In his State of the Union address, President Bush told a rapt nation and the assembled government of the United States that our nation faces grave threats and must live up to its "great responsibilities," which include defending the "pillars of our civilization": our "families and schools and religious congregations." What is more, he warned, America can only be strong if we "value the institution of marriage." Citing the threat of activist judges poised to impose gay marriage on a reluctant nation, Bush vowed to "defend the sanctity of marriage."
Through these remarks, Bush made clear his desire to put values at the center of the public debate in 2004. The political calculation hardly seems difficult in light of presumed public prejudices. According to national polls, Republicans are preferred to Democrats by a margin of 22 percentage points when it comes to promoting strong moral values (45 percent to 23 percent); it's an advantage that extends to almost all family-related areas, from teaching young people right from wrong (plus 18 points) to promoting personal responsibility (plus 12 points). A sizeable majority (56 percent to 30 percent) opposes legal recognition of gay marriage, although the public is more conflicted over a constitutional amendment.
In making this strategic choice, the president showed the resolve of someone who has taken to heart The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It, and now confidently confronts a political landscape strewn with groups worried about the erosion of our values and threats to the family.
In the Republican-loyalist world, he sees the white rural citizens who make up one in five voters and are conveniently concentrated in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, Arizona, Maine, and New Hampshire. These voters believe their families are under assault by Hollywood, video games, television, and the influences on their children over which they have little control, including morally lapsed politicians, now indelibly associated with the Democrats. For white evangelicals and the rapidly growing, socially conservative exurban communities on the fringe of so many Sun Belt metropolitan areas, Bush's State of the Union message is intended as a kind of gospel that will further energize the Republican base. GOP operatives go into this election armed with new plans to scour the churches in search of the 4 million evangelicals who dared not vote in 2000.
And in the world of contested and dislodged voters, the dominant bloc is the older, blue-collar, more traditional white families, concentrated in the industrial states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan. They, too, are alarmed about pervasive moral laxity and threats to the traditional family.
Given the political landscape and opportunity, America might as well prepare now for another culture war, a repeat of the first President Bush's ugly assault on Michael Dukakis and the hapless Democrats of 1988. Then, George Bush Senior posed a relentless set of values choices: "Should public school teachers be required to lead our children in the pledge of allegiance? My opponent says 'no,' and I say 'yes.' Should society be allowed to impose the death penalty on those who commit crimes of extraordinary cruelty and violence? My opponent says 'no,' but I say 'yes.' And should our children have the right to say a voluntary prayer, or even observe a moment of silence in the schools? My opponent says 'no,' but I say 'yes.'"
Considering the current Bush's reliance on the strategic plans of Karl Rove, who introduced Bush Senior to Lee Atwater, it is not hard to imagine that the current Democratic nominee will soon be in the dock as well. In a way, the scrutiny has already begun: In The New Republic, Michael Grunwald forced readers to relive John Kerry's 1996 near-death campaign, in which the senator was readily caricatured as Michael Dukakis' lieutenant governor -- implausibly lax with the worst murderers and drug addicts (even those who sold drugs to children), opposed to welfare reform and work, and anxious to raise taxes on working people. Now, it seems, he wants to bring the liberals' culture war to the family itself.
Are Democrats seriously at risk of reliving 1988 and falling in battle again, as Dukakis did when he crashed on the cultural ramparts? Should the Democrats prepare for culture war? If so, how should they arm themselves?
Fortunately for Democrats, the America of 2004 is not the America of 1988. Democrats are in a better position to accept the values challenge and to take the offensive in their own kind of war, very different in character from that of 1988. Of course, if the Democratic nominee is hopelessly secular, flat-footed and tone-deaf, he could easily fall in this fight.
One cannot underestimate the explosive possibilities of opening the gay-marriage door, as Bill Clinton found when opening the door to gays in the military. The prospective losses across the political landscape are real, but hardly inevitable. Indeed, we may look back on the president's State of the Union and defense of the institution of marriage as the call that gave new energy and purpose to the Democratic challenge.
Not the America of 1988
While the cultural battle lines on abortion, homosexuality, and guns remain, America is a different place in 2004. Today the country is more diverse, more secular, better educated, and more socially progressive, reflecting demographic, societal, and cultural changes that have been under way for the past 20 years. Despite increasing differences among Americans, cultural mores have evolved to the point that television programs featuring gay characters are commonplace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is one of the most popular shows on TV, and the Style section of The New York Times reports that it is cool to be ethnically ambiguous.
As leading census projections reveal, America is becoming increasingly diverse. In 2004, a quarter of the electorate will be nonwhite, and in the next 50 years, America will become a majority nonwhite country, a reflection of increasing immigration and growth among groups such as Hispanics. In fact, among voters under 25 years of age, just two-thirds are white, compared with 90 percent among seniors.
