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November 2004

"What's the Matter with Kansas?" is the title of a book that a pundit has pronounced the most important political book of this election year. It deals with a part of Kansas that has been in an economic recession but where the people still keep voting Republican, and the author claims that this shows something drastically wrong with the our political system. The explanation is that the voters - quintessential representatives of the now-familiar "red" that covers most of our electoral map - are primarily concerned about moral values, what are now dubbed the "social issues."

Exit polls in the recent election showed that over twenty per cent of the voters named that as their chief concern, which has caused the pundits endless consternation and puzzlement. How can this be? As someone wryly remarked, the response from the "enlightened" class has been in effect, "Values? What are they?"

The French were of course outraged. One commentator pronounced the electoral results "totally bizarre" and "outdated" (the ultimate putdown), while another more discreetly observed that "we live on different planets." If the American voters go against enlightened European opinion, there is obviously something wrong with the voters.

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times was so enraged that she was scarcely able to write coherently, as she sneered at "'values voters,' as they call themselves," and accused the Republicans of "dividing the country along the fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance, and religious rule." A letter to a newspaper warned that the nation is now doomed to four years of "pietistic posturing, of naked bigotry," while another found that the Republican victory was due simply to "naked ignorance."

The Frenchman who sees the United States and Western Europe as being on different planets is right, in that issues like abortion are not even on the agenda in most of Western Europe. The United States, for all its innumerable sins, is religiously and morally the most traditional society in the West. To a great extent the red-blue division on the electoral map reflects a split between the majority of country that takes such things seriously and the self-consciously enlightened minority who think that calling someone religious is a damaging accusation.

The day after the election a commentator was announcing that the issue is "jobs, jobs, jobs." Of course everybody thinks there should be more jobs. But, although all presidents claim the ability, it is not at all clear how much any president can do to improve the economy. The point of chanting "jobs, jobs, jobs" is to ignore what voters identify as moral values and to stick with the familiar agenda.

For decades liberals have presented themselves as champions of "the people" and enemies of the privileged. But whatever validity that claim may have in terms of economics, it is false when it comes to moral values, where liberalism has become synonymous with ideas most of the country repudiates. But instead of undergoing agonizing self-appraisal (should we be seen as the party of abortion?), liberals change the subject. Don't the voters understand that they aren't supposed to let moral issues influence them? Liberals suffer a failure of both imagination and intellect - they simply cannot conceive how other people might have a serious agenda different from their own. Thus they in effect accuse the Republicans of having invented issues to confuse the voters, as though it were not the liberals themselves who have used politics to legalize abortion and achieve other goals.

There are assumptions here that are not explicitly stated because they are indefensible. One is the obligation to go with the apparent tide of history, so that it is self-evidently a condemnation to claim that the United States is "outdated" in comparison to Europe. The other is a quasi-Marxism in which economic self-interest alone is a legitimate motive in politics.

The Founding Fathers hoped that the citizens would be motivated by disinterested concern for the good of their country and that politics would not be reduced to self-interest. That faith in the people has not been misplaced and, as it turns out, it is also just bad politics to solicit votes by telling people that they are stupid or wicked, or both.

Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. He is the author of several books, including The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.

Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life: The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples" (Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals, including Catholic World Report.

This article originally appeared in November 2004 on the Women for Faith & Family website. It is reprinted by permission of the author.

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