On the morning after the election, newspeople at cable outlets and National Public Radio launched a one-day seminar to educate themselves on the "new" and "surprising" finding that millions of Americans had actually voted on social issues. The seminar was necessary because mainstream media personnel don't spend much time or space covering these issues and don't personally know anybody willing to say they count for much. But exit polls showed that at 22 percent, "moral values" was the biggest issue on the minds of voters, and four fifths of the 22 percent had voted for Bush.
The one-day crash project in media self-education went pretty well. By nightfall, "values" seemed to be the noun uttered most frequently on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, and cable news shows blossomed with special segments on "Faith and Values" and "Moral Values."
Democrats tend to overlook or discount social issues. At a dinner party in New York a month ago, a dread moment arrived: Someone asked me to tell the whole table why I was going to vote for President Bush, which is deeply eccentric behavior in these parts. My fellow diners listened with the same polite detachment they would have shown if I were explaining that my hobby is torturing iguanas. I said the Democrats had lost me years ago on the social issues, not just because of the stances themselves but because of the coercion, intolerance, and contempt for dissenters in the party and for ordinary Americans who live in the middle of the country and thus fail to have East Coast or West Coast opinions. I said the last straw came in 1992 when the Clintonites wouldn't allow Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, a strong liberal on nearly every issue but abortion, to speak at their convention. To rub it in, hard-line feminists managed to invite a Republican speaker who was a pro-abortion opponent of Casey's.
Doors were slamming in the Democratic Party. Almost all dissent from elite opinion on social issues gradually became positioned as a human-rights violation of some kind. (On the cable shows last Wednesday, backers of traditional marriage were denounced several times as gay-bashers.) I told my dinner companions the Republican Party is a weak vessel, with lots of movers and shakers who seem to care only about greed, but now, on the broad array of social issues, it is the only game in town.