Was it about the gays?

In the wake of President George Bush’s decisive victory in the US presidential elections, and a clean sweep by Republicans in the senate and house elections, many commentators are pointing to “values” and gay marriage as the clincher in these victories.

In a round up of press reports the BBC highlighted the following comments:

In the Washington Post, John Harris wrote: “George W Bush’s presidency – its governance and its politics – was organised from the outset with an unwavering eye on keeping the conservative base of the Republican Party intact, energised and loyal.”

And exit polls showed that morality and values were the issues motivating President Bush’s core conservative supporters.

“This was not about a difference of policies but a difference over values,” said David Gergen on CNN.

And he said that disagreement on social issues such as gay marriage might lead to division in the country and a sense of alienation for John Kerry’s supporters.

For Democrats, “there will be a sense of isolation from the majority. A feeling of ‘is this the country that we thought it was’?” Mr Gergen said.

Lisa Keen on gay.com points to interesting poll data (unsourced):

In a result that surprised many, more voters identified “moral issues” as their “most important issue” than any other issue. Twenty-two percent of voters said moral issues were their most important issue, compared to 20 percent for the “economy/jobs,” 19 percent for “terrorism,” 15 percent for “Iraq,” 8 percent for “health care,” 5 percent “taxes,” and 4 percent “education.”

However I also remember reading another comment (somewhere now lost in the blur of election web surfing) that exit poll data was markedly different in different parts of the country, indicating a divide between those voting on moral issues and those voting on Iraq.

Keen also points to the comments of Gergen and other talking heads:

Political commentator David Gergen, who worked for both President Reagan and President Clinton, suggested that sentiment against gay marriage was “underneath” the numbers. Political talk show host Larry King said he thought gay marriage was illustrative of a “large cultural division” among voters.

“God, guns and gays,” said CNN “Crossfire” co-host Paul Begala, in summing up voter sentiment. Begala and the program’s other liberal representative, James Carville, both seemed to concede that the Democratic Party’s open support for equal rights for gay people cost it a significant number of votes.

Michael Tackett of the Chicago Tribune also sees moral values as key and points to the unique commbination that he thinks got Bush back:

President Bush put together his winning coalition by tapping into the emerging strength of moral issues as political decision points, the surprising electoral potency of rural America and just enough women who put a premium on security.

That combination was so strong that it overrode deep dismay over the war in Iraq and the direction of the economy. And it put the president in office for another four years.

US Blogger Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) is even more blunt in his Guardian column

So how did Bush even get this far? By demonising an entire group of people — gays and lesbians. By cynical appeals to religion. By slandering a true war hero. And, most importantly, by scaring people. You see, terrorists would detonate a nuclear bomb in a major city if Kerry were elected. Only Bush can protect us.

And those efforts, as I have written before, were all aided and abetted by a well-oiled message machine the likes of which the American left is still unable to match.

But Moulitsas sees a ray hope in the darkness. He believes the Bush victory will galvanise a new era of progressive activism:

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but one that should hopefully lead to a brighter future. Bush owns his messes, and now he’ll be forced to clean them up. He won’t be able to hide behind 9/11 seven years into his term. Unless the Republicans can engineer a recovery of epic proportions, they will have a great deal to answer to in the 2006 midterms and 2008. And God help Bush if this nation suffers another terrorist attack.

But best of all, we’ll continue to see this great resurgence in progressive activism – the kind not seen in American politics in over a generation. None of these new activists heeded the call to arms only to abandon the fight today. We are energised, and will continue to fight for a better future for our country.

The big money donors on the left have woken up to their responsibilities, and are working to match the $500m the right pumps into their machine each year. The blogs will continue to grow, as will our new radio personalities. The seeds of a genuinely liberal media have been planted and will continue to bear fruit. Our newly minted thinktanks will work to match the right’s successful efforts in defining the political lexicon – death tax, tax relief, compassionate conservatism. And activists will be better trained to carry the fight into the field.

