem with the Democratic Party is as much philosophical as it is structural. The Democrats equate compassion with government. Unfortunately for them, government is absolutely dispassionate – and should be so. Laws cannot be based in “compassion” because “compassion” is an arbitrary human emotion. It’s also personal. There is no such thing as compassion by proxy. The basic principles of morality isn’t that you can just pass the buck onto someone else – working in a soup kitchen is an example of passion. Demanding that someone else be forced to do so is not.

What the Democrats have forgotten is that the foundation of American society isn’t based on government. It’s based on families and communities. For the last 50 years, the liberal social agenda has undermined both. A culture of divorce, drugs, and casual sex isn’t the sort of culture that is conducive to strong families and healthy communities. What the Democrats fail to understand is that the vast majority of problems they view as economic problems are really cultural problems – the decline of the American family directly correlates with nearly every major social problem we have. Trying to fix the family through the use of economics on the federal level is like trying to perform open heart surgery with a jackhammer – it’s entirely the wrong tool for the job. Raising the minimum wage and spending more money on social programs are basically quick fixes that won’t do anything to solve the basic problem at hand. Only a culture that promotes and strengthens healthy families will.

The Democrats don’t grasp that, and where they do grasp values, it’s only in a tenuous way. Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Grand Theft Auto are designed to be a triangulated appeal to values voters, but the problem isn’t with video games, it’s with a culture of permissiveness that deems such things acceptable for young kids. Hillary’s book It Takes A Village expresses it perfectly – she takes the radical ideal that the “personal is political” to its logical end – children should be raised by the state. The problem with that is that while that ideology may have worked for ancient Sparta, in a democratic society the building blocks of a healthy society come from the bottom up, and the family is the most fundamental building block of a healthy civil society.

While the Democrats want to argue that Republican policies diminish civil society, David Brooks finds that the evidence doesn’t support such a conclusion:

he decline in family violence is part of a whole web of positive, mutually reinforcing social trends. To put it in old-fashioned terms, America is becoming more virtuous. Americans today hurt each other less than they did 13 years ago. They are more likely to resist selfish and shortsighted impulses. They are leading more responsible, more organized lives. A result is an improvement in social order across a range of behaviors.

The number of violent crimes is down. The number of abortions has been declining since the early 1990s. Teenage pregnancy is down. Younger married couples are less likely to divorce than Boomer couples were. These key cultural indicators indicate the direct correlation between moral values and societal health.

Despite the GOP’s best efforts to fracture its coalition, the Democrats simply don’t have much political traction these days. The reason why is the same reason that these key indicators of civil society have been steadily getting better:

I always thought it would be dramatic to live through a moral revival. Great leaders would emerge. There would be important books, speeches, marches and crusades. We’re in the middle of a moral revival now, and there has been very little of that. This revival has been a bottom-up, prosaic, un-self-conscious one, led by normal parents, normal neighbors and normal community activists.

That’s the key – not government, but civil society. If government was the key to social order, North Korea would be a wonderland. Totalitarian societies have no shortage of strong governments, but almost no civil society. In fact, there is a tension between civil society and government. More government does not mean more civil society – in fact by taking power away from communities, it most often means less.

The Democrats don’t grasp that key philosophical principle, which is why Frank, Dean, and the rest of the Democrats can’t understand what’s “wrong” with Kansas – or the rest of the country in which moral values remain key issues. The Democratic/liberal worldview simply can’t deliver on its promises, while the values that the GOP espouses (inconsistently applied as they are) works. Until the Democrats stop trying to use government as the solution to all problems and start doing more to foster a healthy civil society, they will continue to find themselves on the wrong side of the issues in regards to moral values.

2 thoughts on “The Culture Gap

  1. Point #1….a Democrat running in OH-2, no matter how weak his opponent, has about as good of chance of winning as a Republican would in Minnesota’s 5th District. I was amazed Hackett did as well as he did.

