Previously in Politics & Prose:
Who Owns Capitalism? (June 15, 2000)
Has democracy at last caught up with capitalism? Jack Beatty on the balance of power between the corporation and society.
Joe Sixpack's Revenge (May 17, 2000)
If the authors of two new books are right, it's time for Republicans to give class warfare a chance. Christopher Caldwell explains.
Governing Globalism (May 3, 2000)
Jack Beatty on the protests in Washington, Runaway World, and globalization's good and bad sides.
The Uses of Sprawl (April 6, 2000)
Christopher Caldwell on Suburban Nation, New Urbanism, and how Democrats can reap the benefits of the sprawl they helped to create.
Be Afraid (April 6, 2000)
If the digital revolution produces the dystopian nightmare envisioned in the April issue of Wired, humanity's only hope may be the end of capitalism as we know it. Try selling that in an election year, Jack Beatty writes.
Tagging After Teddy (March 22, 2000)
Christopher Caldwell on why Teddy Roosevelt -- "an egomaniacal weirdo" -- is an unlikely hero to both Republicans and Democrats.
Bush vs. Gore (March 8, 2000)
Scenes from the first presidential debate of the 2000 election campaign. By Jack Beatty.
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Values and morality may sound like the same thing, but Democrats have been able to capitalize on one, while Republicans remain stuck on the other
by Christopher Caldwell
Polling in this presidential campaign has shown with remarkable consistency that Americans worry about four big issues. These are education, health care, moral decline, and Social Security. Other issues -- crime, taxes, debt, the economy, and the environment -- lag far behind.
While the personality advantage continues to rest with George W. Bush, Al Gore can take solace from the issues, which are cutting his way. And indeed, a recent sounding by the Utica-based pollster James Zogby showed a solid Gore lead among those for whom education and health care are top concerns. But there was some bad news for Gore as well. The Vice President's backers were alarmed to find Bush within two points on Social Security, which they once thought Gore's very strongest issue. And, stunningly, voters who are worried about moral decline back Bush 68-18. (The response is all the more puzzling since Bush doesn't strike the general public as a paragon of ethics. When, in May, Fox News Channel asked viewers to play word-association with George W. Bush, "good values/ethics/family man" was chosen by only one percent, well behind "father was President," at 15 percent, and dead even with "capital punishment" and "used drugs.")
Is Gore's weakness among the morality vote a trivial one or a symptom of a larger liability? The stakes would seem to be high, judging by an early June Los Angeles Times poll which found that only 18 percent feel the country is moving in the right direction morally, while 74 percent think it's "seriously off on the wrong track."
What is the cause of Gore's weakness on the morality issue? What does "morality" mean in the context of this presidential election? Does it even matter?
In answer to the first question, there's an obvious guess: "Morality" is a code word for Bill Clinton and the various crises of sexual morality that have bedeviled his presidency. Gore gets tainted by association. But on closer examination that doesn't fit: Gore has never been suspected of Clinton-style sexual misbehavior. A second guess would be that Gore is being punished for his double-talk on campaign-finance reform -- raising millions in soft money at a Buddhist Temple, for instance, and taunting the public with the fact that there was "no controlling legal authority" to prosecute him for it. There's something to this. Asked to play word-association by Fox, twice as many viewers called Gore "untrustworthy" (6 percent) as called him "trustworthy" (3 percent). Still, these are low numbers, and they fail to explain the magnitude of Bush's advantage.
It may be that "morality" is just a marketing slogan, a trademark, a brand -- a word that Republicans have succeeded in linking to themselves in the public mind. Words like "caring" and "peace" and (until George W. Bush) "compassion" have played the same role for Democrats for decades. It used to be that to ask a voter "Are you compassionate?" was to ask "Are you a Democrat?" Perhaps today asking "Is 'morality' important to you?" is the same as asking "Are you a Republican?"
But how can this branding have been successful, given Bill Clinton's constant focus on "values" throughout his presidency? Furthermore, when Bob Dole explicitly challenged Bill Clinton on the terrain of values in the (admittedly pre-Lewinsky) campaign of 1996, Dole lost. There was a whole range of values-based conduct on which voters decided Clinton held the upper hand: from the President's intact marriage to his heroic capacity for overwork. The GOP was dumbstruck. "Not those values!" Republicans seemed to be saying to the public. "You know the kind of values we mean."
But the public didn't -- and that explains how Democrats can run well on "values" and badly on "morality." In 1996, Republicans assumed the country saw the two words as synonyms. They're not. Morality is a set of widely shared values that revolve specifically around ethics. This society may no longer have many values -- ethical or otherwise -- that are widely shared.
Earlier this year, Columbia University's Michael J. Weiss published The Clustered World, using data from the market-research firm Claritas to show just how many subcultures the United States has broken into. ZIP code by ZIP code, Weiss identifies -- and names -- sixty-two of them. In the way they vote, shop, believe, and behave, what's shocking is the consistency and predictability within these subcultures, and the remarkable irreconcilability between them. Here are three that suggest the spectrum Weiss covers.
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Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.
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