TCS Daily

The War Between the Statists

By Jesse Walker - November 8, 2004 12:00 AM

According to the conventional wisdom, Bush's reelection turned on the culture war. Conservative Christians turned out in droves, the story goes, because they liked his views on gay marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, and The Passion of the Christ.

OK, maybe not The Passion of the Christ. Though I did see one flier in rural Maryland that purported to compare the two candidates' "stances" on Mel Gibson. (Seems Kerry didn't like the movie.)

Now, whether this will remain the conventional wisdom for long is an open question. As Paul Freedman, David Brooks, and others have pointed out, the percentage of weekly churchgoers who cast ballots this year was about the same as it was in 2000. It's true that when exit pollsters asked voters for the most important issue this election, a plurality of 22% said "moral values." But if you add together the 19% that said terrorism and the 15% that said Iraq -- and many voters, especially in the Bush camp, surely saw those as one and the same -- you get 34%, suggesting that this was a foreign policy election after all. (Interestingly, the "terrorism" voters tended to back Bush, while most "Iraq" voters opted for Kerry.)

But whatever actually caused their defeat, a lot of Democrats are blaming the Christian right. Some of them have shifted into condescension mode, trying to figure out how to repackage liberal ideas in language that will appeal to values voters. Others have gone into a full-blown panic about those evangelicals in the fever swamps and their crusade to take away our freedoms. This was boosted by the success of initiatives in eleven different states to ban gay marriage.

For the record, I wasn't happy to see those measures pass -- especially since some of them could restrict private, contractual domestic partnerships as well. But those panicky Democrats should calm down -- and then take a look in the mirror. I hate the Red America/Blue America cliché, this idea that the country can be painted in just two colors. But if I had to speak in terms of that map, I'd say the most successful culture warriors come from the blue states. The authoritarian conservative wants to maintain the old taboos. The authoritarian liberal wants to introduce some new ones, and he's had a lot more success. The religious right may despise homosexuality and pornography, but the gay movement is thriving, despite last week's losses, and porn is more freely available than ever before.

The liberal puritans, by contrast, are riding high in the media and in the courts. For many Americans, the Democrats are the party that hates their guns, cigarettes, and fatty foods (which is worse: to rename a french fry or to take it away?); that wants to impose low speed limits on near-abandoned highways; that wants to tell local schools what they can or can't teach. There is no party of tolerance in Washington -- just a party that wages its crusades in the name of Christ and a party that wages its crusades in the name of Four Out Of Five Experts Agree. Sometimes they manage to work together. I say fie on both.

Since Election Day, a series of satiric proposals for blue-state secession have been floating around the Internet. Here's an idea for liberals looking for a more realistic political project: Team up with some hard-core conservatives and make a push for states' rights and local autonomy. If you have to get the government involved in everything under the sun, do it on a level where you'll have more of a popular consensus. Aim for a world where it won't matter what Washington has to say about who can marry who and whether they can smoke after sodomy.

Then, in 2008, there won't be any doubt that the presidential election is turning on something national. Like, say, foreign policy.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.


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