This aura of amorality unsettles evangelicals and other conservatives, and energizes their position on the salient "moral" issues. They think school prayer could help stem the tide of MTV culture, and they see abortion-rights advocates as hedonists who want to "have their fun and not pay for it" as my high-school history teacher back in San Antonio, Texas, complained. A vote against abortion is a vote against Britney Spears.
In reacting against MTV-land, morally conservative parents home-school their kids, or send them to religious schools, or in some other way seek seclusion from secular culture. And the resulting cocoon cuts their chances of encountering anyone who might change their views—like, say, a homosexual who turns out to be not so bad once you get to know him/her.
Aside from Tipper Gore and a few others, liberals have failed to stress that—whatever their views on abortion, gay marriage, and prayer in the schools—they share conservatives' underlying unease with pop-culture values. You don't have to be Jerry Falwell to feel like moving to another planet when you see the Jerry Springer Show.
I think Kerry had a chance to seize this issue back in January, before he was the Democratic nominee. The moment—what might have been his Sister Souljah moment—came during halftime at the Super Bowl, when Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson's clothes off.
Criticism of Timberlake and Jackson came mainly from the right. Liberals scoffed at the idea of getting worked up over "one exposed breast." But the problem wasn't the breast; the problem was how it was exposed—through an act of stylized male sexual aggression, an apparent preamble to rape. (After Timberlake's advance, Jackson pretended to recoil in fear.) Does anyone with a son or a daughter want to see such behavior glorified? For that matter, do liberal feminists?
This wasn't the most egregious specimen of contemporary culture, but it was about the most prominent—a national, even global, advertisement of American values. By denouncing it, Kerry could have endeared himself to millions of American parents and gotten pundits commenting on his maverick moral streak. Then on to Jerry Springer ...
One thing that may have kept Kerry and other Democrats away from this issue is the dreaded liberal cultural elite. Whenever you start moralizing in a remotely Victorian way, some artists, writers, and directors start screaming about censorship. (And Katha Pollitt gets really annoyed—as we may see soon!)
Of course, they've got it wrong: Censorship is officially imposed restraint (e.g., the fines that the FCC levied over the incident), not mere criticism. What's more, criticism can be an antidote to censorship. Moral sanction and legal sanction are the only two kinds of sanction there are, and, human nature being what it is, a society needs one or the other to stay healthy.
If Democrats felt a little freer to moralize, they wouldn't, of course, take over Bush's evangelical base. Still, without giving an inch on gay rights, abortion rights, school prayer, etc., they can make some inroads into the "moral" component of Republican support. But so long as they consider it their sacred duty to applaud Quentin Tarantino or to quietly endure Britney Spears, they may stay where they were this week: 140,000 votes shy in Ohio.
P.S.: I suspect liberal bloggers may organize multicity demonstrations on Inauguration Day. If so, my advice is to make the demonstrations thematically simple and hence broadly inclusive. The basic message, chanted again and again, should be along the lines of: "He doesn't speak for us." That's something lots of us can agree on, and something the world should hear.