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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Over-Reaction to the Over-Reaction

One of the things that makes me crazy about the chattering classes of Washington is the dialectical interaction that invariably takes place after every major election. Somebody writes a column that focuses on a particular interpretive factor. Seven other people write columns pointing bright red arrows to this analysis, and hailing it as The Final Word. Then still seven more people write columns “debunking” the Final Word, and before long, the Final Word is not only inaccurate, but totally, absolutely wrong, and worthy of deep contempt.
A case in point is the question of the impact of “moral values” on the 2004 elections, and the broader issue of the cultural divide between “red” and “blue” America.
No doubt about it, some analysts over-emphasized the “moral values” question on the Edison exit polls as an interpretation of the presidential outcome, but only to the extent that they claimed it was a bigger factor than in 2000. It was, however, a very big factor in 2000. And those who denigrated the impact of “moral values” in order to stress the importance of the national security issue undoubtedly ignored the extent to which security itself is a moral, cultural issue to many voters.
All this back and forth is probably useful, but at this particular moment, the over-reaction to the over-reaction to “moral values” is getting a little out of hand.
While home this weekend in Amherst County, Virginia, I was driving down to the local dump with a big load of flotsam and jetsam when I heard through the mountain static snatches of an NPR show in which host and guest were hurling brickbats at anybody who thought there was such a thing as a cultural divide in this country. The whole “red state, blue state” thing was an hysterical construct by East Coast naifs who had never really visited “flyover” country, they avidly agreed. I got the sense the idea these guys had of “red America” was from visiting places like, say, Big Sky ski resort or Austin, Texas, but the real irony is that they were replacing one hysterical East Coast oversimplification with another.
Splitting my time as I do between DC and Central Virginia, supplementing a resolutely red-state background of four decades in and around Georgia, I think anybody who denies the cultural divides that undergird contemporary politics is nuts.
Amherst County is a poor, nonindustrial, and in many ways feudal community, where most po’ white folks vote Republican. And the big conflicts here are not between rich and poor, or black or white, but between “been heres” and “come heres.” There’s a local guy we’ve hired to do some odd jobs that my wife and I are not around to do; he likes us, and is happy for the work, and he and I share a beer now and then and talk about most everything. But he knows we are Democrats, and made a big point of telling us that he and his wife had gotten up with the roosters to go vote for George Bush and cancel our votes. That theirs was a “cultural” vote, in part in friendly but proud opposition to “come heres” like us, is pretty clear.
This is hardly a unusual situation. Back in Georgia twenty years ago, I used to do community development work up in the mountains of North Georgia, and just about everything revolved around conflicts between the locals and the “Florida People,” the term for second-stage retirees who had moved there in pursuit of high vistas and low taxes.
And as I often remind those “economic populists” who are horrified at cultural conservatism as representing some sort of repressed class conflict that leads to the “false consciousness” of Republican voting behavior: culture, region, ethnicity, religion, and group reaction to big traumatic events like the Civil War have always had a bigger impact on partisan identification in this country than economic class. It didn’t first appear in 2000, and whether or not it increased or decreased in 2004, it’s there, and it cannot be wished away.

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