Thanks to a debate occurring among several bloggers about why lower income/lower status voters seem attracted to social conservatives such as Mike Huckabee, I discovered a nearly year old analysis by Garance Franke-Ruta, a former senior editor at the Prospect. She explores some recent polling data, and explains a much more nuanced view of what is happening on "values" issues in the American public.
The article is very rich and well worth a read, but I will highlight three points.
First, she explores how the public is moving on two different axis of a matrix: authority versus individualism on one axis and fulfillment versus survival on the other. The polling data should give no comfort to wither conservatives or liberals:
Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house” increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that “men are naturally superior to women” increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that “violence is a normal part of life” -- and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.
. . .
But the real meaning of those trends was revealed only by plugging them into the “values matrix” -- a four-quadrant plot with plenty of curving arrows to show direction, which is then overlaid onto voting data. The quadrants represent different worldviews. On the top lies authority, an orientation that values traditional family, religiosity, emotional control, and obedience. On the bottom, the individuality orientation encompasses risk-taking, “anomie-aimlessness,” and the acceptance of flexible families and personal choice. On the right side of the scale are values that celebrate fulfillment, such as civic engagement, ecological concern, and empathy. On the left, there's a cluster of values representing the sense that life is a struggle for survival: acceptance of violence, a conviction that people get what they deserve in life, and civic apathy.
. . .
Over the past dozen years, the arrows have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on “every man for himself.” Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.
Any reader remotely familiar with American popular culture will immediately recognize the truth of this analysis. Ariel Levy recently grappled with one aspect of it in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, writing about a hypersexualized culture that encourages its young women to be Girls Gone Wild and its young men to be piggish voyeurs. She describes a new anti-feminist vision of “liberation” that eschews both traditional constraints and any concern for gender equality. “Despite the rising power of Evangelical Christianity and the political right in the United States, this trend has only grown more extreme and more pervasive,” notes Levy.
. . .
“While American politics becomes increasingly committed to a brand of conservatism that favors traditionalism, religiosity, and authority,” Adams writes, “the culture at large [is] becoming ever more attached to hedonism, thrill-seeking, and a ruthless, Darwinist understanding of human competition.” This behavior is particularly prevalent among the vast segment of American society that is not politically or civically engaged, and which usually fails to even vote. This has created what must be understood at the electoral level as a politics of backlash on the part of both Republican and Democratic voters: Voters of both parties, Environics data show, have developed an increasingly moralistic politics as a reaction to the new cultural order.
Second, the resulting cultural disruption has had far more impact on lower income Americans than the affluent, which is why social conservatism has more success with lower income voters than the affluent:
Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a great deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.
Finally, she gives an example of how one progressive Democrat was able to tap into these "values voters" without changing his views on key issues. To the contrary, he used the language of values to defend a very "liberal" position on the death penalty:
Incoming Democratic Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, a former Christian missionary in Latin America, learned the importance of cultural appeals early in his campaign. Kaine, Virginia's first Catholic governor and one of the two major Democratic electoral success stories of 2005, had worked as a court-appointed attorney for inmates on death row while a young attorney. This, he knew, would be a major strike against him in his bid to run a state whose citizens overwhelmingly support the death penalty, and in a contest against the state's attorney general, who would inevitably accuse him of being soft on crime and a bleeding-heart liberal.
In the spring of 2005 Kaine's pollster, Peter Brodnitz, of the polling firm Benenson Strategy Group, decided that the campaign needed to develop a strategy to handle such charges. It convened a focus group of white, conservative, religious voters, and explored different ways Kaine could reach out to them. The result was startling. Brodnitz found that once Kaine started talking about his religious background and explaining that his opposition to the death penalty grew out of his Catholic faith, not only did charges that he was weak on crime fail to stick, but he became inoculated against a host of related charges that typically plague and undermine the campaigns of Democratic candidates. “Once people understood the values system that the position grew out of, they understood that's he's not a liberal,” says Brodnitz. “We couldn't even convince them he was a liberal once we'd done that.”
Strategists who had been predicting Democratic success with a more values-based approach considered themselves vindicated. Virginia elected its second Democratic governor in a row, and its first one to survive opposition to the death penalty in an electoral fight. “People appreciate that I have a moral yardstick, and, even if they don't have the same one, they appreciate that I have one and it's not all about what a speechwriter puts in front of me or what a pollster tells me,” the governor-elect told the Prospect. That moral yardstick may be just the tool Democrats need.
Read the entire article here--it is very rich.
So what does this all mean? I think that the message here is that the appeal of social conservatives such as Huckabee should not be dismissed simplistically as the result of the power of the religious right. This ignores the fact that there is a real coarseness to our culture that affects lower income Americans more than others. And it also ignores that the economic solidarity provided to these voters in the past by institutions like unions are gone--and largely replaced by the church by default.
As I have said before, Democrats need to be careful that we create a theocratic appeal from the left, but we should also not be afraid to engage with these voters (who on virtually every specific issue should be our voters) in language that has meaning with these voters.