    Point #2….”the Republicans have been the party of family values for some time now.” Yeah, like weakening laws mandating overtime pay beyond 40-hour workweeks. Republicans are constantly grousing about how we need to be more productive and spend more hours at work if we want to compete with China and India in the global economy. The 70-hour workweeks lauded by the Republican party platform are not conducive to family values. That’s the irony here….the “values voters” are basically advocating a culture where government plays the role of morality police so the parents are off the hook and able to dedicate “family time” to their bosses in the form of endless hours of unpaid overtime. After all, if the government censors “Elimidate” off the airwaves, parents don’t have to be around to turn the channel when their kids watch TV.

    Point #3–“Values issues” have no place in the public policy sphere. Indeed, every time our slavery has taken a position in support of Middle America’s “values”, it has always been a position of censorship, discrimination and abuse. Whether it was segregation by race of yesteryear or the discrimination of homosexuals today, the position of “values” has always been the position of denying civil rights. Even at the risk of being a long-term minority, the Democrats are right not to buckle to political pressure equating institutionalized discrimination, prejudice and censorship to “values.” Intelligent design has no business being taught in America’s public schools….and gunmakers have no right to be shielded from all product liability lawsuits. The Democrats should go down with the ship if they have to to fight these issues.

    Point #4–the vast majority of Americans were Christians in 1960 as well. But unlike today, they were secure enough in their personal faith that they didn’t have to listen to their presidential candidates quote scripture passages every third sentence. This is can’t-win territory for the Dems. When they don’t talk God, they’re called atheists. When they talk God, they’re called phonies. It’s time to quit taking the bait and focus on these economic issues rather than try to out-Godspeak the party of Jerry Falwell.

    Point #5–for you to even pay lip service to “a culture that promotes and strengthens families” in correlation with your “get off your lazy asses and work harder to compete with India” rhetoric should be a more glaring example of hypocrisy than anything that comes from the Democrats. Either Americans live at work to strengthen their hand in the global economy or they spend more time with their families. How is it possible to achieve both? The Democrats should hammer you people with that question as it shows just how hollow your family values rhetoric is.

    Point #6–I read David Brooks’ piece. You would think that after 230 years, America had arrived at utopia. While some of the statistics he cited are definitely laudable, he conveniently forgot to mention our epic drug problem. He also forgot to mention our ever-growing prison population. It seems like many of society’s ills have been bandaged simply by shifting the deviant population from outside prison walls to inside prison walls. Perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at $30,000 per yer per prisoner and prisons that can’t be built fast enough to lock up the latest batch of criminals, can what we’re seeing really be defined as “progress”?

    It’s likely to be too late when it happens, but “values voters” who shrug off economic matters will eventually realize exactly what fools the Republicans made out of them. Two decades from now, we’re likely to be entrenched in a Somalia-style “ownership society” where access to every would-be public institution from education to health care to retirement compensation is available to the highest bidders only. Meanwhile, wealth will be almost entirely concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few, who will continue to be lavished with an endless barrage of taxpayer freebies and giveaways on the premise that such taxpayer-funded gifts “create jobs.” The average worker will work longer hours for lower pay, have far fewer benefits without health insurance, and see current workplace safety and protection laws rolled back to “help us compete in a global marketplace.” And yet, the “values voters'” allegiance to the Republican Party will be awarded with…..continued legality of abortion, a popular culture as toxic as ever, no intelligent design courses taught in public schools, and gays legally allowed to marry in every state of the union. The values voters will continue to lose the culture war and leave behind a lower quality-of-life for their children following all their hard work. I’m sure they’ll be proud.

  2. Heh, I don’t give the rightward “moral” shift in this country much longer before it explodes in the face of the hypocrites supporting it. Ultimately nothing can hold back the new aeon- and any attempts to are bound to end badly. We are living in the aeon of the individual- and that is the best thing that has ever happened for humanity. Our communities and family structures are dying because they need to die- they are relics of a time when order and repression were necessary for the discovery of the means of transcendence and the massive growth of population necessary to subdue the earth.

    Anyway, the Democrats are just as hopelessly wrong as their GOP counterparts. Social collectivism is just as dead an end as moral suppression. There are only two laws in the world- the law of liberty and the law of power, and they are ignored at one’s peril…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.