Morality is the new "race."

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 5 2004 5:51 PM

Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

Morality is the new "race."

The day after the election, Slate's political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won't win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won't vote for the Democrats. Click here to read previous entries.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Before the Democrats can cure their morality deficit disorder, they must first diagnose the insidiously effective strain of virtue advanced by the Republicans. "Morality" is the new "race"—as in racism. It is the emotional linchpin of the Republicans' latest "Southern strategy," pioneered in 1968 by Richard Nixon to lure the solid (Democratic) South from the party that had betrayed its Dixie base by ending segregation through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The props have changed since Nixon spoke to the smarting segregationists in the code of "states rights" and "law and order." Gun rights stood in for states rights as the animating spirit of the Gingrich Revolution of the 1990s (until the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blasted into rubble by one of the gun lobby's constituents). But even as the agenda has now shifted to the sanctity of marriage, the ends and means remain remarkably consistent: Seduce the have-nots into a strange bedfellow-ship with the haves through emotional tribal markers that strike at some pre-rational sense of identity. Then they will be persuaded to vote against their own self-interest.

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That seems so obvious that Katha Pollitt and my fellow commentators invoke the Southern strategy as shorthand. But how does it work? Since I hail from a red state deep in the heart of Dixie—and claim many of "those people" as my friends and relatives—perhaps I can shed some light. Rather than isolating the "faith voters" as freaks and grotesques (as Southerners have historically been seen by the North), we should be analyzing what we all, as members of the human race, have in common.

Let's accept that all of us, including blue-staters who dismiss red-staters as "rednecks," are hard-wired with a capacity for bigotry. This is part of our animal pedigree, what Jung called the primally instinctual "shadow" of the psyche, that sustains the tribal aggression toward "the other" necessary for the survival of the species. But our particular species of H. sapiens is also uniquely programmed with the higher functions that might be called altruism, and the ability to articulate them. The tension between our primitive and our noble impulses—the paradox that gave us "fine Christian gentleman" as a euphemism in the South for segregationist—is the vulnerability that the Republicans have been so adept at exploiting. For although the tension is always there, and the prejudice is latent in us all, it must be stimulated in order for it to move into the fore and crowd out "reality-based" (in the Bush idiom) concerns about survival. The long history of tribal warfare in the former Yugoslavia provides insight into this phenomenon.

The social theorist Daniel Bell has pointed out that Americans are an ideologically apathetic tribe; the "political issues" that connect with the electorate tend to be related to vice (preferably sex), from obscene books to Monica Lewinsky. Race and abortion, the perennial instruments of division, have a strong sexual subtext—abortion being an outcome of what red-staters might deem fornication; racism a response to the (perceived) black sexual predators. But the most vivid lessons about the twin mobilization of ideals and bigotry can be seen in the most cynical addition to the Southern strategy—the crusade against gay marriage. Unlike race, it is a totally manufactured moral "crisis," with no effect on anyone other than the marital partners themselves.

The bigotry behind the initiative is so stark that no one has been able to float any decent rationale for it. As for the sanctity-of-the family argument that kids need a mommy and a daddy, why isn't there a crusade to outlaw illegitimate births, divorce? (Whoops, hope Karl Rove isn't reading this. ...) When a close relative of mine cited gay marriage as a reason he was voting for George Bush, he explained that homosexuality was "a sin" according to the Bible. But even if one accepts that, I said, why not deprive other sinners of the right to get married? His reply went the heart of the irrationality of the so-called Christian Right: "We're all sinners." And yet, he fails to see that a particular class of sinners is being denied, by their fellow sinners, the grace of God that is the central tenet of Christianity.

I say so-called Christian Right (as well as "irrationality") because this beloved evangelical relative was a big fan of Bill Clinton. (In keeping with the WWCD? mantra Steve Waldman proposes for the Democratic Party, it's worth noting that the heartland that voted for Bush was presumably the same heartland that sustained Clinton's high approval rating during the impeachment scandals.)  My kinsman is, moreover, a tolerant, kind, generous, hard-working family man, the kind I have in mind when I thank God that everyone in this country is not like me: (no, I'm not condescending) that there are people who coach the Little Leagues and nurse the elderly parents. And so I look back on my election eve conversation with him as a harbinger of the morality factor that we are analyzing today. I had thought that "the spread of freedom" would be his reason for supporting Bush, but he thought we should get out of Iraq. Bush, he crisply explained, "shares my beliefs."

At the time, I was struck not so much by what he said but by its scripted delivery, as if he were reading from the tablets. His opposition to gay marriage had a brittle quality, the same "because I said so" entitlement of the white supremacists of my segregated youth who insisted that blacks had to "earn" their rights: He did not want to give "social approval" to homosexuality. Like the constitutional rationales for state-sponsored racism, the bans on gay rights will fall under the weight of their own hypocrisy. (Plus the fact that gays are born into the most unsuspecting of families, like the Cheneys.) My advice to the Dems on the gay marriage fight: Don't. Fall. For. It. Take the civil unions, and punt—hold Bush to one of the more astonishing and under-reported flip-flops of his campaign, when he casually disavowed the radical civil-union ban on the Ohio ballot that would get him elected. Besides, Rove is already trolling for the next new gimmick in the Southern strategy.

What the Democrats should do instead is address the noble impulse behind the bigotry masked as "morality"—and break the code of the Republicans' fraudulent claims on piety. As Robert Wright points out, the moral terrain that we should all stake and reform is what he calls MTV-land. This is a genuine threat to the "fabric of our society," and as the mother of teenage daughters, I feel it every day: the casual pornography that is the media wallpaper of my girls' childhood. But instead of focusing the outrage at Britney, let's turn the TV dial over to Fox, where the true pop icon of the Bush era resides. Paris Hilton, the amateur porn star and N-word user, has made a TV career of ridiculing the Simple Life of the "ordinary Americans" the Democrats have so alienated. Her reality show is brought to you, of course, by the very corporate interests the Republicans are servicing, and the network that broadcasts it belongs to Bush's very own media commissar, Rupert Murdoch. If the Democrats can find a way to demonstrate who profits from the circus of Paris Hilton, then they may be able to point out the greater menace to the American family: the ringmasters' embarrassment of the middle class with an ever diminishing share of the bread. 

That may explain why Rove has not already seized on reality TV as the next gay marriage. Then again, the president's men may be inhibited by the fact that our grotesque trash culture, along with our freedom, is what the terrorists hate us for.

Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama—The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution and a young-adult history of the movement, A Dream of Freedom.