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That Other America

Once, Republicans were the party of the upper class; Democrats represented the middle and lower class. Now, many poor voters are faith voters and the issue of moral values trumps economic concerns.
 
 
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1962 saw the publication of Michael Harrington's insightful study, The Other America, which vividly described the harried lives of America's poor. This week two polls were released that portrayed another vision of desperation in America, one that progressives are still struggling to understand. Both surveys focused on the voting group termed "faith voters," roughly one-third of the electorate. Faith voters believe that "moral values" is a big issue, in many instances the one issue that decides their vote.

When Democrats gathered in Washington to hear Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair, Howard Dean, give a status report on his first two months in office, they were shown the results of a new poll conducted by Cornell Belcher. This, and a similar Mellman Group survey funded by the powerful EMILY's List political action committee, indicated that the class distinctions that historically distinguished Republicans from Democrats are being replaced by cultural differences. Once it was accurate to characterize the GOP as the party of the upper class and the bourgeoisie, and Democrats as the party of the lower class and the struggling middle class. The two polls indicate that now it is more precise to describe Republican voters as those who care a lot about moral values and go to church often; in contrast, Democratic voters aren't as concerned about moral values and attend church infrequently, if ever.

Taken in conjunction with the results of the 2004 presidential election, these polls clarify the nature of the Democrats' numbers problem. Historically, no matter how good the economy might be, there were always more American poor than rich, and therefore, Democrats always had a numerical superiority over Republicans; in any given election, if Democrats could manage to get out the vote, they would win. Now that familiar formula has changed. Many poor voters are faith voters and the issue of moral values trumps their economic concerns.

According to the Belcher survey, faith voters are worried about issues such as the economy and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, but their number one anxiety is moral values. In the last election, they believed George W. Bush shared their concern, and this proved to be a decisive factor in determining their vote.

Most progressives regard this behavior as perplexing, if not self-destructive. In his recent best-seller, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America , Thomas Frank depicted faith voters as rubes who foolishly vote against their own self interest because they are, in effect, blinded by the light of their Christian practice.

DNC chair Howard Dean appeared to have a deeper understanding of this cultural divide. He pointed out that while the American economy is struggling, many Democratic partisans are not unduly anxious about economic issues. In contrast, faith voters -- Dean characterized them as "backlash Republicans" or "Reagan Democrats" -- are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Typically both the husband and wife work to make ends meet; often they have more than one job. The family is under extreme economic pressure. They see themselves on the edge of homelessness, a couple of missed paychecks or one serious illness away from losing everything they have. But what the parents are most worried about are their kids.

Dean continued that faith voters typically spend so much time at work that they don't have the opportunity, or the money, to provide their children with adequate supervision. As a result, the parents are obsessed with the notion that television, other kids, or lefty teachers will corrupt their sons and daughters. Driving to and from work faith voters constantly hear conservative commentators rail against the liberal "media elite," whom they accuse of advocating various forms of immorality: drug use, free love, abortion on demand, and so forth. Because they live in this environment of fear, faith voters accept wild accusations as the gospel; for example, that the National Educational Association has an agenda to teach homosexuality as a lifestyle "choice."

Howard Dean observed that many Democrats are too quick to dismiss the behavior of faith voters. He noted that this group truly believes that a liberal Democratic elite is corrupting America. Dean's analysis was that in the last election, faith voters trusted George W. Bush to do the right thing to stem the tide of immorality; they accepted Bush's campaign rhetoric, "The Democrats don't respect you. They don't understand your problems because they are the elite. But I do respect you. ... I'm just a regular guy."

The DNC chair commented that the typical Democratic response to the fears of faith voters has been to offer them programs: health care, child care, and the like. For various reasons this hasn't worked. Dean remarked that the Belcher poll showed that 54 percent of the voter sample believed that "a decline in our moral values" was a bigger obstacle to raising strong families than were jobs, health care, and quality education.

Howard Dean concluded by arguing that if Democrats are to regain preeminence in American politics, they must understand the desperation that is an everyday burden of that other America.

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.