News & Politics

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 demographiche 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 studyput 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?.

So why are non-wealthy whites still Obama’s biggest stumbling block? Why are blue-collar working whites still opting for multimillionaire Romney over the president by a large margin? Even with obama’srecent up-tick among that group, we still have to ask, What’s the matter not only with Kansas but with all of America’s millions of non-rich, white, Republican voters?

With the economy so dominating the campaign, with social values and national security playing a smaller but unpredictable role, let’s take a closer look at Thomas Frank’s Kansas and ask what “family values,” “national security,” “rage at liberal elites,” and Republican economic policies have in common.

People who aren’t anywhere near rich vote Republican because they feel like “victims besieged by a hateful world,” Frank wrote, “downtrodden ... helpless pawns caught in a machine.” They “crave the solid rock of certainty.” But they can’t find it because life seems to have “gotten too far away from the natural order of things”; “civilization is in decay”; the world has “forsaken the true and correct path.”

These GOP voters desperately want to be able to live in a predictable world so they can feel some sense of control over their own little piece of that world: their families and friends, their homes, workplaces and neighborhoods. They feel robbed of their sense of security by huge forces that seem to know no restraint, that burst all boundaries and thus threaten to erase all the structures that could provide at least some degree of predictability and control.

And they feel powerless to do anything about all this except to “join in mutual outrage against a common enemy” and go on battling “on behalf of the victimized.” Voting Republican is their way of joining together, fighting back, and thus creating an illusion of control regained.

Republican politicians have brilliantly offered them an endless array of enemies to resist: communists and now terrorists abroad; hedonists, feminists, secular humanists, and pleasure-seeking liberals of every kind at home. All are portrayed as explosive forces, threatening to burst every boundary, destroy every restraint and overwhelm us.

But their very existence reinforces the most fundamental boundary of all: good against evil. Simply voting for someone who stands firmly against the evil is the easiest way for powerless people to feel that they are fighting back, shoring up social order, and regaining at least a little bit of control. That’s why, as Maureen Dowd puts it, “Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders?”

And that’s why Romney’s campaign headquarters must feature, alongside “It’s the economy, stupid,” Bill Clinton’s other famous saying: “When times are uncertain, the American people would rather have a president who is wrong but strong than one who is right but weak.”

Millions of Americans know, at some level, that the Republican policy of giving a blank check to the 1 percent is wrong. But Romney's narrative is seductive. He has accepted Obama’s challenge to make this election a referendum on “the soul of America” -- which comes down to a contest over who the real invaders are.

For today’s Republicans, the most threatening invader is government itself. As they portray it, government looks essentially like all the other invaders their predecessors have vowed to resist. Its ever-growing taxes, regulations, deficits, and debt seem to prove that it knows no inner restraint. It will grow endlessly, engulf us all, make us pawns in its machine, and deprive us of the ability to control our lives -- unless we band together and resist in the proud tradition of Americans who have always fought for freedom.

All the Republican candidates offer themselves as commander-in-chief for that battle, a father strong enough to contain the government and thus protect the house of free enterprise. The polls suggest that Romney, the Republican focused most strictly on that story line, has the best chance to beat Obama.

Whomever the Republicans nominate, he’ll have to downplay the GOP’s traditional vote-winning issues -- like abortion, gay rights and shows of military power -- to focus solely on the story of the 1 percent versus the big, bad government. Obama has already signaled that this is the battleground of his choice.

But judging from his recent speeches, the president would like to avoid a strong-father contest and get reelected using what George Lakoff calls the nurturing-parent model. Obama offers government as a sensitive, understanding parent, providing a safe place for each of us to make wise personal choices that will help us all. It’s another route to a controllable private space for every American. Yet it’s a route so foreign to many Americans, after so many years of rightward drift, that they simply can’t fathom it.

So if Obama hopes to win in such a close race he may very well have to embrace the script imposed on him by the Republicans and the mass media, which casts him as the father strong enough to protect us from the invasion of the super-rich. As Maureen Dowd says, the strong-father narrative still reigns supreme.