Obviously the passing of constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in 11 states is indicative of this cultural divide in the US. However this needs to be seen in a broader context. Mark Foreman from the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force points to some positive elements of the voting pattern.

First the campaign in Oregon – the state which had the most well funded and co-ordinated anti-amendment education campaign managed to close the gap significantly:

Oregon – the only state that had anything close to the amount of money needed to run a competitive race – came closest to defeating its amendment. When the Oregon campaign started, polls said the amendment would carry by 27 points, meaning that the effort to defeat the amendment moved the electorate by 17 points in less than three months. It was the only campaign to show a significant movement in the electorate during the course of the campaign….

“The Oregon results clearly show that we can move hearts and votes when we have the resources to reach voters and speak to them directly about marriage and why it matters to gay people,” said Foreman.

Second the comparative figures between the presidential vote and the amendment vote in some states don’t bear out the contention that gay issues were necessarily uppermost in voters minds:

Karl Rove, the President’s chief political adviser, hoped to use same sex marriage to energize and turn out evangelicals to vote for the President’s re-election. He believed that at least 4 million evangelicals sat out the 2000 race. Returns do not indicate this strategy worked in the three battleground states where anti-gay marriage amendments were on the ballot. For example, Sen. Kerry carried Oregon by a wider margin than Vice President Gore in 2000. In Michigan, Sen. Kerry received the same percent of the vote (51%) as Vice President Gore and increased the number of votes in the Democratic column by 227, 422. Finally, in Ohio, Sen. Kerry won at least 49% of the vote (Gore won 46%) and 199,435 more voters cast a vote in the presidential race than on the marriage amendment, indicating that the presidential race – not the marriage amendment – was the pull to the polls.

One of the clearest analyses of the values issue and the role of homophobia in the election comes from Jeff Sharlett at The Revealer a website devoted to religion and the media. He points out that the amendments were more a political strategy “designed by GOP strategists to drive otherwise lazy, Republican-leaning voters to the polls.” He goes onto suggest, from his own experience as well as sociological data, that an abstract homophobia might be an underlying core value driving American belief. His piece is worth quoting at length:

In 2002 and 2003, my friend Peter Manseau and I spent about a year traveling the United States, reporting a book called Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, a sort of spiritual geography of the nation. When we published the book earlier this year, interviewers asked us time and again: What’s the common denominator of American faith? What is it that most of us share?

We lied every time. We offered up sincere but misleading tributes to freedom of speech as the American devotion. We avoided the answer that had made itself as plain as the two-lane roads we drove on: The greatest common denominator of American belief is anti-homosexuality.

In Alan Wolfe’s sociological survey, One Nation, After All, he writes that he discovered that most middle-class Americans are free of overt bigotries — except homophobia. The exception to the rule of tolerance in American life, he argues, is the widespread belief that homosexuality is just not ok. Really not ok; whereas most Americans practice a nonjudgmental pragmatism with regard to others, homosexuality comes in for special condemnation.

Wolfe found this common thread through careful sociological analysis. My co-author and I tripped over it without even looking. In the strong majority of hundreds of interviews we conducted, believers of nearly every variety volunteered their opposition to homosexuality. I’m talking not only about Christian conservatives, although it’s worth remembering that that designation applies to the majority of Americans. We also heard about how wrong homosexuality is from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, New Agers, Santeria practitioners, even Wiccans.

Most of these people are surprisingly abstract in their thinking. There may be a certain disingenuousness to the popular anti-homosexuality mantra, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” but nearly everyone we met really did distinguish their hatred of homosexuality from their dealings with homosexuals….

It’s neither simple nor shallow. My travels — and this election — suggest to me that it is deep, profound, and made up of many meanings, spiritual, physiological, political, metaphorical.

And it’s crucial to understanding the passion for “morality” that become this election’s X-factor…There must be more to it than can be explained, or justified, by the vast, empty term “values.”