The Moral of the Story?

Michelle Cottle in TNR argues that this is the “moral of the story”:

According to the voter breakdown that CNN is currently hawking, the top reason that Bush voters gave for supporting their guy was not the economy, not Iraq, not even the war on terrorism. It was “moral values.” That’s right, with American soldiers dying overseas, Al Qaeda still gunning for us at home, the deficit spiraling, the gap between rich and poor growing, Social Security on the brink, etc., etc., Bush’s reelection was driven by a bunch of folks freaked out over the thought of gay marriage and stem-cell research.

God save the republic.

Penetrating analysis!

The moral of the story is, I believe, that “moral values” voters have a fairly deep and unified cultural identity that Bush was able to tap into. Bush was able to evoke a spirit of solidarity with a huge expanse of voters who share a fundamental conception of America and an ideal of Christian family life. I don’t believe the essence of this group consists in the fact that they are “freaked out over the thought of gay marriage and stem-cell research.” Cottle demonstrates the sort of reflexive, condescending idiocy that directly contributed to the Democrat’s defeat. The issues of marriage, homosexuality, and the moral status of embryos, together with Bush’s forceful patriotism and rhetoric of leadership, were used masterfully by Bush to evoke a compelling conception of American identity, an ethos of a strong, virtuous, and distinctly American America. The antipathy of the “international community” only solidified the sense that Bush was the true representative of American national character, which the foreigners loathe, as the plain loathe the pretty, because we are better than they are.

Will Saletan says Bush won because his message was simple. Yes. Simple and appealing to a huge mass of voting Americans. Bush’s people, as opposed to Kerry’s, brilliantly packaged a coherent personal narrative: the story of a massively privileged youth who squanders his patrimony through vice and idleness, finds Jesus, is born anew, and then invests his reclaimed advantages with an new-found enthusiastic appreciation for the Christian virtue that undergirds American strength and success. The fact that 9/11 was the brutal work of foreign Muslim fanatics helped elicit in many minds a coalitional contrast. We are free, we are Christian, and we will prevail. Bush’s post 9/11 rhetoric fit nicely with his narrative of salvation, and grafted on to a core element of American Christian religious identity, explicit in Mormonism, but often implied in the message of American evangelical Christianity: America is the promised land, an experiment in freedom sanctified by God, and a beacon to the world.

The odious stuff about gay marriage and stem cells is an unfortunate part of this larger, and in some ways deeply appealing, conception of American identity. The strategy of Bush’s team, as I see it, was to get people to feel or sense that the elements of this conception are organically intertwined, and must stand or fall together. By creating the sense that traditional marriage and the institution of the family as we know it are under attack, Bush evoked the sense that the entire conception is in danger, thereby evoking a jealous defense of that conception and the affiliated sense of identity.

All the facile blame-the-voters complaints about those barbarian, Bible-thumping, red-staters so easily roused by ignorant and bigoted fears of faggotry fails to even approach the deep issues of American religious and cultural identity that are the key to Bush’s victory.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center