Amid the left’s general dismay, a major anniversary just came and went without much notice. Thirty-five years ago last week Richard Nixon delivered his famous “Silent Majority” speech. In deep doo-doo after the biggest anti-war march in American history—a march in which middle-class squares far outnumbered wild-eyed hippies—Nixon went on TV before the largest audience ever for a presidential address. A treacherous minority wanted to get out of Vietnam at any cost, he explained (he mentioned a protest sign he saw in, of course, San Francisco: “Lose in Vietnam, Bring the Boys Home”). But the “great silent majority” knew better: that “the minority who hold that point of view and try to impose it on the nation by mounting demonstrations in the street” were not really moral.
We have “values,” they do not: The message was Nixon’s most enduring contribution to Republican politicking.
Something else happened that week. Telegrams of approval poured into the White House, glowing letters to the editor appeared in newspapers across the nation. Nixon proudly displayed them to reporters, who duly reported a grassroots outpouring of support for the president.
Only later, during the Watergate investigations, was it revealed that the White House ran a sophisticated operation to produce fake telegrams and letters to the editor after major presidential addresses. That’s the difference between then and now. Now, the media tell the stories the White House needs told without any external prompting.
The idea that last week’s election results show that there is a great silent majority of Americans who vote first and foremost on their moral values, which means that they vote for the Republicans, has become gospel on our nation’s airwaves by now. It is nonsense on stilts. Bush didn’t win this election on “moral values.” It turns out he didn’t do any better among strong churchgoers, or rural voters, than he did in 2000. What was it that actually put him over the top? It’s the wealth, stupid.
Pundits blow hot air. Political scientists crunch numbers. On his blog Polysigh, my favorite political scientist, Phil Klinkner, ran a simple exercise. Multiplying the turnout among a certain group by the percent who went for Bush yields a number electoral statisticians call “performance.” Among heavy churchgoers, Bush’s performance last time was 25 percent (turnout, 42 percent; percentage of vote, 59 percent). This time out it was also 25 percent—no change. Slightly lower turnout (41 percent), slightly higher rate of vote (61 percent).
Where did the lion’s share of the extra votes come from that gave George Bush his mighty, mighty mandate of 51 percent? “Two of those points,” Klinkner said when reached by phone, “came solely from people making over a 100 grand.” The people who won the election for him—his only significant improvement over his performance four years ago—were rich people, voting for more right-wing class warfare.
Their portion of the electorate went from 15 percent in 2000 to 18 percent this year. Support for Bush among them went from 54 percent to 58 percent. “It made me think about that scene in Fahrenheit 9/11,” says Klinkner, the one where Bush joked at a white-tie gala about the “haves” and the “have-mores”: “Some people call you the elite,” Bush said. “I call you my base.”
So they proved to be. The two issues he mentioned in his post-election press conference had nothing to do with succoring God-fearing folk; instead he mentioned only “reforming” the tax code, and “strengthening” Social Security—issues of particular concern for the haves and the have-mores.
What about gay marriage? Even here the results prove inconclusive. The Diebolds had hardly cooled before Clinton operatives leaked to Newsweek that if only the Democratic campaign had listened to the 42nd president—who urged Kerry to come out in favor of the 11 state anti-gay-marriage initiatives—the Democrats would have won. Tina Brown contributed the thought the morning after the election that advances in gay rights were “the trade-off for 45 million Americans without health care.” But Klinkner ran a regression analysis comparing his 2000 and 2004 totals by state, and it suggested that though the measures didn’t hurt Bush, they didn’t help him either. “If anything,” he writes, “Bush’s vote was a bit lower than expected in states that did have such a measure on the ballot.”
This is not what your TV has told you. Instead, the pundits have been plumping the exit poll finding that when voters were asked what issue they voted on, the biggest plurality cited “moral values.” So it was you got former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers confidently opining on MSNBC Wednesday night that for “most of the last 100 years, politics has been defined by economic interests. . . . That’s no longer true.”
Her mistake testifies to a truth: the truth of the dazzling skill of the Republican attack machine in getting its cockeyed view of the world—the Nixon “silent majority” view—accepted as common sense. In this view, values, by definition, are what Republicans have, and what Democrats most certainly do not.
How did the “people voted for the Republicans because of moral values” meme become the gospel truth about this election? The exit poll question, after all, signifies little: If a pollster went up to you and asked what was more important, your moral values or your economic well-being, what kind of cad would you be to tell a stranger that money meant more to you than morals?
All that the message about “moral values” dominating the proceedings last Tuesday means is that the Republicans have succeeded in their decades-long campaign to get what should plainly be called “conservative ideology” replaced, in our political language, by this word “morality.” They have reworked the political calculus so thoroughly that liberal definitions of what is or isn’t a moral value don’t count. It’s as if liberals didn’t have any morality at all.
It’s amazing how many people Republicans have been able to punk with this. Even Senator Charles Schumer, appearing Wednesday night on The Daily Show, said that Republicans won on “these values issues.”
Hey, Chuck: Don’t fall for their crap, it only encourages them. You have values too.
Around the time of the Democratic convention, John Kerry began making that very point. Using the word “values” more and more often, he argued (if obliquely) that morality did not come down merely to who you slept with, how often you mention God, or whether you oppose abortion and support any war the president decides to prosecute; that values also reside in being straight with the American people, in fighting for economic justice (“Faith without works is dead,” he said in the third debate, quoting James 2:20), in tolerance, in running the government transparently.
He must have been making headway, because that language became the occasion for a new presidential lie. “He calls himself the candidate of conservative values,” Bush would mock incredulously on the stump in one of his biggest applause lines. That Kerry had never said anything of the kind hardly mattered: All he had said was that he was a candidate with values. But the media bought George Bush’s version, which is that any values worthy of the name are conservative.
The die was cast. The Election Day reality was ready to get buried: that indeed many people would be voting for George Bush because they believed he shared their values, but that many people, too, would be voting for John Kerry because they believed he shared their values.
And that many people, too, would be voting for George Bush because they liked the fact that he lined their pockets, and that they were the ones who made up the crucial margin on Election Day.