The nation is also increasingly less traditional. Instead of the nuclear families of the 1950s, a near majority of the country now lives in unmarried households, headed by one who has delayed marriage, is a single parent, been divorced or widowed, or lives with a domestic partner.
Too, the country is more secular and better educated. While the United States remains one of the most religious Western industrialized nations, it is also the case that a growing number of people are willing to answer "nothing" when asked their religious affiliation. The number of secular voters in the electorate has increased to the point that people who never or hardly ever go to worship services now make up a third of the electorate.
Americans are achieving higher and higher levels of education, and the number of women receiving a college education has tripled over the past 50 years. Women now make up the majority of students attending college and 52 percent of the electorate.
The political geography of the nation is shifting as well. The "blue states," covering considerably more territory than 1988, encompass what Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis call "ideopolises," or new postindustrial metropolises where people are more likely to live according to "socially liberal values."
These demographic changes have profound implications for American politics, as we see the growth of socially progressive groups in the electorate -- minority voters and immigrants, unmarried women, college-educated women, and cosmopolitan voters -- who share a worldview that accepts differences, values tolerance, and supports equal rights.
In the context of these broad changes, the country's youngest voters are more socially progressive than any other generation in the electorate. They are quite alienated from the Republicans' social agenda, in particular their focus on gay rights and gay marriage. Almost three-quarters of those 18 to 24 years old say there should be "laws that provide gay and lesbian couples who form civil unions the same legal rights as married couples when it comes to things like inheritance, employer-provided health insurance, and hospital visits." More than half of adults under 30 years of age think that gays and lesbians should have a legal right to get married, compared with just 37 percent of baby boomers and 20 percent of seniors. And in our recent National Public Radio survey, 43 percent of voters under 30 oppose a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, compared with 29 percent of voters over 64.
Younger voters and the other most progressive groups, such as unmarried women and minority voters, make up a major portion of the voters this election year. Voters under 30 will account for 17 percent of voters, unmarried women constitute 20 percent of all voters, while nearly one in four voters in 2004 will be a minority.
We do live in postindustrial, perhaps postmodern, times, where conventional wisdom seems to be giving way to more contingent principles shaped by education, information, and individual experience. Large numbers of people and communities are surely questioning and challenging these trends, but it is hard not to be struck by America's growing diversity, tolerance of different lifestyles, social flexibility and openness to change, new roles for women, and skepticism about absolutes and religious truths.
So while we recognize that the campaign against gay marriage and defense of the family can seriously damage Democratic prospects, we also recognize that Republicans can overreach. The public divides evenly in this debate, according to the NPR survey, when the Democrats criticize the Republicans for trying "to dictate the personal and private choices people make about their families." It is possible the Democratic candidate could join the culture war and fight to a draw, though we do not recommend that course. Remember that Al Gore virtually ran such a race in 2000, unapologetically backing abortion, gun registration, and civil unions against the backdrop of the "Clinton Wars." With the country divided equally between the married and unmarried, those who are weekly church attendees and those who are not, Democrats and Republicans, the specter of a battle over values should not leave Democrats trembling. Joining the battle is an insufficient strategy in the context of our current political parity, but noting the cultural trends should give Democrats greater confidence as they face the battles ahead.
All that said, Democrats would fare much better in the elections if they nominate a presidential candidate who instinctively understands a religious worldview. A majority of Americans are, by their own admission, religious. Ninety-two percent say they believe in God, 80 percent pray, and 37 percent read the Bible on a weekly basis. A little less than half report attending worship services every week (though it is quite well established that church attendance is overreported). Seventy percent of Americans say they want their president to be religious.
The strongest Democratic candidates in the last four decades have hailed from the South, which is important not so much because they brought along southern votes -- though that helps -- but because southern politicians more naturally and instinctively employ a religious narrative. This narrative matters not just in the southern states but also in many rural and industrial places where religion is important to family life.
When Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman, a devout Orthodox Jew, as his running mate, the easy discussion of faith and family, on display at the Democratic convention, offered important reassurance and brought the Democrats closer to most Americans. And this newfound connection shone through in polls at the time: In a Newsweek survey taken before Lieberman's selection, Bush held a 23-point advantage over Gore on who would do a better job of upholding moral values. However, less than two weeks after the Gore-Lieberman ticket was established, this gap evaporated, with Gore taking a 4-point lead over Bush on moral values.
But uncomfortable discussions of personal faith, reflected perhaps in Howard Dean's discussion of religion under pressure in the primaries, looked inauthentic and obviously brought the former governor no closer to the primary voters. Policy initiatives can also communicate powerfully about values. In 1992, Bill Clinton used dramatic, unexpected initiatives to reveal his values and show his affinity with mainstream thinking. For him, the most important steps were "ending welfare as we know it," supporting the death penalty, and cutting middle-class taxes. Each figured prominently in the campaign's advertising, and welfare reform was later recalled as one of the top three priorities of the new administration.
