u_topn picture
rub_pp picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

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.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Your Morality, My Values

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

June 28, 2000

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.
  • "Urban Gold Coasters," who make up one of every 200 U.S. households and live primarily in the big cities, buy The New York Times at twenty-three times the national rate, and own only a third as many dogs. They focus politically on abortion rights and human rights abroad and vote overwhelmingly for Clinton.
  • The small-town executives Weiss calls the "Big Fish, Small Pond" people constitute one of every fifty households, spread pretty evenly across the country. Twice as likely to own power boats and a fifth as likely to watch boxing as other Americans, they're obsessed with capital punishment and vote moderate Republican.
  • The immigrants' children who are denizens of the rotting mill towns in the "Old Yankee Rows" (one in seventy households) eschew Wal-Mart, drive vans, bowl, eat lots of Twinkies, and have a taste for Caribbean travel and imported beer. They worry about racial tension and rallied to Perot in 1996.
If you accept Weiss's thesis of dozens of cultural "clusters," the political consequence is that you must appeal to all of them one by one. The big difference between the parties nowadays may be that Democrats accept the cluster theory and Republicans don't. That's the difference between "morality" and "values." Republicans think the country must be united under shared principles. That's E pluribus unum -- the morality strategy. Democrats think each constituency needs to be wooed on its own terms. That's diversity -- the values strategy. Bill Clinton's genius lay in his being the first President to view diversity not just as a slogan but as a means to generate policies: free cellphones for this neighborhood-watch group; free pap smears for that women's hospital; protected marshland for those fishermen. It's a difficult strategy, but handled correctly it produces Democratic wins. It's a strategy that is Gore's to either inherit or squander.

What do you think? Discuss this article in the
Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

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.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search