Values Voters and Right-Wing Populism
In October 2006 Michael A. Fletcher wrote an article for the Washington Post titled: “‘Values’ Decline as Issue in Ohio’: Economic Woes Boost Democrats.” Fletcher wrote:
Two years ago, exit polls found that “moral values” edged out the “economy and jobs” to top a list of concerns that Ohio voters said most influenced their Election Day choices. The exit polls found that at least a quarter of voters identified themselves as born-again Christians, and three-quarters of their votes went to Bush.~100
Contrary to the misleading headline, values, as an issue, were not declining in Ohio, what was happening was a shift in which values were seen as a priority, even within the White Christian evangelical voter base.
As for the economy—it depends on what you mean by the word economy. Thomas Frank, in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas, nimbly navigated the conservative scene on the ground in Kansas, but slipped when he implied that people in the White working class who vote against their apparent economic self interest did so because they didn’t really understand the complex issues, or were easily swayed by fundamentalist preachers and opportunistic politicians. Some, we are led to believe, are simply addled.~101
There is no evidence that White evangelicals are any more stupid or crazy then the rest of us—at least in terms of percentages of the populations being studied. Nor are they simply the manipulated puppets of a Karl Rove strike force.
Large groups of White evangelicals are mobilized through the rhetorical style of right-wing populism.~102 Jean Hardisty refers to this process as mobilizing resentment.”103
The common styles and frames use by a wide range of right-wing political organizers include:
• An Apocalyptic Style
• Populist Antielite Rhetoric
• Authoritarian Assertion of Dominance~104
All of these appear across wide segments of the Christian Right.
Populist antielitism as a rhetorical style often takes the form of attacks on liberals, secularists, intellectuals, the news media, and Hollywood.~105 Allegations that these elites are part of a vast conspiracy against the common people are frequently interwoven into the fabric of the stories that are told—sometimes with references to Satanic End Times plots tied to prophecies in the book of Revelation.106 Linda Kintz, discussing dualistic apocalypticism argues the “resonance of traditionalist conservatism, both religious and secular, is the apocalyptic narrative, whose influence on the myths of American history is not new,” and she adds it “depends on fear, and because fear is undependable, it must be sustained.”107
Right-wing populism often is based on racialized, patriarchal, and heterosexist narratives that buttress a sense of privilege and entitlement among a targeted audience of straight White Christian men. It tends to frame economic questions in terms of hard working producers pitted against parasites above and below.~108 This technique was used to mobilize poor and working class Whites against newly-freed Black former slaves after the Civil War.109 It was utilized by George Wallace in his first Presidential Campaign, and later borrowed by Richard Nixon and the Republican Party to create the “Southern Strategy.”110 It exists in stories of “welfare queens” where race need not be mentioned.111 Ironically, today antielite populist rhetoric is used by Republicans to invert the historical account and claim that the Democratic Party is the enemy of true civil rights.112
There is also a natural historic congruence between the Calvinist-based theology of many White evangelicals, and the ideology of Free Markets and less government regulation fostered by the Republican Party.~113 Doug Henwood points out that despite accurate criticisms of some of his overly-broad conclusions, the work of historian Richard Hofstadter helps explain this connection:
Hofstadter underscores the radical departure of the New Deal from the individualist roots of historic American social and political movements for something much more collective. That kind of collectivism, which lasted into the 1970s, is exactly what the New Right has been trying to reverse all along, and they’ve accomplished a good bit of the task.
Hofstadter’s emphasis on the individualism of American white Protestantism is highly relevant now - it illuminates what’s the matter with Kansas, since American white Protestants love “The Market” as an instrument of reward and discipline. That love is not some recent confidence trick perpetrated by Karl Rove, but has deep roots.~114
Margaret R. Somers and Fred Block identify this as part of the growth of “market fundamentalism” as an ideology promoted by conservatives. They studies two examples of legislation—in 1834 and 1966—in which “existing welfare regimes were overturned by market-driven ones.” They concluded that “Despite dramatic differences across the cases, both outcomes were mobilized by “the perversity thesis”—a public discourse that reassigned blame for the poor’s condition from “poverty to perversity.”~115
…[S]tructural blame for poverty is discredited as empiricist appearance while the real problem is attributed to the corrosive effects of welfare’s perverse incentives on poor people themselves—they become sexually promiscuous, thrust aside personal responsibility, and develop longterm dependency. This claim enables market fundamentalism to delegitimate existing ideational regimes, to survive disconfirming data, and to change the terms of debate from social problems to the timeless forces of nature and biology.~116
Many White working class voters, and even White middle class voters can be persuaded at times to vote against their arguable economic self interest, by appealing to their sense of morality by casting “family values” and “moral values” in terms of societal struggles over issues such as gay rights, gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and pornography.
In any election, sometimes social issues trump economic issues sometimes economic issues trump social issues—and how Republicans and Democrats are perceived by Christian evangelical voters who are weighing the pull of those two sets of issues can determine the outcome of an election.
According to sociologist S. Wojciech Sokolowski:
What is at stake here is not reason vs. irrationality or stupidity but different cognitive frames that manifest themselves, among other things, by a preference for bucolic rural life or for urban diversity. Both are pre-rational, that is, they frame and direct the rational thought process.
So if we drop the charge of irrationalism, Hofstadter’s thesis that traditional American culture tends to be anti-urban and rather local, with all the accoutrements of that localism—navel gazing, suspicion of outsiders, suspicion of high culture, suspicion of big organizations and government, love of small business, religiosity, etc.—still stands.~117
Sokolowski stresses the interplay of factors with a basic right wing frame, the “perception of imminent danger,” which creates a need to organize for “safety and protection.” According to Sokolowski, this fear factor activates a strong response when added to the constellation of other beliefs of the right: “the Manichean dualism of good and evil, right and wrong, us and them; the vision of apocalyptic battle between good and evil; the need for vigilance and unquestioned support of ‘our’ side and a militant posture toward ‘them.’” Sokolowski explains that “only within the context of their perception of an imminent threat do their activities and rhetoric appear as rational defensive reactions rather than wanton aggression.”
And it is this very unique way of perceiving the world that drives the Christian Right to engage in a guerilla culture war against mainstream society—seen as increasingly sinful, secular, cynical, and threatening.