Remapping the Culture Debate

Ted Nordhaus, a self-proclaimed “recovering pollster,” and Michael Shellenberger, a former San Francisco public relations executive, began quietly sending out e-mails in the spring of 2005. Love your work, they'd write people they thought would be like-minded. We should meet. The duo had created a minor stir that fall with the essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” which took environmental interest groups to task for being out of touch. After having been dubbed “the reapers” by critics for their grim diagnosis of the health of the very progressive community of which they had long been part, they were interested in forging new networks. But they also had a new project in the works, one that may ultimately prove far more significant than “Death,” now slated for book publication by Houghton Mifflin in 2007.

In April 2005, Nordhaus left his job at the opinion research firm Evans/McDonough Company to start, along with Shellenberger, an American branch of the Canadian market research behemoth Environics, which specializes in the study of consumer behavior, right down to the level of “neighborhood lifestyle segmentation.” Though such data are not collected on behalf of political figures, it's the kind of information political operatives often use to slice and dice the electorate into ever thinner pieces. Similar data allowed Republicans in 2004 to make sure they targeted last-minute calls and fliers to domestic SUV-drivers, subscribers to hunting magazines, and women who watch Will and Grace. American Environics intended to use the detailed data its parent company had collected since 1992 for a different purpose, however: to challenge progressive interest-group orthodoxies and the progressive movement itself.

In the great debate about how Democrats can stage a comeback (beyond simply waiting for the coming Republican implosion that never seems to arrive), American Environics rejected some of the more popular recommendations out there. Rather than focusing on reframing the Democratic message, as Berkeley linguistics and cognitive science professor George Lakoff has recommended, or on redoubling Democratic efforts to persuade Americans to become economic populists, as another school of thought suggests, the American Environics team argued that the way to move voters on progressive issues is to sometimes set aside policies in favor of values. By focusing on “bridge values,” they say, progressives can reach out to constituents of opportunity who share certain fundamental beliefs, even if the targeted parties don't necessarily share progressives' every last goal. In that assessment, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are representative of an increasingly influential school of thought within the Democratic Party.

By the beginning of fall 2005, American Environics had presented its data to key Democratic leaders and a who's who of Democratic interest groups: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the NDN (formerly the New Democratic Network), Third Way, Planned Parenthood, the Center for American Progress, People for the American Way, the Economic Policy Institute, and OMB Watch. They did so quietly, swearing their viewers to silence. (They will be releasing the data publicly early in 2006.) Few media outlets saw the presentations, but the Prospect was given an early copy of their research.

The data contradicted the slew of polls that show Americans to be strong supporters of Democratic issue positions, such as universal health care, despite voting habits that have made Republicans the dominant political actors. Instead, American Environics' extensive plumbing of Americans' attitudes laid out a darker, more nuanced vision of what the nation actually believes. Far from being a purely dour assessment, though, in it can be found the seeds of a new understanding of the interrelationship of culture, the economy, and politics -- broadly defined -- that should give progressives hope.

* * *

Democrats have had a tremendous amount of difficulty in recent years recognizing the central role of cultural factors in the life of the polity and in their own demise. This is finally starting to change. In the year since election-night exit polls put the fear of God -- or the fear of people who fear God -- into Democrats, there has been a slow but marked shift within the party, and within progressive circles more broadly, in terms of approaching values questions.

“When you only talk to people in economic terms, you leave a huge opening for other candidates to connect on other issues,” says Ann Lewis, communications director for Friends of Hillary (Clinton). “The challenge is to step forward with a coherent program that culturally reinforces what [voters] want their future to be.”

Even those who have been most focused on populist economics have started coming around to this new view. Shortly after the 2004 election, the Center for American Progress launched a series of meetings with liberal religious leaders that ultimately gave rise to a new project on religion and values, which will work closely with Shellenberger and Nordhaus. Post-election, the Democratic National Committee's pollster, Cornell Belcher, preached the wisdom of situating traditional Democratic appeals in the language of values, while DNC Chair Howard Dean traveled the country teaching the new talk. Progressive actions on the ground reinforced the utility of the new approach, and in 2005 Tim Kaine took the statehouse in Virginia, where nearly half of state residents attend church at least once a week, by running a campaign that presented him to voters as a person of faith. “That old sign in the 1992 Clinton headquarters that read, ‘It's the economy, stupid!' no longer applies,” writes Catholic University political professor John Kenneth White, in the new book Get This Party Started: How Progressives Can Fight Back and Win.

