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Red State, Blue State, Old State, New State Part 1: Voting Values

Four Presidents (Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon) ...

Four Presidents (Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon) toasting in the White House Blue Room prior to leaving for Egypt and President Anwar Sadat’s Funeral, October, 1981. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

Conventional wisdom says that journalists write the first draft of history. As I am fond of telling apprentice writers, however, “First drafts suck.”

In the month since Black Tuesday, the national press — assisted by polls and pundits of various stripe — have reached consensus on the meaning of the election. The Republicans won because they represent “moral values.” As bentright firebreather Richard Viguerie gloated, the Democrats are living in a “self-created hell” because they abandoned orthodox religion in favor of this newfangled science and secularism.

As noted in the last column, we all voted our values on November 2 — even most of those who didn’t vote. The press has been hypnotized by the 22% who claimed they voted Republican on the basis of “moral values,” one of seven choices on an exit poll that included other issues like the war and the economy. Since one obviously could not go GOP for either of those reasons — or for health care or the environment — “moral values” was the default, with the advantage of meaning anything one wanted it to. In fact, according to another poll by the Pew Memorial Trust, a mere 9% of voters link values to this year’s hot buttons — abortion and homosexuality. Furthermore, as the British magazine The Economist pointed out, that 22% represents a drop from previous elections; in 2000, 35% cited morality as their raison de choisir — in 1996, the year Clinton bombed Bob Dole, 40%.

Let’s be blunt: liberals, progressives, and conscientious centrists have no reason to cower before all this wingnut pulpit-pounding over values. It could be argued — indeed, will be hereafter — that the left half of the political spectrum not only possesses good values but better ones.

In reality, what we see in 2004 is the culmination of a historical battle over social morality kicked off exactly forty years ago, when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, our last genuine Texan in the White House, pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress and signed it into law. It was absolutely the moral thing to do. After 200 years of slavery and 100 of legal apartheid, after decades of injustice, lynchings, mutilations, and oppression that gave the lie to our republic’s stated principles, after years of civil rights agitation that drew brutal and often fatal responses from the Klan, the Southern Old Guard, and other institutions of white racism, the nation began to amend a shameful, violent, and frankly immoral legacy — one, incidentally, that had been justified with Scripture throughout the so-called Bible Belt.

It is now oft recounted that Johnson’s words at that time were, “Well, the Democrats have just lost the South.” Indeed, during his landslide victory that year over Barry Goldwater — who attacked civil rights legislation on the old Confederate pretext of “states’ rights” — the Republicans won only their candidate’s own Arizona and five Southern states. The GOP took note, and the “Southern Strategy” was born. Subtly under Nixon and more overtly under Reagan, Republicans played the race card time and time again, whether attacking welfare, crime, voting rights, or — the one race-friendly program Nixon approved — affirmative action. Over the course of the 1980s, the party of Lincoln evolved into the party of Jefferson Davis. The process was concluded during the last decade under Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove; significantly, Republicans swept Georgia in 2002 by running literally under the banner of the Confederate flag. Unconfirmed reports from the Lincoln Memorial allege that the statue wept.

Some strategists of Democratic persuasion, like New Republic-an Jonathan Chait, have urged sidelining blue state politicos like Kerry, Dean, and Hillary in favor of someone more — well — southern, a candidate with an indisputable claim to traditional religious and moral values. In that case, the most obvious choice is past president Jimmy Carter, hands down the most moral president of the last half century and one still constitutionally capable of serving another term.

During his presidency, it was widely known that Carter faithfully attended his Baptist church. To the best of his ability he applied his religious values to his administration. For example, in contrast to the ethically relativistic Realpolitik of his Nixonian predecessors, Carter preached adherence to universal human rights both among our “enemies” — such as Russia and China — and our “friends” like Pinochet’s Chile, Somoza’s Nicaragua and the Shah’s Iran. He tried to spread the wealth in difficult economic times, and his was the only presidency of the past half century that did not go to war.

After one term Americans punished Carter with a crushing defeat in favor of Ronald Reagan, who could act religious. Carter has been an exemplary ex-president by continuing to live out his values: helping the less fortunate through such missions as Habitats for Humanity and earning a well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize as an international negotiator. Speaking on Al Franken’s Air America radio show this November, Carter defined the distinction between his evangelism and the fundamentalism in ascendance today: the humble believer carries his thoughts to God; the Elect believes that he thinks for God.

The latter is not morality. It is blasphemy.

In spirit, liberal values have more in common with the Gospel than anything we hear from the Right. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” pleads tolerance and egalitarianism. “Love your neighbor as yourself” includes neighbors of different background and sexual preference. “Even as you have done this for the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me” preaches unconditional charity to the poor and sick. “You who are without sin cast the first stone” argues for awareness of human frailty and forgiveness. If Christ made that pronouncement at a Focus on Family forum today, he would have to duck.

If morality means nothing more than an uncompromising belief in God, then the most moral people on earth are the Taliban. For our home-grown Talibangelists, it seems perfectly all right to be an asshole — as long as you don’t touch one.

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