A commenter alerted me to this article in The American Prospect that explains why the Democrats picked Tim Kaine to give the Democratic response at the State of the Union: he speaks in religious moral terms. Good to know.
But the article is interesting because it profiles a new and influential polling and analysis group that is trying to change the way the Democrats look at the electorate. And as far as I can tell, the Democrats (or maybe just the author) are taking the wrong lessons from them.
Here's the story:
In April 2005, Nordhaus left his job at the opinion research firm Evans/McDonough Company to start, along with Shellenberger, an American branch of the Canadian market research behemoth Environics, which specializes in the study of consumer behavior, right down to the level of “neighborhood lifestyle segmentation.” Though such data are not collected on behalf of political figures, it’s the kind of information political operatives often use to slice and dice the electorate into ever thinner pieces. Similar data allowed Republicans in 2004 to make sure they targeted last-minute calls and fliers to domestic SUV-drivers, subscribers to hunting magazines, and women who watch Will and Grace. American Environics intended to use the detailed data its parent company had collected since 1992 for a different purpose, however: to challenge progressive interest-group orthodoxies and the progressive movement itself.
In the great debate about how Democrats can stage a comeback (beyond simply waiting for the coming Republican implosion that never seems to arrive), American Environics rejected some of the more popular recommendations out there. Rather than focusing on reframing the Democratic message, as Berkeley linguistics and cognitive science professor George Lakoff has recommended, or on redoubling Democratic efforts to persuade Americans to become economic populists, as another school of thought suggests, the American Environics team argued that the way to move voters on progressive issues is to sometimes set aside policies in favor of values. By focusing on “bridge values,” they say, progressives can reach out to constituents of opportunity who share certain fundamental beliefs, even if the targeted parties don’t necessarily share progressives’ every last goal. In that assessment, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are representative of an increasingly influential school of thought within the Democratic Party.
Nothing too revolutionary there, you say? Well, no, when described in that predictable way. We all love values. Values are, in fact, the basis of all poltiics. What a good idea. Let's talk values. The article also (for inexplicable reasons) spends a great deal of time discussing the data produced by Stanley Greenberg who, like clockwork, interviews a bunch of rural voters in Arkansas and finds out that they care more about gay marriage than putting food on the table. Which means we will lose because of values and we need to get some. (Those of us who disagree with the rural Arkansans are assumed to have no values, apparently.)
But the article skews that way for reasons that have little to do with the study. Here's what Environics actually found out and it's quite interesting:
Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. 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.
Lumping specific survey statements like these together into related groups, Nordhaus and Shellenberger arrived at what they call “social values trends,” such as “sexism,” “patriotism,” or “acceptance of flexible families.” 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. These quadrants are not random: Shellenberger and Nordaus developed them based on an assessment of how likely it was that holders of certain values also held other values, or “self-clustered.”
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.
No kidding. Is the culture growing more coarse? Check. Cruel? check. Nihilisitic? check. Xenophobic? check. Consumption worshipping? check. Sexist? check. Rage filled? check. Hmmmm.
Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the skull and bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You of heard of need to blow some steam off?"
This is a very revealing portrait of what's happening in America and it explains some things about why the right is so successful. And it's the opposite of what everybody says it is. It isn't because they've become more moral and religious. It's because they've fostered and exploited extremism, nihilism and cruelty. After all, if it was the libertine culture of "Brokeback Mountain" or "unwed motherhood" or (gasp) abortion that was creating this shift, you'd think we would have benefitted, not them. For all their crowing about traditional values, it's the right that has embraced decadence, sadism, vice and corruption.
Yes, it's a trend. It started years ago when the feminist movement decided that their best friends were going to be German shepherds. You know. So that's -- well, it's true. You go to the right airports and you can see it.
I have little doubt that most of the people who listen to Rush also believe that they are good practicing Christian conservatives. And many Christian conservatives probably don't listen to him. But they listen to this:
You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war.
How about group marriage? Or marriage between daddies and little girls? Or marriage between a man and his donkey? Anything allegedly linked to civil rights will be doable, and the legal underpinnings for marriage will have been destroyed." Now, that's more or less a prophecy. Not a divine prophecy, but a prediction.
Notice how Limbaugh and the preachers pander to the depraved imagination? It's not religious values these people are selling. They are selling a brutal, domineering, degenerate culture, making their listeners and viewers wallow in it, plumbing the depths of the subconscious, drawing forth Goyaesque images of bestiality and violence and death. That's a feature of some religions, to be sure, but it's not the nice upright Christian morality everybody's pretending it is.
If the culture is careening into a crude, dog-eat-dog corrupt "Pottersville" it's because the greedheads and the juvenile authoritarian thugs, whether in street gangs or talk radio or K Street, have taken it over. And it is hard for liberals to counter this because our bedrock values include tolerance, free expression and personal autonomy and that enables this decadent turn in many ways. But let's make no mistake, it is only on the right that purveyors of brutal, sadistic, depraved political discourse are welcomed into the houses, offices and beds of the nation's political leadership.
I'm not sure what the answer to this is, but I know that this is where the real political problem for Democrats lies. So, perhaps we can stop bullshitting ourselves that we can solve this problem by speaking in rightwing approved religious language and pulling our punches on abortion. That is not the real reason the right is winning and we won't win that way either. Religion is cover for these people. Rush Limbaugh is the guiding spirit of the Republican Party.
LIMBAUGH: And these American prisoners of war -- have you people noticed who the torturers are? Women! The babes! The babes are meting out the torture...You know, if you look at -- if you, really, if you look at these pictures, I mean, I don't know if it's just me, but it looks just like anything you'd see Madonna, or Britney Spears do on stage. Maybe I'm -- yeah. And get an NEA grant for something like this. I mean, this is something that you can see on stage at Lincoln Center from an NEA grant, maybe on Sex in the City -- the movie. I mean, I don't -- it's just me.
When Limbaugh came under fire for those vulgar comments, the leading lights of the Republican party quickly came to his defense.
Rush's angry, frustrated critics discount how hard it is to make an outrageous charge against him stick. But, we listeners have spent years with him, we know him, and trust him. Rush is one of those rare acquaintances who can be defended against an assault challenging his character without ever knowing the "facts." We trust his good judgment, his unerring decency, and his fierce loyalty to the country he loves and to the courageous young Americans who defend her. For millions of us, David Brock is firing blanks against a bulletproof target.
— Kate O'Beirne is Washington Editor for National Review.
Figure out how to deal with that and we might be able to make some headway.