The new data have convinced even the most skeptical that an approach that worked in the industrial age is not as suited to the new, globalized information-era economy, where isolated voters look first at character as they assess candidates. Last August, for example, the Democracy Corps political polling firm released a memo that sharply diverged from the firm's usual reports on such generic Democratic concerns as jobs, prescription drug benefits, and heath insurance. In focus groups held among rural voters in Wisconsin and Arkansas, as well as disaffected Bush voters in Kentucky and Colorado, pollsters Karl Agne and Stanley Greenberg found that concerns about a stagnant economy, job security, health-care costs, and the war in Iraq were consistently trumped by questions of values.

“[A]s powerful as the concern over [economic] issues is, the introduction of cultural themes -- specifically gay marriage, abortion, the importance of the traditional family unit, and the role of religion in public life -- quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the national level,” Agne and Greenberg wrote. “Particularly among non-college educated voters, cultural issues not only superseded other concerns, they served as a proxy for many voters on those other issues.”

When it came to defining themselves in the nation's ongoing cultural battles -- such as the battle over “family values” -- Democrats had virtually ceded the field to Republicans, presenting an uncertain face to the public. Voters, the research showed, were looking to cultural and lifestyle markers to determine whether or not a candidate was, in fact, going to do right by the economy, the Democrats' one persistently strong area. The Democracy Corps pollsters concluded that voters saw traditional Democratic economic concerns as having little to do with them, being mainly “manifested in costly government social programs or political alliances with labor unions and minorities.” The party's inattentiveness to cultural matters had, paradoxically, left these voters with “absolutely no sense that Democrats have a viable alternative vision that would truly promote broad economic growth or increased prosperity for working Americans.”

* * *

Where Democracy Corps found voters unable to hear economic appeals through the noise of cultural ones, Environics' research suggested an even more profound interrelationship between materialist concerns and a community's broader beliefs. They found economic changes driving changes in social values, and those, in turn, driving political preferences. Using data from Environics' in-home consumer survey in the United States, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were able to tease apart changes in the thinking of voters since 1992 on 117 different “social values trends.” These values, such as “time stress,” “joy of consumption,” and “acceptance of violence,” are not what people normally think of as “values” -- abortion, gay marriage, or other hot-button social issues. Nordhaus and Shellenberger were looking at something more fine-tuned: the attitudes, biases, and normative beliefs that undergird people's stances toward politics, life, and policy. They were, in short, trying to elucidate the measurable components of worldviews.

“None of the polling I was looking at really had much ability to explain what was happening in the country socially and politically,” says Nordhaus, the more voluble of the pair, with close-cropped sandy brown hair and slick rectangular glasses framed by hip-for-D.C. charcoal plastic. The data the corporate world was using were “vastly more sophisticated than the methods I was using as a pollster, which were, respectively, quite crude.”

Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house” increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that “men are naturally superior to women” increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that “violence is a normal part of life” -- and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Lumping specific survey statements like these together into related groups, Nordhaus and Shellenberger arrived at what they call “social values trends,” such as “sexism,” “patriotism,” or “acceptance of flexible families.” But the real meaning of those trends was revealed only by plugging them into the “values matrix” -- a four-quadrant plot with plenty of curving arrows to show direction, which is then overlaid onto voting data. The quadrants represent different worldviews. On the top lies authority, an orientation that values traditional family, religiosity, emotional control, and obedience. On the bottom, the individuality orientation encompasses risk-taking, “anomie-aimlessness,” and the acceptance of flexible families and personal choice. On the right side of the scale are values that celebrate fulfillment, such as civic engagement, ecological concern, and empathy. On the left, there's a cluster of values representing the sense that life is a struggle for survival: acceptance of violence, a conviction that people get what they deserve in life, and civic apathy. These quadrants are not random: Shellenberger and Nordaus developed them based on an assessment of how likely it was that holders of certain values also held other values, or “self-clustered.”

