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Tipping point?

Politics | Voters’ core beliefs have shifted massively—and political efforts won’t shift them back

Issue: "Divided we stand," Dec. 1, 2012

So what will the history books of the future tell us about the influence of Hurricane Sandy on the Romney-Obama presidential election of 2012? Could it really have been that a million voters changed their minds in the final days of the campaign because—well, because Obama just looked so presidentially helpful while talking to storm victims in New Jersey?

Such is the stuff of political analysis. Exit poll data were all over the landscape as voters told how the hurricane had affected their behavior. So to the extent that I get to be an analyst, I suggest that historians—and current pundits too—be very careful in explaining the storm’s ultimate effect on the electoral tally board. The most prevalent query was whether Hurricane Sandy had interrupted some significant Romney momentum in the week just before the election. But folks who were upset with that development had to ask themselves: “What was God up to in sending such a storm right then? Didn’t he know how badly a hurricane might hurt the Romney campaign?” The debate was partly political, partly historical, partly meteorological, partly theological.

In fact, right now is a good time to set aside almost all purely political explanations of what happened in our country on Election Day. Yah, I know it was a presidential election—and collectively, we just spent several billion dollars trying to fine-tune an incredibly complex political process. But in the end, the 2012 election wasn’t all that much about such technical processes. It wasn’t about hurricanes, and it wasn’t mostly about President Obama’s mean-spirited campaign style, or about Romney’s failure to respond adequately. It wasn’t about anonymous donors, and it wasn’t about how the Republicans blew what should have been an easy challenge. All those are side issues, and we shouldn’t waste too much time and energy wondering “if we’d only done this” or “if we’d only done that.”

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Elections tell us what voters believe about important matters. And the evidence of the 2012 election is pretty overwhelming that most Americans have now become practical secularists. Their second nature is to believe that government is there to be their helper and provider. Anything that messes with that secularist assumption these days is messing with a root belief of at least 51 percent of American voters. These are folks who got John Kennedy exactly backward: “Always ask,” they say, “what it is that your country can do for you.” These folks are now dominant—and these are the voters who elect presidents. The American public has been going through a massive change—and the evidence grows that that “belief” change has now passed a tipping point, beyond which it may be very difficult to go back.

That is a sobering thought. It means that technical adjustments to the political process—like better political consultants who can tell you how to reach Hispanic young women, or more positive TV commercials, or more effective use of “social media”—will affect elections only on the margins. The determinant factor will be where voters, in their most needy times, look for ultimate help. That, by definition, has to do with whether the culture is still God-oriented or has become more and more thoroughly secular in nature.

So what’s called for are armies of folks—like you, perhaps—who when they think about the next electoral cycle, respond with great discipline and refuse to get sidetracked by what is merely political activity. Such folks will ask instead: “What can I do over the next several years to change the worldview of a few people around me? How can I influence a few ‘takers’ I know to become ‘makers’ and ‘enablers’? How can I persuade them to be ‘wagon pullers’ instead of ‘wagon riders’?”

“Can I work through my church, through the schools where I have input and influence? Can I work through and support appropriate media like WORLD? Can efforts like these perhaps nudge a significant number of folks back from the costly tipping point?”

If we learned anything this time around, it was this: If you don’t change what the voters believe, your chances of changing their votes are pretty slim indeed.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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