What if all the conventional wisdom about culture-war politics is wrong? You know the stuff I’m talking about:
- The social issues favor Republicans. Coastal elites may have progressive attitudes towards female equality, reproductive rights, guns, gay rights, and so on. But the broad mass of ordinary Americans is deeply conservative.
- Clinton and Carter proved that Democrats have to court the Bubba vote. The angry-white-male “Reagan Democrats” are the key to winning national elections.
- The public doesn’t trust the moral values of liberals. McGovern and Mondale went down because they were too far left, Gore was tarred by Clinton’s sins, and so on.
- Abortion caused the Religious Right to rise up. The preachers saw Roe v Wade and knew they had to take action to defend their long-held moral values.
In Delirium: How the sexual counterrevolution is polarizing America, historian Nancy Cohen looks back over the politics of the last half-century and concludes that it didn’t happen like that. This is a rich book, full of forgotten detail, but one over-arching story comes through: It’s the Religious Right that’s unpopular with the larger electorate. When “values voters” win, they win by stealth and re-interpret the results afterward.
The clearest examples are the Republican mid-term victories in 1994 and 2010. In both cases, overall turnout was low, Religious-Right turnout was high, and the public campaigns focused on other issues. Both the 1994 Contract With America and the 2010 Tea Party stayed away from culture-war issues in public, while assuring Religious-Right leaders behind the scenes that they would act on culture-war issues once they got elected (which they have). Candidates who missed the memo on stealth — Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Joe Miller — went down to defeat.
The conservative formula for success is simple: You want the invisible Religious Right networks of viral email and church study groups behind you, and you want evangelicals ringing doorbells and making phone calls for you, but your public campaign should have as little to do with them and their issues as possible. In 2000, all the fundamentalists knew that George W. Bush was their man, but he won with a moderate image as a “uniter” and a “compassionate conservative”.
Conversely, Bill Clinton may speak with a Bubba accent, but he won in 1992 while publicly reaching out to both feminists and gays to a greater extent than any previous major-party candidate. And the more that Republicans tried to make Clinton’s personal sex life an issue, the more popular he got. Clinton left office with a higher approval rating than Ronald Reagan. Al Gore’s biggest mistake was to distance himself from the popular Clinton in an effort to placate the evangelicals who voted for Bush anyway.
The other striking theme from Delirium is that abortion is an issue-of-opportunity for the Right. The original issues are gender equality and sex. To hear them tell it now, the Religious Right was always against abortion because the Bible is against it. When Roe v Wade made abortion legal, leaders like Jerry Falwell knew they had to get involved in politics.
In fact, the causality worked in the other direction. The Bible says next to nothing about abortion, and gives no support to the bizarre idea of ensoulment-at-conception. (As best I can determine, no one held this belief until recent centuries, and Protestants didn’t pick it up in any numbers until the late 1970s, when their politics demanded a clearer theological reason to condemn abortion.) When Roe v Wade was decided in 1972, many conservative religious leaders supported abortion rights or had no opinion on the issue.
The Religious Right actually began when conservative Christian women began organizing against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Abortion was not their major issue. Only after Lottie Beth Hobbs had established the grass-roots potential of an anti-feminist religious movement and drew its battle lines did the male preachers join in. Jerry Falwell didn’t preach his first anti-abortion sermon until 1978.