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An Argument Against Conservative Complacency By: Leonard Steinhorn
History News Network | Thursday, November 11, 2004


In these post-election days my e-mail in-box is full of despair. Friends, former college classmates, and countless Baby Boom peers all seem to be asking the same plaintive question: "Are we out of synch with the country, are we outside the mainstream?"

The e-mails are from a dry cleaner in upstate New York and a suburban mom who works part-time and a high-tech wizard in the Pacific Northwest and from Boomer liberals generally chilled by polls showing that moral values motivated more American voters -- one in five -- than any other issue, and by a media spin suggesting that real Americans can be found only in socially conservative pews. "Ordinary people, the people in the red states," is how the conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg frames it, and a cowed mainstream press seems to be accommodating that view.

But rather than join in the gloom and hand-wringing, my response is to take a deep breath and read the election results more carefully. For what they reveal is a mainstream America far different from what the emerging conventional wisdom about this election is making it out to be. Social conservatives no more represent the mainstream today than Prohibitionists did in the Twenties, and we must be careful not to confuse ballot-box victories with cultural trends.

Perhaps most telling is how the election would look if the thirteen states of the solid red South were separated from the overall vote totals. These states represent only 30 percent of the population and 168 of the 538 electors, but they flexed their Bible Belt muscle and voted as a George Bush bloc, giving him a 5.75 million vote margin over John Kerry, with nine of the states going for Bush by at least 15 percentage points. Yet the president's overall margin in the election was 3.5 million votes, which means the rest of the country -- representing 70 percent of the population -- gave Senator Kerry a 2.25 million vote margin and an electoral vote edge of 252 to 118.

Socially conservative white Southerners may be a knotty problem for the Democrats, but despite their power as a voting bloc and ability to impose their political will on the nation, it is they who stand outside America's emerging mainstream. They may call themselves "ordinary Americans" and go regularly to church, but that doesn't mean they're any more ordinary or moral than my e-mail correspondents and the majority of Americans who live in diverse metropolitan areas and subscribe to the national norms of tolerance, inclusion, social equality, and personal freedom. Indeed when it comes to accepting these cultural norms, the white South has for years been behind the rest of America, stubbornly so.

Of course, some pundits may argue that the momentum is on the side of these socially conservative Americans, but again the trends say otherwise. In fact the illusion of a growing social conservatism has much to do with the fact that the pre-Baby Boom generation of more traditional Americans are living much longer lives and voting in very large numbers. Once younger voters begin to replace them, the socially conservative vote will dwindle.

This is borne out by survey research conducted in recent years, much of it done by the University of Chicago's well-respected National Opinion Research Center (NORC). According to my cohort analysis of their on-line data, the generation gap in social attitudes is compelling and wide, with older Americans steadfastly conservative and younger Americans the opposite.

Consider the divide on sex roles and sexuality. When asked during the 1990s whether it was better for men to work and women to tend home, 60 percent of those born before 1943 said yes, while nearly three-fourths of those born afterwards said no. Young and old are united in support of strong families, but from Boomers on down it's equality in a family that makes it strong. When asked about cohabitation and sex before marriage, few in the older group called it acceptable while most in the younger cohorts seemed unfazed. For tomorrow's voters, personal freedom and gender equality are essential values.

You see a similar divide over racial inclusion and diversity. A solid majority of whites born before 1943 oppose a close relative marrying a black, but barely a quarter of whites born afterward feel the same way. Two-thirds of the older group say that blacks shouldn't push themselves where they're not wanted, a view rejected by everyone else.

On today's hot button issue, homosexuality, again the generation gap is decisive. One 2002 poll commissioned by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found all age groups but one, pre-Boomers, saying that society should recognize homosexuality as an acceptable way of life. Keeping gay teachers out of classrooms barely registers as an issue today, quite unlike the 1977 anti-gay fury to "Save Our Children" led by singer Anita Bryant. Even in this supposedly conservative political year, exit polls found three in five voters supporting marriage or civil unions for gays.

Then there are Catholics, considered the most socially traditional of religious groups and in the news this year because the hierarchy disapproved of John Kerry's support for abortion rights. But again the stereotype misleads. Among Boomer and younger Catholics, NORC finds that only 27 percent label themselves traditional, compared to 44 percent among pre-Boomers, and religious liberals now exceed traditionalists in this younger cohort. Most Catholics now reject if not resent church dogma restricting social tolerance and personal freedom. Recent surveys by the New York Times and Newsweek show large majorities favoring married priests, female priests, gay adoptions, and birth control -- and barely a third want abortion outlawed, no different from the rest of America.

Moreover, all the talk about the faith vote may mask the fact that younger Americans are simply less traditionally religious than their elders. According to NORC's 2000 General Social Survey, among Americans born from 1943 onwards, only two in ten attend religious services once a week or more while six in ten attend just a few times a year or less, if at all. That's almost the opposite of older Americans, 55 percent of whom attend once a month or more and 36 percent of whom attend once a week or more.

In fact the fastest growing group of religious Americans are those who claim no religious identity at all, with their number now almost equaling the number who call themselves Baptists, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. A generation ago, most Americans believed in moral absolutes, biblical truth, and the authority of their religious leaders, but today, the vast majority say that morality is a personal matter. And nowadays about 20 million Americans attend yoga classes, which approaches the combined number of Boomers and younger adults who go to church at least once a week, a sign that spirituality rather than religiosity may be the key to these younger generations.

So what we have today is an emerging pluralistic majority, a mainstream that may be somewhat religious but not moralistic, a sensibility more cosmopolitan than small-town, a culture whose norms are defined by tolerance, inclusion, social equality, individual choice, and personal freedom. This emerging mainstream certainly has a reason to recoil from these election results and to worry that the courts will encode the moral values of old for years to come. But in time this election may be seen not as the wave of the future but as the last gasp of the cultural past.

For Democrats, patience may well be a virtue, which means they should avoid offering a me-too moralism and instead articulate with passion and vigor the hopes and values of the new America. The very fact that one-fifth of voters cited moral values means that four-fifths didn't, and amid all the talk about faith voters, let us not forget that the primary reason President Bush won is that he quite successfully turned the election into a referendum on leadership qualities for the war on terror, and in the process subsumed all other issues.

For Republicans, they may have won a battle, but by hitching their party's identity to evangelical conservatives, they may be fomenting a culture war the party cannot win particularly when the silent majority of younger Americans sees its personal choices and liberties circumscribed by an overreaching right. With the socially conservative vote the GOP got what it wished for this year, but in the long run that may be its undoing.


Leonard Steinhorn teaches politics and media at American University, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, to published by St. Martin's Press in 2005. He is a member of the board of directors of the History News Network.


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