Maybe that’s because, according to the
McCain’s Only Chance: Values-plus Voters
Pundits and activists who oppose the war in
In fact, the
The McCain campaign constantly highlights its man’s most emotionally gripping experience: his years of captivity in
McCain believed in "another kind of love," the narrator explains, a love that puts the "country and her people before self." Oh, those selfish hippies, still winning votes for Republicans — or so McCain’s strategists hope.
Obama agrees that the symbolic meanings of
Obama is right — sort of. The so-called culture wars have shifted away from social issues to war, terrorism, and national security. The number of potential voters who rate abortion or gay rights as their top priority now rarely exceeds 5%; in some polls it falls close to zero. Meanwhile, Republicans are nine times as likely as Democrats, and far more likely than independents, to put terrorism at or near the top of their most-important list. And Republican voters are much more likely to agree with McCain that
Sociologists tell us, however, that the "culture wars" so assiduously promoted by conservatives are mostly smoke and mirrors. Despite what media pundits may say, the public is not divided into two monolithic values camps. Voters are much less predictable than that. And few let values issues trump their more immediate problems — especially economic ones — when they step into the voting booth. The almighty power of the monolithic "values voters" is largely a myth invented by the media.
Yet, the "culture war" story does impact not only debates about the war in
So just how much of a chance does he really have? At this point, only two-thirds of those who say they trust him most on
The crucial voters are the 10% to 20% who want troops out of
McCain can swing the election if his campaign can only convince enough of them to vote with their hearts, or their guts, for the "experienced" Vietnam war hero, the symbol of the never-ending crusade against "Sixties values." So he and his handlers naturally want to turn the campaign into a simple moral drama: Sixties values — or the nation’s security and your own? Take your pick.
Obama’s American Values
Could that "values" script get a Republican elected, despite the terrible damage the Republicans have done — and for which voters blame them — in the last eight years? Many Democrats apparently think it might. They’re afraid, says Senator Russ Feingold, that "the Republicans will tear you apart" if you look too weak and soft. That’s why the Democratic Congress, weakly and softly, continues to give the Bush administration nearly everything it wants when it comes to funding the war in
The Obama campaign recognizes the larger "values" frame at work here. Look at the commercial its operatives made to kick off the general election campaign. In it, Obama says not a word about issues. He starts off by announcing: "
And the "strong values" the commercial touts are not the ones that won him the nomination either. Not by a long shot. You’ll find nothing about "change" or "hope" there. It’s all about holding fast to the past. Nor is there a thing about communities uniting to help the neediest. America’s "strong values" — "straight from the Kansas heartland" — are "accountability and self-reliance… Working hard without making excuses." You’re on your own. It’s all individualism all the time.
Sandwiched between self-reliance and hard work is the only community value that apparently does count: "love of country."
Obama’s second ad (which Newsweek described as "largely a 30-second version" of the first) features images of the candidate warmly engaging hard-hatted and hair-netted workers, all of them with middle-aged wrinkles, blue collars, and white skins. Both commercials ran in seven traditionally Republican states as well as 11 swing states. As they were released, Obama gave major speeches supporting patriotism and faith-based initiatives.
As Republican consultant Alex Castellanos put it, the Obama campaign made "an aggressive leap across the 50-yard line to play on Republican turf." Before they sent their man around the world to focus on war and foreign policy, to meet the troops in Afghanistan and General Petraeus in Baghdad, they felt they had to assure the "Kansas heartland" that he shares true American values.
And Obama’s message-makers know where that mythical "heartland" really lies: not in Kansas, Dorothy, but on a yellow brick road to an imagined past. The America conjured up in his commercials is a Norman Rockwell fiction that millions still wish they could live in because they feel embittered (as Obama so infamously said) by a world that seems out of control. They prefer a fantasy version of a past America where so many, who now feel powerless, imagine they might actually have been able to shape their own destinies.
Perhaps the frustrated do cling to "guns or religion or antipathy to people who are not like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment," as Obama suggested. But his ad-smiths know that they cling far more to illusions of a secure past, when (they imagine) everyone could count on clear, inviolable boundary lines — between races and genders, between competitive individuals in the marketplace, between the virtuous self and the temptations of the flesh, between the U.S. and other nations, between civilization and the enemies who would destroy it.
All of these boundaries point to the most basic one of all: the moral boundary between good and evil. McCain and Obama are both wooing the millions who imagine an absolute chasm between good and evil, know just where the good is (always "made in America"), and want a president who will stand against evil no matter what the cost. They want, in short, a world where everyone knows their place and keeps to it, and where wars, if they must be fought, can still be "good" and Americans can still win every time.
The Republicans have a code word for that illusory past: "experience." Their "Sixties versus security" script offers a stark choice: The candidate who clearly symbolizes the crossing of boundaries, most notably the American racial line, versus the candidate whose "experience" and mythic life story are built on the same mantra as his Iraq policy: "No surrender."
The McCain campaign is not about policies that can ensure national security by reaching out and making new friends. It’s about a man who can offer a feeling of psychological security by standing firm against old and new enemies.
