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.
But what can the Democrats do to attract social-issues voters? They can't sell out their constituency of gays and feminists, Newsday columnist Marie Cocco said on NPR. No, but they can tamp down the extremists like the ones who censored Casey. Maybe (gasp!) they can even allow a few antiabortion Democrats to run for an important office, rather than forcing them all to convert to pro-abortion stands as the price of getting funding and support. Republicans aren't clamoring for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudolph Giuliani to convert.
Democrats might want to tone down the contempt for evangelicals in particular and religious people in general that increasingly flows through their secular-dominated party. This is a very religious nation. If the Democrats aspire to become the majority party, why do they tolerate so much antireligious behavior and expression? They also might have a word with out-of-control adjuncts of the party like People for the American Way, whose mission is apparently to hammer away at religious conservatives, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which is always ready to descend on every 6-year-old who writes a school essay on Jesus or who says, "God bless you" after a sneeze. Do they think religious voters fail to notice?
They might also have second thoughts about the strategy of getting judges to impose solutions that they want but that the voters are unwilling to accept. It is beginning to dawn on many Democrats that John Kerry may have lost the election on Nov. 18, 2003, when Massachusetts's highest court, by a 4-to-3 vote, conjured up a right to gay marriage that nobody else had ever located anywhere in the state Constitution. In a backlash, state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage passed easily in all 11 states that had them on the ballot last week, including Ohio. Incredibly, Democratic leaders and the media didn't see this coming, though polls keep showing opposition to gay marriage of around 60 percent.
The other thing the Democrats might do is to acquire a copy of Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter With Kansas? and then ignore everything he says. Frank seems to be saying that voters are ignorant to vote on social issues. The book is an argument for a return to the same old-time liberalism that has paralyzed the Democratic Party. Frank has no understanding of why cultural issues are important to so many Americans. The fact is that the Democrats are unlikely to win the presidency again until they do something about the cultural divide.