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The New Culture War: How Right-Wing Politicos Scare Their Constituents to Death

The old culture wars are quieter these days, but the right still conjures up an endless array of enemies.

The most stunning statistic of this political season: After all the revelations about Newt Gingrich’s love life hit the front pages, a national poll asked, “How would you rate Gingrich on having high personal standards that set the proper moral tone for the country?” The pollsters conveniently divided respondents into two categories: “All adults in the U.S.” and “Those who did vote or expect to vote in a Republican primary.”

Which group gave Newt a lower rating on his moral values?

The mass media have told us for years that most Republicans are in the middle- or working-class, but they vote against their economic interests because they are “values voters” fighting a “culture war.” If that’s true, they should be much more likely than the rest of us to criticize Gingrich’s richly checkered sexual history.

In fact, the poll revealed just the opposite. Nearly as many Republican voters rated him “good” on his morals as judged him “poor.” The rest of us voted him “poor” by a margin of 4.5 to 1. Gingrich seems to appeal most to Republicans who are white born-again evangelicals. They dominated the only primary he has won (South Carolina), and they were about the only demographic he captured in Florida -- where only 17% of all Republican voters said the main trait they want in a president is “strong moral character.”

However, it seems most Protestant evangelicals do want a president who will let private religious belief trump public health and equity concerns. They’re the only group that opposes Barack Obama’s stand requiring Catholic hospitals to cover contraception in their employee health plans. (Catholics are more likely than Americans as a whole to support Obama on this one.)

Perhaps the obituaries for the “values voter” after Gingrich’s South Carolina win were premature. The contraception controversy, coupled with the continuing headlines about the Susan G. Komen controversy and the three-in-a-night victories of “family values” evangelist Ron Santorum, give conservative pundits like Ross Douthat a chance to crow about “ The Persistence of the Culture War.”

But perhaps not. the “culture war” story has been over-hyped at least since Election Day, 2004, when the idea of the all-powerful “values voter” became common currency. In fact, the vanishing GOP “values voters” may never have been a decisive bloc. In 2004, as one in-depth study put it, “Terrorism, Not Values, Drove Bush’s Re-Election.” in 2008, for all the months John McCain was ahead or even in the polls, the only issues on which he led Obama in the polls were “national security” and “terrorism.”

Now those issues are distinctly secondary, at best, because Obama has so successfully neutralized them. He gets impressively high marks from the public on the question of national security. Who can fault a president who “kills” Osama bin Laden while ending unpopular wars?

There is still that other face of the so-called “culture war,” the one that has allowed Gingrich to cling to political life and Santorum to be resurrected: conservative rage at liberal elites. It’s the key to understanding why so many middle-class and working-class whites vote against their economic interests, according to Thomas Frank’s classic study, What’s the Matter with Kansas. When these conservatives talked politics, Frank found, they were consumed by an enraged sense of victimization. and they blamed those “liberal elites.” they ignored economic life, as if it had nothing to do with politics.

But times have changed. As Douthat admits, “the 2012 election is not going to be dominated by social issues, insofar as economic concerns are likely to far outweigh every other issue.” So all those Kansans and their peers across the country, now focused on economics, should be voting their self-interest. With an overwhelming media frame that makes Obama champion of the 99% while the Republicans serve the interests of the 1%, the president should be able to relax and coast to victory, right?.

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