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It's the culture, stupid

Culture | The tumultuous election shows the schism in American culture

Issue: "A legal coup?," Nov. 25, 2000

Two days after the voting, a map in USA Today showed the county-by-county breakdown of the election results. Most of the map was red, signifying the counties that voted for George W. Bush. The blue strongholds, which voted for Al Gore, were heavily concentrated on the East and West coasts and were scattered through the rest of the states in their big cities.

That is to say, rural and small-town America voted for Mr. Bush. The big cities voted for Mr. Gore. According to the accompanying article by Jill Lawrence, Mr. Gore won 71 percent of city voters, compared to only 25 percent for Mr. Bush, who, however won 60 percent of the vote in the hinterlands. The suburbs, being a little bit country and a little bit city, split evenly.

But the demographic divide goes beyond the time-honored cultural rivalry of the city vs. the country, as data from exit polls show. Voters who were married favored Mr. Bush, as did families with children (53 percent to 44 percent). Single people favored Mr. Gore. Those who attend church every week favored Mr. Bush 57 percent to 40 percent. Those who rarely if ever attend church preferred Mr. Gore.

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The great moral controversies of our time-abortion, homosexuality-also break along predictable political lines. "The two major parties continue to live up to their stereotypical, polarized images," concludes Ms. Lawrence. "Democrats as a home for women, minorities, gays, immigrants and city dwellers; Republicans as the favorite for men, religious and rural Americans, gun owners and moralists."

Though the political parties might fit these cultural stereotypes, the election held some cultural surprises. Despite all of the demagoging about Social Security, senior citizens split their votes pretty evenly between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. Apparently, Social Security was not their all-consuming issue after all. Mr. Gore drew well among both low-income voters and high-income voters. For all of his excoriating of the wealthy, a good many of them voted for him.

Other demographic segments seemingly voted against their self-interests. Wall Street tycoons and dot-com execs, for example, would benefit from the pro-business policies of Republicans. But they voted Democratic.

Apparently, despite the Clinton campaign slogan-"It's the economy, stupid!"-the economy hardly entered into this election after all. The economy has been soaring, and voters seldom turn out incumbents during boom times. Academics who have found a correlation between the state of the economy and historic voting patterns predicted that Mr. Gore would win 60 percent of the vote, which turned out to have been one of the most wrong of many wrong projections. In this election, it's not the economy. It's the culture.

The cultural elite, clustered on both coasts and in the big cities, want abortion, gay rights, and a permissive moral climate much more than they want a tax cut. And ordinary middle-class Americans are less interested in getting government entitlements than they are worried about raising their children in a hostile cultural climate.

Pete DuPont, the former governor of Delaware and now a think-tank expert, found that a map showing pornography sales correlated closely to the map showing Mr. Gore's support. Looking at "the percentage of sex movies in the home-video market," he found that "Mr. Gore carried the areas with the highest percentages (40 percent on the West Coast and 37 percent in New England and the Middle Atlantic states)." Conversely, "Mr. Bush carried the area with the lowest percentage (14 percent in the South), and they split the rest of the country that had middling sex movie percentages."

Such findings are vast over-generalizations, of course, and they should not cast aspersions on the candidates or all of their supporters. Many Christians and other despisers of pornography supported Mr. Gore, and many atheists and moral libertarians supported Mr. Bush. Both candidates tried to reach beyond their cultural demographics: Mr. Gore reached out to moral conservatives by picking Joe Lieberman and championing "family values" rhetorically despite his overwhelming support from Hollywood culture makers. Mr. Bush tried to appeal to the urban poor, with his compassionate conservatism, including tangible plans to improve education in failing inner-city schools with the help of vouchers.

In the end, the election came down to the conflict between cultural conservatives and cultural liberals. And the nation, with the government it elected, is cracked right down the middle. How can a society function when it lacks a moral consensus? Can a nation survive as a unified country with such deep ideological divisions? The new president will find these issues more important and harder to deal with than mere economic policy.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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