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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Navel-Gazing And the Values Debate

You might not expect to find strategy-relevant information in a paper by a Dutch sociologist that has the title, “The ‘Second Demographic Transition’ in the U.S.: Spatial Patterns and Correlates” (pdf). But as it turns out, Ron Lesthaeghe and his co-author Lisa Neidert have uncovered some fascinating evidence that clarifies what the “culture wars” in national politics are all about.
L&N start with 19 demographic indicators. They then examine the correlations across U.S. states between these indicators and identify two underlying dimensions that the indicators tap into. The first of these – call it lifestyle modernism – has to do with delay in marriage and childbearing, cohabitation (opposite- or same-sex), fertility, and abortion rates. The second is related to teen and nonmarital fertility and might be thought of as childbearing conventionality. Divorce rates play into both dimensions.
Still with me? If you thought that was the interesting part, just wait…
What emerges starkly from their results is that blue states tend to have modern lifestyles (delayed marriage and childbearing, relatively high abortion and low fertility, high levels of cohabitation) while red states tend to have traditional ones. How strong is this relationship? Social scientists use a measure of association called the correlation coefficient, which can range from -1 (perfect negative association) to 1 (perfect positive association), with 0 indicating no linear relationship. This economist found that the correlation between the share of a state’s vote that went to Bush in 2004 and the share of the state’s voters “regularly” attending church was 0.20 – quite low. Compare this to the correlation between modernist lifestyle (a combination of the above demographic indicators) and the 2004 vote for Bush: -0.87.
In English, this means that differences in lifestyles – in terms of when people get married and have children, how many children they have, how common cohabitation and same-sex households are, and how high abortion rates are – are far more strongly related to presidential voting patterns than church attendance is. Indeed, when L&N controlled for the share of a state’s population that was Evangelical and the share that was Catholic, the correlation between lifestyle and the vote only declined to -0.76.
Ready to be even more impressed? The association is strong even at the county level. Take a look at these maps showing the Bush vote by county and cohabitation (same- or opposite-sex) by county (from page 25 of L&N’s paper).
What to make of these results? One conclusion might be that the cultural/values divide between blue and red states is bigger than religion. It is fundamentally about modernism versus traditionalism, about deference to authority. L&N write that lifestyle modernism is associated with secularism, anti-authoritarianism, egalitarianism, moral libertarianism, high valuation of self-actualization, tolerance for moral ambiguity and unconventionality, and a preference for friendships over civic involvement. The quest for fulfillment has led modernists to be more picky about taking a spouse and to think twice before commiting to children in young adulthood. Does this sound like anyone you know?
Ron Inglehart has noted that as more and more Americans became economically secure in the post-WWII years, the growing middle class could worry less about the materialist concerns of the New Deal era (how can I afford to feed my family?) and could focus more on “post-materialist” issues (how can I feel fulfilled in my job?). This argument implies that with opportunity and economic security come blue-state values. Absent that, many red state voters will not have the luxury of such navel-gazing, and they will seek meaning and refuge in traditional institutions, ways of life, and attitudes toward authority. And they will vote Republican.
If Democrats can successfully implement a progressive economic agenda, we may see the values debate become marginalized. But in the meantime, modernists need to respect – or at least address – the traditionalists and their deference to family, religious, and state authority. There are undoubtedly things we can do in this regard that do not require us to abandon core Democratic values. But that’s a post for another day.

8 comments on “Navel-Gazing And the Values Debate

  1. Dave Marco on

    I think we can fairly well neutralize the “family values” issue by co-opting it to American Values. Bush has provided us a unique opportunity to do this. I quote from an article I wrote 4/21/05.

    Its time to remember our roots and to return to basic American values.

    In the next election, it’s time for the American worker to stand up for basic American values:
    Freedom of Speech
    The Right to Privacy
    Freedom of the Press
    Religious Freedom and Tolerance
    The Right to Due Process*
    Affordable Housing and Basic Needs
    A Living Wage
    Affordable Medical Care
    Quality Public Schools

    These are not new ideas. And no one is asking for a handout. These basic necessities are what our citizens need to chase the American Dream and make a real contribution to America’s future.

