November 5, 2004

· Politics

Jim Henley expresses some skepticism about the post election analysis saying that the Democrats need to do more about moral values if they want to win the next election:

[I’m] calling qualified bullshit on the suddenly popular notion that liberals need to come up with “a plausible spiel on morality,” essentially dressing their existing beliefs in the language of religion so as to reach Christians who currently vote Republican … Among other things, this will raise conservative-Christian comfort levels with liberal politicians and make liberal policies attractive in the terms with which said voters view the world.

This is naive and even condescending. Conservative, values-minded Christians aren’t looking for validation. They’re looking for specific policy outcomes that their strongly-held beliefs entail – among them, the prohibition of abortion and the marginalization and if possible elimination of homosexuality. They are not empty urns waiting to be filled with liberal policies dissolved in honeyed words about faith.

… Bush and Rove’s faith talk may be every bit the “spiel” Kieran Healy says it is. Doesn’t matter. The question for evangelicals and what Sullivan calls “religious moderates” isn’t the sincerity of politicians, it’s whether those politicians deliver on their issues.

This is fair enough. I wrote that phrase, “a plausible spiel on morality” in a bit of a rush the morning after the election, and Russell Arben Fox and others picked up on it in the comments thread. I think my original post ran together a few different and half-formed thoughts. So, uh, here are some more.

First, I was annoyed at the pollsters and the media who made nothing of the importance of “moral values” (however you want to construe it) in the run-up to the election. I think I was right to be annoyed, and I still don’t know why, seeing as it was there in the polling, that more wasn’t made of it by the people paid to analyze such things.

Second, when I said a “plausible spiel on morality”, what the hell was I talking about? I didn’t mean that it was just a question of finding a way to do a good ole Praise the Lord song-and-dance routine better than the Repubs. Rather, I felt that it was just ridiculous that an Administration that busies itself with apologias for torture—to pick one example from many—has gotten itself into the position where it owns the language of morality, religious, secular or otherwise. The language of moral politics is almost inevitably framed in Christian terms in the U.S., but Christian morality is itself perfectly well-able to issue condemnations of torture or the death penalty or hate-based policy initiatives, or what have you. So why haven’t the Democrats been able to do this?

Third, Jim is right to say that for a substantial portion of the electorate, delivering on the issues is what matters. If those issues are—in Jim’s phrase—”the prohibition of abortion and the marginalization and if possible elimination of homosexuality,” then the Republicans are welcome to them. I wasn’t suggesting that it’s worth the Democrats’ while to pander on these matters. But that doesn’t mean that Democrats with an interest in the matter—like Sullivan—shouldn’t try hard to reclaim the language of moral conviction from those people. This is particularly important because I believe that the available evidence shows that such polarization as exists is being driven by changes in the political system rather than the electorate.

Even for a blog post, these thoughts are pretty half-baked. I want to hear more about what people think on each of these points.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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