Senator Hillary Clinton’s 10-point victory in the Pennsylvania primary reminds us that there are two Americas, even within each political party. The former First Lady won the primary on votes from senior women, blue-collar workers, regular churchgoers and the more conservative (compared to Senator Obama) small town voters. This party split is nothing new; it is a microcosm of the bigger picture. We’re all familiar with the red-state/blue-state metaphor illustrating America’s divided electorate with the red states more conservative and the blue ones more liberal.
While the image is an accurate reflection of the voting chasm today, the problem is a bit more complicated than a single gulf between the two major political parties. Recent comments on the campaign trail for the 2008 presidential election point to the red/blue differences that are readily apparent in the great divide between city and countryside — between middle America and urban America, between America’s heartland and its inner cities, as well as between college town America and small town America. The biggest gulf, though, is between the elites and church-attending rural and small town Americans.
At root, the red/blue differences are spiritual in nature.
In other words, the great gulf separating Americans into two camps is a matter of beliefs, values and attitudes. The bottom line is that there really is a culture war going on between two competing ideological perspectives. Some folks are tired of hearing about it, but heartland values and urban values are in conflict at very basic levels of beliefs and attitudes on essential policy decisions — from healthcare to gun control, from the environment to abortion, from federally-funded child care to marriage amendments.
It’s hard enough for people with heartland and urban ideologies to co-exist; when candidates embracing such disparate points of view are competing for votes in a closely contested election, close listening and discernment are especially important.
Liberals and so-called “progressives” are tired of seeing candidates with conservative and faith-based values win elections. They have been forced to come to grips with the reality of voting demographics: the decisive voting bloc these days is conservative and churchgoing believers.
So, the leftists are rhetorically appropriating conservative language in order to “sound” like the faithful, and they couch their beliefs in traditional Biblical or conservative words in order to “pass” for believers — the voting demographic that has made the difference in recent close elections. The goal for the left is to achieve a kind of “Christianity without theology,” to use a phrase from William Murchison’s recent Touchstone article. They want to “sound” religious without having to “be” religious.Another electoral approach is to claim the legitimacy of their radical “values” with a vengeance. Sure, they worship diversity, pluralism, sexual license, freedom from the boundaries of morality, disrespecting authorities, anything goes religious beliefs and practices, environmentalism, utopian schemes, globalism and urban sprawl, and, by golly, those values are “Biblical” too. In fact, to hear the “progressive” candidates’ explanations, radical values are more “Biblical” than traditional Judeo-Christian values. In short, the left wants to appear “faith-based” without becoming identified with the “religious right;” they want to appear conservative without seeming too spiritual.
Also, during this year’s primary, there’s been lots of talk about “identity politics” in both parties. Yet, what other kind of politics is there? Numerous studies show that people vote for someone they trust, and most people trust those whose beliefs square with their own. Thus, all the candidates are trying to expand their appeal to new demographic segments and bring another population group into their fold. For example, Hillary captures the older women vote, Barack claims the youth vote, and McCain has a corner on military veterans and the male vote.
There was a time when all candidates relied on appeals to the stereotypical American family — sitting on a wide front porch with a flag flying in the breeze — now, though, such families are supposed to be disappearing. Along with a smattering of those traditional small-town appeals, are now separate, specific appeals to the urban culture. According to the latest census figures, the number of Americans living in cities is increasing (226 million live in metropolitan areas and 85 million live in cities) while the number of rural dwellers is declining (four times as many people live in cities as live in the country or small towns).
I argue that the Pennsylvania primary results, perhaps, indicate that blue-state values are proving faulty. Clearly, the Pennsylvania voters chose Senator Clinton as the one they perceived to be the more conservative candidate. Some pundits attributed Senator Obama’s loss to the fallout from the controversy over his longtime pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., whose inflammatory racist and anti-American sermons caused a furor. Others cited Obama’s elitist message at a San Francisco fundraiser where he talked about small town Americans who are “bitter” and thus turn to religion, guns and national sovereignty for comfort. In comparison, pundits gave a pass to Mrs. Clinton’s lies about arriving in Bosnia amidst sniper fire.
It remains to be seen if the patterns of choosing the more conservative candidate will continue in subsequent Democratic primaries and the general election this fall. Elections are often influenced by seemingly small incidents with larger ramifications. With public figures, little things can reveal basic values and attitudes. But, in the voting booth, it is a candidate’s values that motivate a voter to trust him or her and pull the lever one direction or the other.