Over the past dozen years, the arrows have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on “every man for himself.” Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.

Any reader remotely familiar with American popular culture will immediately recognize the truth of this analysis. Ariel Levy recently grappled with one aspect of it in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, writing about a hypersexualized culture that encourages its young women to be Girls Gone Wild and its young men to be piggish voyeurs. She describes a new anti-feminist vision of “liberation” that eschews both traditional constraints and any concern for gender equality. “Despite the rising power of Evangelical Christianity and the political right in the United States, this trend has only grown more extreme and more pervasive,” notes Levy. Indeed, the coarse, brawny, self-centered new philosophy could take as its exemplar television personality Bill O'Reilly, a man who, it was alleged in a sexual harassment lawsuit, is as interpersonally crude as he is politically rough and bullying. Americans, writes Environics founder Michael Adams in his 2005 book American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States, increasingly reject traditionalism and progressivism alike.

“While American politics becomes increasingly committed to a brand of conservatism that favors traditionalism, religiosity, and authority,” Adams writes, “the culture at large [is] becoming ever more attached to hedonism, thrill-seeking, and a ruthless, Darwinist understanding of human competition.” This behavior is particularly prevalent among the vast segment of American society that is not politically or civically engaged, and which usually fails to even vote. This has created what must be understood at the electoral level as a politics of backlash on the part of both Republican and Democratic voters: Voters of both parties, Environics data show, have developed an increasingly moralistic politics as a reaction to the new cultural order.

* * *

Behind the increasing isolation and fatalism of the American public there is also a new economic reality in which workers have fewer and fewer bonds of solidarity with each other, and no one to catch them should they fall. For Democratic strategists, that's also led to tough questions: What does it mean to be the party of the working class in an information-era economy where only eight percent of the private sector is in unions and 43 percent of the population work in office jobs? Who is still “working class” in a nation that has moved from having a labor force where half hadn't even finished high school in 1960 to one, in 2003, where only 10 percent of workers lacked a diploma or GED and close to 60 percent had at least some college education? And what can be expected from an electorate where, as in 2004, more voters had incomes greater than $100,000 than less than $15,000? Most importantly: How does the Democratic Party, whose most essential economic ideas were forged in the crucibles of the worst of times, develop an agenda for a post-scarcity society?

Liberal labor economist Stephen Rose, a one-time adviser to Clinton Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, published an article last summer entitled “Talking About Social Class: Are the Economic Interests of the Majority of Americans with the Democratic Party?” on Ruy Teixiera's Emerging Democratic Majority Web site. He began by questioning the truth of the Democratic argument that the party represents the needs of the middle and working classes. “We need to consider the alternative that the majority of people do not have basic economic interests to vote Democratic,” he wrote.

This is an increasingly common plaint of the centrists as well. The Senate-focused centrist group Third Way had released a study showing that the economic tipping point for white voters to join the Republican ranks was a paltry $23,700. Declaring it “an empirical question to determine the exact contours of America's current social class structure,” Rose excluded the very young and the elderly, along with their life-stage income effects -- roughly a third of the voting population -- from his analysis. What remained was an economically robust core little affected by traditional Democratic economic appeals. Rose calculated average household incomes over a 15-year period for people between 26 and 59 years of age, the prime earning years, and found that the average annual family income for adults was a robust $66,000 for males and $61,000 for females.

These startling figures help explain why both Al Gore and John Kerry lost voters over age 30. Indeed, according to a 2004 Roper Poll for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, 93 percent of individuals earning more than $50,000 described themselves as doing well -- many as doing very well -- as did 77 percent of those who earned just $30,000 to $40,000. That might not seem like a lot of money to the elite lawyers and consultants who run Democratic politics, but surveys repeatedly show that $50,000 seems to be a threshold income dividing the economically insecure from their more prosperous countrymen, and the average household income in America is now, despite years of stagnant wages, $56,644. People earning such wages are far from rich, but they are comfortable enough to look beyond their pocketbooks when they vote.