The Media’s "Ordinary American"
Who would choose psychological security over real security? The mainstream media have an answer: "the ordinary American." Now that the "values voter" of the 2004 election has largely disappeared, the media have come up with this new character as the mythic hero for their election-year story.
It began, of course, with Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign comeback — portrayed as a revolt of those "ordinary people," who might once have been Reagan Democrats (and might soon become McCain Democrats), against the "elitists" — or so the media story went. Her famous "phone call at 3 AM" ad suggested that "ordinary people" value a president tough enough to protect their children. As her husband once put it: "When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right."
Now the "elitist" Obama still has a "potentially critical vulnerability," according to the Washington Post’s veteran political reporter Dan Balz: "Voters do not know whether he shares the values and beliefs of ordinary Americans."
Balz’s colleague, Post media critic Howard Kurtz, called the second Obama commercial a "White Working-Class Pitch" designed to show that Obama is "on the side of average workers." The New York Times’s Jeff Zeleny echoed that view: "One of his most pressing challenges is to assure voters that he is one of them."
The centrist and even liberal media are as busy as conservatives propagating the idea that, to be one of the average, ordinary Americans, you have to prize (white) working-class values considered "Republican turf" since the late 1960s: individualism, self-reliance, hard work for "modest" (which means stagnant or falling) wages, faith, and a patriotism so strong that it will never surrender.
The American Everyman, the hero of this year’s media story, is an underpaid worker who may very well vote Republican against his or her own economic interests, and all too often against the interests of loved ones who hope to come home alive from Iraq or Afghanistan.
What about all those Democrats who voted for Obama because he offered a vision of a new politics, a way out of Iraq, and a new path for the United States? What about all those who earn too much or too little, or have too much or too little education, or the wrong skin color, to be part of the white working class? Evidently, they are all extra-ordinary Americans; "outside the mainstream," as media analysts sometimes put it. They may represent a majority of the voters, but they just don’t count the same way. They don’t fit this year’s plot line.
Of course it may turn out that the old melodrama of an "experienced" Vietnam hero against the "summer of love" no longer draws much of an audience, even with both campaigns and the mainstream media so focused on it. No matter how things turn out on Election Day, however, it’s beginning to look like the big winner will — yet again — be the conservative "culture war" narrative that has dominated our political discourse, in one form or another, for four decades now. With Obama and both Clintons endorsing it, who will stand against it?
For the foreseeable future, debates about cultural values are going to be played out fiercely on the symbolic terrain of war and national security issues. The all-too-real battlefields abroad will remain obscured by the cultural battlefields at home and by the those timeless "ordinary American values" embedded in the public’s imagination. It’s all too powerful a myth — and too good an election story — to go away anytime soon.
Creating New Stories
Yet there is no law of nature that says the "ordinary American," white working class or otherwise, must value individualism, self-reliance, patriotism, and war heroics while treating any value ever associated with the 1960s as part of the primrose path to social chaos. In reality, of course, the "ordinary American" is a creature of shifting historical-cultural currents, constantly being re-invented.
But the 1960s does indeed remain a pivotal era — not least because that is when liberal, antiwar America largely did stop caring much about the concerns and values of working-class whites. Those workers were treated as an inscrutable oddity at best, an enemy at worst. Liberals didn’t think about alternative narratives of America that could be meaningful across the political board. Now, they reap the harvest of their neglect.
It does no good to complain about "spineless Democrats" who won’t risk their political careers by casting courageous votes against war. Their job is to win elections. And you go to political war with the voters you have. If too many of the voters are still trapped in simplistic caricatures of patriotism and national security created 40 years ago — or if you fear they are — that’s because no one has offered them an appealing alternative narrative that meets their cultural needs.
It does no good to complain that such working-class views are illogical or stupid or self-destructive. As long as progressives continue to treat "ordinary Americans" as stupid and irrelevant, progressives will find themselves largely irrelevant in U.S. politics. And that’s stupid, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
What can be done to change this picture? Facts and logic are rarely enough, in themselves, to persuade people to give up the values narratives that have framed their lives. They’ll abandon one narrative only when another comes along that is more satisfying.
Democrats started looking for a new narrative after the 2004 election, when the media told them that "values voters" ruled the roost and cared most about religious faith. The result? Democrats, some of them quite progressive, are creating effective faith-oriented frames for their political messages.
No matter who wins this year’s election, the prevalence of the "ordinary American" voter story should be a useful wakeup call: It’s time to do something similar on a much broader scale. This election year offers an invaluable opportunity to begin to grasp some of the complexities of culturally conservative Americans. Equipped with a deeper understanding, progressives can frame their programs of economic justice and cultural diversity within new narratives about security, patriotism, heroism, and other traditionally American values.
That will take some effort. But it will take a lot more effort to stave off the next Republican victory — or the next war — if the project of creating new, more broadly appealing narratives continues to be ignored.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition covering Iraq, and editor and contributor to the first best of Tomdispatch book, The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso).]