    Too many of our jobs and dollars are going overseas. Our education system is falling behind the rest of the world. Our children no longer understand our system of government or the history that inspired the world. With deficits looming for our children, there is shrinking hope for them to better their lives. Research and development funds have been cut across the board. America is headed the way of Rome if we don’t act now.

  2. Debbie on

    Prup is absolutely on the right track.
    For too long, too many Democrats have mentally written off “values voters” without realizing they are not the monolithic Republican community that Rove represents them to be.
    Yes, there is a small minority of evangelical voters for whom defeating gay marriage is the only issue that matters. But there are many, many more with a broader view of Christian values.
    As Democrats, we have done a poor job of demonstrating that we are the party that truly shares these Christian values – respect for God’s creation, abhorrence of torture, extending a helping hand to the poor, protecting veterans and their families.
    Democrats must do better. We must reach out and engage these voters or we will remain the minority party indefinitely.

  3. Prup (aka Jim Benton) on

    In a long, possibly too long, comment I submited earlier — which has yet to be approved, I mentioned that the Bush Administration’s use and defense of torture was one key issue that could help detach Evangelicals from their Republicanism.
    At the time I was unaware of the “National Religious Campaign Against Torture.” I am glad to see that leaders of all major American religions from all ends of the spectrum — including well-known evangelicals — are joining in this crusade. Torture is un-American if anything ever deserved that description.
    For those who are curious and missed the ad in the TIMES, info is at