In many ways, this is good news about America and about the transformative impact of the long boom and civil rights and education revolutions, which have led to a labor force that is better educated, more diverse, and more white-collar than it has ever been. The decline of the manufacturing sector and rise in professional and managerial posts, according to Rose's calculations, have left just 18 percent of men and seven percent of women part of the old-school “industrial proletariat,” while 63 percent of the labor force in 2003 works in health care, education, office administration, or business services. Rose further calculated that just 23 percent of the prime-age population, including only 19 percent of men, come into contact with the government programs with which Democrats are most strongly associated during their prime adult years.

Today's average American “worker” is, in short, very much on his or her own -- too prosperous to be eligible for most government assistance programs and, because of job laws that date back three quarters of a century, unable to unionize. Such isolation and atomization have not led to a new wave of social solidarity and economic populism, however. Instead, these changes have bred resentment toward those who do have outside aid, whether from government or from unions, and an escalating ethos of every man for himself. Against that ethos, voters have increasingly flocked to politicians who recognize that the combination of relative affluence and relative isolation has created an opening for cultural appeals.

* * *

The growing conflation of the economic and the cultural in the minds of voters has been a cause of great perplexity for thinkers who have long seen the two realms as distinct, and the cultural realm as the secondary concern of unserious men who don't know where their self-interest lies. Thomas Frank, in his 2005 What's the Matter with Kansas?, sketched a portrait of lower- and middle-income voters who, socially at odds with a liberal elite they accuse of moral dissipation, have forged an alliance with a conservative fiscal elite whose economic policies, paradoxically, do little to support their worldview or shore up families. Yet the broader social reality suggests that the focus of these middle-income voters on cultural traditionalism is not entirely separate from their economic aspirations. Social solidarity and even simple familial stability have become part of the package of private privileges available to the well-to-do. Behavioral surveys consistently show that, regardless of their political leanings, the better-off and better-educated live more traditional personal lives: They are more likely to marry, far less likely to divorce, less likely to have children outside of marriage, and more likely to remarry when they do divorce than their less accomplished peers. In addition, their kids are more likely to be academically successful and go to college, repeating the cycle.

The new Puritanism and cultural conservatism Frank described can also been seen as symptoms of how, in today's society, traditional values have become aspirational. Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a great deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.

American voters have taken shelter under the various wings of conservative traditionalism because there has been no one on the Democratic side in recent years to defend traditional, sensible middle-class values against the onslaught of the new nihilistic, macho, libertarian lawlessness unleashed by an economy that pits every man against his fellows. Yet in private conversations, progressives recognize that there is a need to do something about broad social changes that they, too, find objectionable. The American Environics data provide the critical missing link that should allow progressives to reach out more confidently to voters who share with them common values and concerns about the direction of the nation.

Incoming Democratic Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, a former Christian missionary in Latin America, learned the importance of cultural appeals early in his campaign. Kaine, Virginia's first Catholic governor and one of the two major Democratic electoral success stories of 2005, had worked as a court-appointed attorney for inmates on death row while a young attorney. This, he knew, would be a major strike against him in his bid to run a state whose citizens overwhelmingly support the death penalty, and in a contest against the state's attorney general, who would inevitably accuse him of being soft on crime and a bleeding-heart liberal.

In the spring of 2005 Kaine's pollster, Peter Brodnitz, of the polling firm Benenson Strategy Group, decided that the campaign needed to develop a strategy to handle such charges. It convened a focus group of white, conservative, religious voters, and explored different ways Kaine could reach out to them. The result was startling. Brodnitz found that once Kaine started talking about his religious background and explaining that his opposition to the death penalty grew out of his Catholic faith, not only did charges that he was weak on crime fail to stick, but he became inoculated against a host of related charges that typically plague and undermine the campaigns of Democratic candidates. “Once people understood the values system that the position grew out of, they understood that's he's not a liberal,” says Brodnitz. “We couldn't even convince them he was a liberal once we'd done that.”

Strategists who had been predicting Democratic success with a more values-based approach considered themselves vindicated. Virginia elected its second Democratic governor in a row, and its first one to survive opposition to the death penalty in an electoral fight. “People appreciate that I have a moral yardstick, and, even if they don't have the same one, they appreciate that I have one and it's not all about what a speechwriter puts in front of me or what a pollster tells me,” the governor-elect told the Prospect. That moral yardstick may be just the tool Democrats need.

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