There’s more to politics than values

The Democrat convention was big on moral posturing about gay marriage and abortion, but short on serious strategy.

Helen Searls

Topics USA

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It is hard to get excited by America’s party-political conventions. They have become carefully choreographed infomercials made increasingly for primetime TV, promising much pomposity but little excitement.

Last week’s Democratic convention in North Carolina was no exception. Everything went as expected. There were no unscripted or surprising moments. Even the celebrities stayed on message, and, disappointingly, no one chose to talk to an empty chair. Party organisers pulled off an unblemished event that embarrassed no one, but thrilled few.

And yet for all its predictability, in its own way the gathering in North Carolina was an eye-opener. This carefully staged event revealed much about how the Democrats want to present themselves today. Their crafted rhetoric and choice of speakers revealed what the Democrats consider to be their strengths as well as their weaknesses in the closing stretch of the electoral season.

Most striking is how the Democrats of 2012 have shifted their priorities. Despite the starring roles of old timers like ex-president Bill Clinton and vice-president Joe Biden, the 2012 election is no rerun of the past. Issues that dominated past campaigns, like healthcare reform, the Iraq War and curbing the excesses of Wall Street, have all faded from the spotlight. Today, voters are being offered a more ethereal approach to politics. Values and emotions appear to have finally triumphed over politics and policies, and the Democrats have embraced this change with unbridled enthusiasm.

The shift was evident from day one of the Democrats’ convention, when so-called ‘social issues’ emerged as the central plank of the Democrats’ electoral plan. Speakers drew attention to their support for gay marriage as a crucial and defining creed of the new Democratic platform. As speaker after speaker stressed how the party and the president supports the right of every American to love ‘whom they choose’, it became apparent that gay marriage was not simply going to be one of those issues that had been included in the party platform to pacify party activists. Rather, support for gay marriage has become a pillar of the Democrats’ identity. Even the prime-time speaker, Michelle Obama, stressed that the president wants everyone to succeed no matter ‘who they love’. She added: ‘If proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love… then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.’

This was soaring rhetoric from the first lady and quite a remarkable reversal for her husband’s party. Suddenly gay marriage has become not only part of the Democratic platform, but also central to the American Dream. So smooth was this assertion that no one pointed out that only a few months ago, the president himself was opposed to same-sex marriage. It was only in May this year that he ‘evolved’ his position on gay marriage from opposition to support. And yet now, just four months later, support for gay marriage has become a key element of his re-election campaign.

Another battle cry at the convention was opposition to the ‘war on women’. A carefully orchestrated parade of women’s rights activists were given centre stage to expound this message. The ‘war on women’ is how liberals characterise Republican efforts to curb women’s rights. Of course conservatives have denied that such a war exists, but Republicans have done themselves few favours when it comes to dispelling this notion. Opposition to contraception provisions in employer-healthcare plans, coupled with inane pronouncements about ‘legitimate rape’ by conservative senatorial candidate Todd Akin, have served to legitimise the idea that the Republicans are out to degrade women. Like the issue of gay marriage, Democrat strategists clearly believe that continually reminding voters of this issue is a potential electoral winner.

To this end, Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who rose to fame during the religious freedom/contraception debate earlier this year, was moved to a primetime slot at the convention. She depicted a stark choice for voters; a vote for Mitt Romney would be a vote for ‘an America in which states humiliate women by forcing us to endure invasive ultrasounds we don’t want and our doctors say we don’t need… in which politicians redefine rape so survivors are victimised all over again; in which someone decides which domestic violence victims deserve help, and which don’t’, she said.

This might all sound like the same old political campaigning. After all, aren’t Americans always fighting over issues like gay marriage and abortion? But actually, something new is going on here.

Contrast the electoral landscape eight years ago with today. In 2004, there were 11 voter-initiated referendums on gay marriage. All of them were initiated by conservatives and all were in opposition to gay marriage. All of the referendums were successful. In the aftermath of the 2004 election, many pundits credited these initiatives with increasing the turnout from conservatives and so tipping the electoral arithmetic in President George W Bush’s favour.

The same thing can be seen in relation to women’s issues. In earlier times, opposition to abortion was always seen as a trump card for the conservatives. And while most Democrats would identify themselves as pro-choice, this was not an issue on which they actively campaigned or which they featured prominently at their conventions. Rather, it was assumed that airing moral issues like gay marriage and abortion would strengthen the appeal of conservatives. Pollsters developed a whole new category of voters who were motivated by these so-called culture-war issues to go out and vote conservatively: they were dubbed ‘value voters’.

Today, in a pretty big turnaround, social issues are now a stick that the left uses to beat their opponents on the right. The moral authority is now emanating from the liberal side. In place of the religious right, we now see crusading liberals preaching about the menace of Neanderthal Republicans who will lead us to a place where hate and a ‘winner takes all’ outlook dominate.

In his speech at the end of the Democrat convention, President Obama was careful to promise virtually nothing in terms of policy for the next four years. His speech was not just short on specifics – it was short on anything even resembling a policy or a strategy. He mentioned some nice things that he would like to see happen (a million new jobs by 2016; 100,000 new maths and science teachers over the next 10 years; a reduction in the national debt by $4 trillion without hurting the middle class). But he felt no obligation to explain how any of these things might be made a reality.

Although neither party has been shaped by lofty political principles for some time now, they at least previously outlined a semblance of a plan or a strategy. President Bush promised tax cuts and Obama once made promises about healthcare and regulating the excesses of Wall Street. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were also central themes of recent debates. Now, though, all pretence of offering anything real or substantial has vanished. Such is the political exhaustion of both parties that they have no faith that they can do anything more than just muddle through. And so in the absence of any kind of political strategy, Obama offers voters a different kind of choice. As he explained: ‘On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.’ He said these different paths were shaped not by policies but by values: ‘Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known; the values my grandfather defended as a soldier in Patton’s Army; the values that drove my grandmother to work on a bomber assembly line while he was gone.’

In other words, Democratic values are good and Republican values are bad. Time and again, Obama juxtaposed an inclusive society to a society where the ‘nation’s promise is reserved for the few’, and contrasted a nation shaped by citizenship to a place where ‘our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder’. As demonstrated by Obama’s speech, social issues and moral crusading have become central to the 2012 election. When the only choice presented is between ‘them and us’, it seems that all voters are now destined to be ‘value voters’ when they go to the ballot box this November.

Helen Searls is executive producer at Feature Story News in Washington, DC.

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Topics USA


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