  4. Prup (aka Jim Benton) on

    I believe that we have a much greater opportunity to make inroads in the Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian community than we realize, AND that we can do this without compromising our fundamental position on the ‘social issues,’ as much as they differ from those in that community.
    I believe we write them off as ‘automatic Republicans.’ Worse, we see them as Mencken’s ‘booboisie,’ or as extras in a road-company production of INHERIT THE WIND. We see them as mindless puppets automatically casting votes whenever anyone says ‘gay marriage’ or ‘Roe v Wade.’
    Yes, some of them are. (And I’ll whisper a secret, some of us react in the same way to the same terms, only in reverse. Certainly I tend that way as a pro-choice, bisexual non-believer. Of course, I consider my responses the ‘right ones.’) But many of them are serious and thoughtful, value-driven voters, maybe coming from a different starting point than most of us would accept. And the values that do drive them — except on the ‘social issues’ — are a lot like ours. And we can appeal to THOSE values, values that the Republicans and the Bush administration can be shown to repeatedly have violated.
    But to get anywhere we have to start by admitting the positions we do hold on social issues that are in opposition to theirs. Instead, too often Democratic candidates dance and duck and bob and fudge the actual positions they, and, for the most part, the party, hold. This has three bad consequences. It doesn’t fool anyone, most particularly the religious conservatives — in fact, it can come across as insulting to them. It makes the candidates look as if they are ashamed of or guilty about these positions, which can strengthen the opposition to them. And it even turns off the ‘core Democrats’ for whom these positions are important.
    Simple forthrightness will have a different effect, at least in some cases. I am old enough to have voted in the 1968 election, and remember how shocked commentators were when they found that quite a few voters had stated their support of BOTH Eugene McCarthy and George Wallace, despite the fact that their positions were polar opposites. But the common factor was that ‘they came right out and said what they stood for.’ Maybe the respondent didn’t agree with the positions, but they admired them for their honesty. And many of these voters were quite similar to the religious conservatives of today.
    If we were to be similarly blunt, we’d lose a substantial number of voters — but voters we would have lost anyway. But some will at least give us a hearing, will be sympathetic to us that we can penetrate the Rovian propaganda walls and attacks, and get the chance to make our other points. (And a pleasant side effect will be to end Leno’s ’he voted for the first bomb and against the second’ jokes.)
    Then we can use their values to reach them, can make them realize just how much the Republicans are the ones ’playing them.’
    We have so many opportunities — and of course these arguments will work on other groups as well. Honesty is a virtue that the ’rank-and-file’ Evangelical respects and honors. (I can’t always say the same about their leaders.) Hit the Bush Administration HARD on its lies, not just the ones about Iraq but the many other ones.
    That leads to the corruption scandals. And here the details are important. Saying “Jack Abramoff’ doesn’t mean much to most people. Saying ’hookers and poker’ will. Saying ’military procurement scandals’ — and the corresponding budget-cutting to protect the ’tax cuts’ — can be effective. Pointing out that these directly affected the soldiers in Iraq, and put them in danger will mean much more.
    And one scandal that has gotten ‘lost in the shuffle’ will particularly be meaningful to this audience, the scandals concerned with the rebuilding of Iraq and particularly those involved with the rebuilding of the medical system. These are people who can appreciate ’good works,’ and the thought of our government looking aside or being so inefficient that our attempt to do this sort of ‘good work’ turned into an ’orgy of looting’ will resonate more powerfully than any other of the monetary scandals.
    And torture is not a “Christian thing.” They might not care about the Geneva conventions, or even know what they are, but showing the instruments we used, the ‘box,’ waterboarding, and the others — and then tying it in to specific Christian teachings will be very effective.
    Another weapon we have is the unspeakable Ann Coulter. A mini-skirted vulgarian who makes jokes about poisoning Supreme Court Justices and blowing up the New York TIMES, mocks widows’ grief, at the same time parading her cross and supposed “Christianity” would revolt most Christians of any stripe. Forcing Republican candidates to either embrace or condemn her in front of Evangelical audiences would be useful. And the other scandals that keep breaking out every day can be made to seem as revolting to this group as to all of us. (Even the George Deutsch scandal. They might, sadly, agree with someone being put in charge of ‘reigning in’ scientists who mention the ‘big bang,’ but his age, lack of credentials, and the fact that he lied on his resume should be disturbing.)
    The FEMA scandals, both the Hurricane Katrina ones and the turning of Homeland Security money into ‘pork,’ are also useful tools in getting them to hear our arguments, as are the continued low-level sexual scandals that keep on popping up in the neighborhood of the White House, Homeland Security, etc.
    The difficulty is finding positive arguments to reach them, getting them to vote for us, rather than merely convincing them not to vote for Republicans. Many Evangelicals have strong support systems that make our social service programs less attractive to them, many home-school and therefore lean against our education programs (and, admittedly, find problems with some of our ideas on education). And while our ideas on freedom of speech, expression and religion do work for them, they are unlikely to realize this except in an emergency. But many of them are ‘working middle class’ and need less expensive and complicated medical programs, many of them have been threatened or hurt by pension scandals, and workplace safety can be very relevant as well. And while many of them have family members who have served in the military, in Iraq or elsewhere, and accept the ultimate sacrifice that some of their children have made, showing them policies that would make sure that any such sacrifices are meaningful, and that if they occur, the blame is entirely on ‘enemy action’ and not on ‘war profiteering’ can be made meaningful to them.
    The Bush administration has not merely been inefficient, corrupt, and frequently stupid, it has also kicked almost every group of its supporters in the teeth, from ‘deficit hawks’ to libertarians to ‘security hawks’ to evangelicals. In every case we can reach these people, if we can penetrate the walls of obfuscation and lies that the Roves, Limbaughs, Coulters, and O’Reillys have laid down. Our ideas ARE those of the majority — even on the social issues — we should BE the majority party, and I think we can regain that position which we held for so many decades.

  5. nancy debrier on

    universal health care is a priority..and raising the minimum wage. also women and racial minorities cannot be ignored. AND for those of us w kin who are learning-impaired the party must push for accessible sites and here i mean handicapped accesible; vetrans are coming back, children are still born w major physical deficits; democrats need to address these persons w modern communicative methods; and, of course, new immigrants

  6. Confurious on

    While we discuss what message to deliver to America, I am surprised that no democratic strategist had taken at least some advantage of the message confusion coming out of the Republican party. On one end are the Bush and Senate Republicans who are for illegal migrant amnesty and big oil, and on the other end are the House Republicans who are for border security and economical revival. The Republican party has turned the American Congress into the British Parliament, and where are the Democrats in this whole chaos? The Democrats are locked in the value debate, where their social and moral conscience are prohibiting the rest of their political agenda from moving forward. The Democrats have effectively become the Third Party, and former Democratic voters like myself are looking for a party to vote for. Come up with a strong message that matters, and you have our votes.


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