The Democrats in 2004, faced with the Bush administration's values onslaught and defense of marriage, will no doubt move dramatically to show their underlying values, and perhaps in surprising ways. Any specific recommendations given here would be speculative absent a nominee and his biography and convictions, but it is easy to imagine the Democrats embracing, for example, a new pro-family policy, led by middle-class tax cuts, paid family leave, health care, and church-based social services. Too, the candidate could put forward a pro-military policy, focused on building the morale and strengthening the military and waging a more focused war on terrorism, and a values-based critique of the exploding federal deficits and corporate excesses, with Democrats as the voice of responsibility, prudence, discipline, and the future. The leading Democratic candidates emerging from the primary want to strengthen families; they are opposed to legalizing gay marriage even as they support partner benefits and legal status for civil unions. They avoid the symbolic cultural issues, like gun control, that distance Democrats from so much of "red" America.
And the Democratic candidate, unlike Michael Dukakis, will not go back to being governor or senator and tending his garden after the nomination is won but, instead, will be a full-time campaigner, aggressively pushing back against attacks and raising questions about the values now dominant in Bush's Washington.
If the Republicans are as intent on "shock and awe" cultural war now as they were in 1988, Democrats can parry on their values of tolerance, diversity, equality, individuality, and privacy, and provide powerful reassurance that they, far from being culturally elitist, are patriotic, responsible, in-touch, respectful of faith, and devoted to family. Rather than be apologetic about values, Democrats should rise to this challenge with confidence.
But simply contesting values and responding to Bush's defense of marriage is both defensive and unambitious. It is a formula for winning by a hair at best and still leaves us subject to the vagaries of butterfly ballots and/or unexpected events, like the capture of Osama bin Laden. After all, why should Democrats accept an electoral formula that has left us short of a majority in the last three presidential elections? Why should we accept the cultural battle lines that leave out so many issues and voters? Yes, we are confident of our values, but we are also confident that voters want this election to address so many other issues important to their lives.
With control over all the institutions of government and with so many resources, the Republicans will invest heavily in the political status quo. But why should the Democrats?
This year offers a potentially much bigger moment for a much bigger election -- if Democrats respond in a bold way to the opportunities that have come together in this period, as underscored in The Two Americas. This is a moment to challenge the whole Bush-Reagan edifice that the Republicans have constructed, without a mandate and very much without public support. Consider for a moment their tax-cut policies, their priorities for reconstruction in Iraq, and their indifference to health care. On all of these issues, there is a yawning agenda gap between the American people and the American government. All this is gaining urgency because of more than two decades of growing income inequality and growing dissatisfaction with middle-class living standards, job loss, and shrinking opportunities.
The entire ground can shift if the Democrats use this electoral moment to mount an assault not just on specific policies but on the entire Reagan project -- the idea that tax cuts for the wealthy and enriching the few and pro-market and corporate policies are really the best way to advance the country. By joining the battle here, at the heart of Reaganism, the Democrats make it very difficult for the Republicans to keep this election centered on the family or gay marriage. They will have to defend Reaganism.
Because the Republicans have overreached on behalf of corporate interests in an age of public revulsion against it, the Democrats have the opportunity not just to attack but to become the champions of the whole. While Republicans seek to get 100 percent of the base voters in the old construct, Democrats can advance strategically toward their goal of a 100-percent America where all can share in the country's bounty. The Democrats can become the voice of opportunity, responsibility, and community in an era of greed and superindividualism. Democrats can, in short, speak for America.
In the summer of 2003, we asked a thousand Americans in a national survey whether they would opt for the Reagan alternative -- with its tax cuts, respect for faith, and a strong military response to the terrorist threat -- or whether they would prefer a vision of a 100-percent America, with its focus on the middle-class squeeze, education, health care and retirement, and building opportunity at home. A majority of 53 percent chose the vision of 100-percent America, compared with 41 percent who opted for Bush's renewed Reaganism. This is a 12-point lead for the Democratic narrative in a survey where the voters were evenly aligned between the parties and gave Bush a 7-point advantage in the presidential contest.
More important, this battle over Reaganism and for 100-percent opportunity disrupted the cultural polarization that has left the parties deadlocked. Democratic base groups were even more consolidated, but Democrats now won an audience with voters, previously moved by the cultural currents. The 100-percent America Democrat split the white rural vote evenly and won over many of the more vulnerable working-class women (and even aging blue-collar men). In a follow-up focus-group discussion, many of these estranged voters found their voice, saying that through the 100-percent America message, "[T]his person's trying to get the point across that every single American counts and not just the wealthy," and that, "[W]e have a whole country here, and we need to help the whole country be all it can be." Voters felt energized by the vision. As one man told us, "I like the spirit. I like the sense that we're a country; let's pull together, let's make some sacrifices, let's include everyone, let's protect things."
The Democrats should contest values, as we have argued here, but Democrats should also contest the country. This election presents the opportunity to marginalize the values and cultural onslaught of the Republicans -- and to offer people a different kind of choice.