June 2004 – It was “the map.” Everyone seemed to be talking about it on election night almost four years ago, and for weeks afterwards. Talking heads and political pundits analyzed the vote returns and clearly saw that the election seemed to have split the nation into two camps.
What was odd about the map was that it didn’t show a checkered pattern of states that went Republican or Democratic. Instead, the pattern demonstrated something approaching a clustering effect. The “Blue States,” consisting generally of the West Coast, Middle Atlantic states, New England, and some states in the Midwest, voted for Al Gore. The “Red States,” which in general included everything in between, voted for George Bush.
At the Republican Convention in 1992, a speech by political analyst and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan used a phrase that has now become entrenched in the nation’s lexicon: “culture war.” The election of 2000 gave us something else: a map that was a red and blue picture of that culture war.
So the nation was split into Red States and Blue. But split over what? What is it that is dividing our nation? What is it that makes our nation divided into what one article called “two different, yet parallel universes”?
Divergent religious views
In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, Thomas Edsall, national political reporter for the Washington Post, said, “It is an axiom of American politics that people vote their pocketbooks, and for 70 years the key political divisions in the United States were indeed economic.”
Thus, the Democratic Party was often viewed as the political party that looked after union workers, the poor, the less skilled – in short, the “have-nots.” Meanwhile, the Republican Party was seen as looking after the interests of management, big business, professionals – the “haves.” The Middle Class then divided along the other issues that individuals felt were important, such as taxes, crime, education, foreign policy, etc.
However, in the opinion of many cultural and political observers, that has changed. Other core values – which often cut across the old political alignments – have been causing people to gravitate toward one political party or the other.
In January of this year, the respected polling firm Zogby International released a survey commissioned by the O’Leary Report. It uncovered profound differences in the core religious and moral beliefs of the people who live in those Red and Blue states.
For example, Red State voters were overwhelmingly more religious, at least in appearance. In the practice of their faith, 51% of Red State people said they attended religious services once a week or more often. In contrast, 46% of those in Blue States said attendance at religious services only occurred on holidays, rarely, or never.
The Zogby survey also found that Red State people tended to believe that moral values are “absolute,” while those in Blue States followed a more relativistic, “live and let live” philosophy.
Summarizing such differences, journalist Michael Barone noted in the National Journal, “The two Americas apparent in the 48% to 48% 2000 election are two nations of different faiths. One is observant, tradition-minded, moralistic. The other is unobservant, liberation-minded, relativistic.”
Barone’s perception is that religion – and the morality that naturally flows out from it – is what mainly accounted for the political split in the 2000 presidential election. That is, religion and morality are driving politics.
That is why political issues like the legal status of same-sex relationships seem to split according to this religious and moral divide. In Red States, 70% of voters believed that marriage should remain restricted to one man and one woman, while only 25% were in favor of okaying civil unions. In Blue States, however, while 55% preferred to keep the traditional marriage model intact, 42% said they were in favor of civil unions.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York and author of the book, One Nation, Two Cultures, said we now live in “a society fragmented and polarized, not only along the familiar lines of class, race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, but along moral and cultural lines that cut across the others.”
A better barometer?
Even more interesting were the insights, just after the 2000 election, of Pete du Pont, former Delaware governor and now policy chairman of the National Center for Policy Analysis. In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, du Pont noted that two weeks before the 2000 election, the New York Times had carried a map “that bore an eerie resemblance to” the election map.
The Time’s map’s contents? “[T]he map shows by region the percentage of sex movies in the home video market. Mr. Gore carried the areas with the higher percentages (40% on the West Coast and 37% in New England and the Middle Atlantic states); Mr. Bush carried the area with the lowest percentage (14% in the South), and they split the rest of the country that had middling sex movie percentages,” du Pont said.
It seems that there was no better barometer for measuring the religious and moral convictions of voters – and possibly their political affiliations – than sex movies.
Some astute observers of the political scene had seen this coming under the Clinton presidency. According to Edsall, two of the former president’s political advisors, Dick Morris and Mark Penn, discovered a polling technique in 1996 that was able to more accurately predict whether a voter would cast a ballot for Clinton or the GOP candidate Sen. Bob Dole.
As Edsall described it: “Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.”
Those who responded with the more morally “liberal” answers were overwhelmingly more likely to vote for Clinton than Dole, and vice versa. Edsall said, “According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors – and better indicators of partisan inclination – than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter.”
Thus, Edsall said that while elections have traditionally been about economics, something else is now at the bottom of it all. “[O]ver the past several elections a new political configuration has begun to emerge – one that has transformed the composition of the parties and is beginning to alter their relative chances for ballot-box success. What is the force behind this transformation? In a word, sex.”
Again, the sexual component seems expressive of the two divergent, mutually exclusive ways in which people see morality. Elections “now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice,” he said.
Strict and loose
How did all this happen? Himmelfarb said that in all civilized societies there are two competing moral views or philosophies of life, which coexist and compete for dominance. Citing famed economic theorist Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, she said “the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system.”
The “loose system” would be a philosophy of life “prone to the ‘vices of levity,’” which Smith listed as things like “luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity ….”
Smith argued, as does Himmelfarb, that throughout most of history these were the vices of “the people of fashion,” the wealthy. The rich, she argued, could “sustain years of disorder and extravagance” precisely because they were rich.
But among the “common people,” these vices were viewed, at least publicly, as abhorrent. It was not necessarily because the common folk were more morally upright; but rather because commoners realized that “these vices are almost always ruinous to them.”
Himmelfarb said, “Much of the social history of modern times can be written in terms of the rise and fall, the permutations and combinations, of these two systems.”
For much of our nation’s history, the more austere approach to life and morality has dominated. But Himmelfarb said that what has transpired in America over the last half century has been nothing less than a revolution. We have “lived through such a revolution – a revolution in the manners, morals, and mores of society. … [I]t has had a profound effect upon our institutions and relationships, private and public.”
Part of what has been startling about this revolution is that it has not been limited to the rich, aristocratic class in America. “As society became more open and the economy more affluent, morality and culture were liberalized and democratized,” Himmelfarb said. “The ‘loose system of morality,’ bursting out of the class binds that had constrained it, was made available to everyone.”
Economic abundance was not the only factor driving this decadence downward to the masses. In a way that almost seems to explain our culture’s obsession with celebrities, Himmelfarb noted that the process of the common folk adopting the ways of the (culturally) liberal elite was helped along because these vices “came with the imprimatur of their social and intellectual betters.”
A revolution truly was under way. Ours was a society where the majority began clamoring to enter the playground of the rich – and were becoming ever more able, either with cash or credit, to pay for it.
And it has stuck fast. Edsall said, “Many women – and many men, too – cherish the rights that fall under the post-1960s rubric of autonomy and personal freedom, strongly valuing their sexual and reproductive independence.”
What has made that moral revolution important has been that it is now playing out politically. These morally and sexually liberated folk “are willing to vote based on this cluster of issues – and when they do, they vote Democratic,” he said.
This should sound an alarm for those Christians who feel shy about voting according to their religious and moral convictions: The other side feels no such hesitation.
Such participation in the political process may determine how many more states turn Blue in this next presidential election – and in the elections to come.