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War Meets Values on Campaign Trail

Will the Big Winner of 2008 Once Again Be a Conservative Culture-Wars Narrative?

by Ira Chernus

While the Iraq war has largely faded from our TV screens, some 85% of all voters still call it an important issue. Most of them want U.S. troops home from Iraq within a couple of years, many of them far sooner. They support Barack Obama's position, not John McCain's. Yet when the polls ask which candidate voters trust more on the war, McCain wins almost every time.

Maybe that's because, according to the Pew Center for the People and the Press, nearly 40% of the public doesn't know McCain's position on troop withdrawal. In a June Washington Post/ABC poll, the same percentage weren't sure he had a clear position. When that poll told voters that McCain opposed a timetable for withdrawal, support for his view actually shot up dramatically. It looks like a significant chunk of the electorate cares more about the man than the issue. Newer polls suggest that McCain's arguments against a timetable may, in fact, be shifting public opinion his way.

McCain's Only Chance: Values-plus Voters

Pundits and activists who oppose the war in Iraq generally assume that the issue has to work against McCain because they treat American politics as if it were a college classroom full of rational truth-seekers. The reality is much more like a theatrical spectacle. Symbolism and the emotion it evokes -- not facts and logic -- rule the day.

In fact, the Pew Center survey found that only about a quarter of those who say they'll vote for McCain base their choice on issues at all. What appeals to them above all, his supporters say, is his "experience," a word that can conveniently mean many things to many people.

The McCain campaign constantly highlights its man's most emotionally gripping experience: his years of captivity in North Vietnam. Take a look at the McCain TV commercial entitled "Love." It opens with footage of laughing, kissing hippies enjoying the "summer of love," then cuts to the young Navy flier spending that summer of 1967 dropping bombs on North Vietnam and soon to end up a tortured prisoner of those he was bombing.

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 Vietnam and the "love generation" still hang heavy over American politics. The debate about patriotism, he observed, "remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s... a fact most evident during our recent debates about the war in Iraq."

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 Iraq is, indeed, the "the central front in the war on terrorism."

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 Iraq, as Obama said, but all debates about national security. Beyond the small minority who are strict "values voters," there are certainly millions of "values plus" voters. Though they can be swayed by lots of issues, they hold essentially conservative social values and would like a president who does the same. This time around, it's a reasonable guess that they, too, are letting war and security issues symbolize their "values" concerns. Put in the simplest terms: They are the McCain campaign's only chance.

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 Iraq plan to vote for him. That means less than 30% of all voters are solidly prowar and pro-McCain. But another 12% or so who do not trust McCain on Iraq say they'll vote for him anyway, keeping him competitive in polling on the overall race. Most of them are surely part of the huge majority who, whatever they think of his Iraq specifics, trust McCain most to protect us from terrorism and see him as the person most desirable as commander-in-chief. (There's that "experience" again.)

The crucial voters are the 10% to 20% who want troops out of Iraq soon, won't yet commit to McCain, but "trust him" most to do the right thing on Iraq and terrorism. They are choosing the man, not the policy position, on the war. A lot of them fall among the 5% to 20% -- depending on the poll you pick -- who won't yet commit to either candidate.

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 Iraq, as well as eavesdropping on citizens at home. And the Democratic presidential candidate now goes along, with little apology.

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: "America is a country of strong families and strong values." From then on, it's all values all the time.

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: chernus@colorado.edu.

Copyright 2008 Ira Chernus

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