Culture and Politics: 'Values' as Votes

Article excerpt

Welcome to politics in the nineties, where citizens vote their values, yet candidates seem concerned with issues more economic than cultural. Experts predict that the 1996 election may hinge on the way parties respond to an electorate increasingly polarized over social problems and questions.

It marked the opening volley of the blame game that inevitably follows big political defeats. Rich Bond, departing as Republican Party chairman several months after the November 1992 disaster, warned his party that "America is getting more diverse, not more alike. And our job is to recognize this change ... not cling to zealotry masquerading as principle and the stale ideas of the dead and dying past."

Bond's broadside - a thinly veiled attack against the increasing influence of the "religious right" in GOP ranks - was merely a reflection of the consensus that had developed in the media in the months following President Bush's defeat. According to the Monday morning quarterbacks of the press corps, Bush lost because he paid too little attention to voters' concerns about the stagnant economy while pandering to the moralistic and intolerant elements of the Republican coalition with divisive themes of cultural conflict and "traditional family values." In the last analysis, they claimed, voters were less moved by the erosion of traditional values than they were by the erosion of their bank accounts. The orthodoxy was nicely summed up by Clinton campaign manager James Carville, whose phrase, "It's the economy, Stupid," quickly became accepted by most pundits as the full explanation for Bush's downfall.

But now some critics are beginning to challenge that conventional wisdom about the 1992 results, pointing to research indicating that voters are much more likely to cast their ballots on the basis of where a candidate stands in the raging cultural debate than they are to support someone for his or her views on the economy. Evidently, cultural issues such as abortion, gay rights, family policy and sex education in the schools, far from being peripheral distractions, actually form the core of most voters' political identity and are increasing rather than diminishing in importance. If these experts are correct, 1996 could go down as the year that the culture war, rather than receding from the public debate as many predicted, finally takes center stage.

For many politicians - inclined to avoid the controversial cultural debate like the plague - that's a frightening prospect. "They'll try as hard as they can to continue to avoid it, but it will be increasingly difficult," says Lyman Kellstedt, a professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Kellstedt, who has conducted some of the most extensive statistical analysis on voting patterns and their relation to cultural identity, examined the data from the 1992 election and came to a conclusion that flies in the face of accepted wisdom: As the old liberal and conservative coalitions of the Cold War era break apart, they are giving way to a new set of alliances based primarily on commonly held value systems rather than notions of the role government should play in the economy or world affairs.

Moreover, the very building blocks of the old party coalitions that have shaped the way politicians run for office are disappearing. While factors such as regional loyalties, socioeconomic status and religious affiliation once played a key role in party orientation, Kellstedt claims that the core constituencies of each party are increasingly taking sides in the "values" debate. The emerging alignments, which seem to cut across older ethnic and religious traditions, tend to be among what he characterizes as "religiously committed" and "those with little or no [religious] commitment" or "seculars."

"What the data show is a movement of the base of the Democratic Party in a secular direction," according to Kellstedt, while the movement for the GOP "is in the direction of a more religiously observant constituency away from a more moderate, business-oriented" group of supporters. …