(comparison of USA and Britain, of Republicans and Conservatives -- good insights)
It's the values, stupid
Daily Mail, 5 November 2004
With the re-election of President George W Bush, the United States has shown that — as a contemporary book has famously claimed — America really is from Mars, while Britain and Europe are from Venus.
Both the election result and the reaction to it here suggest that America inhabits a completely different political universe from Britain. In America, President Bush won in large measure because he championed moral virtue. In Britain, by contrast, politicians believe that morality is the political kiss of death.
In America, a politician has won because he correctly identified and championed the values of the mainstream. In Britain, the mainstream feel instead utterly disenfranchised and have lost trust in an entire political class which refuses to represent their concerns.
In America, a President has been elected because he opposes gay marriage and upholds Christian morality. In the European Union, a commissioner was forced out because he thought homosexuality was a sin and was thus pilloried for representing Christian morality.
The scale of the Republican victory — and the Democrat collapse — is formidable. Not only did Mr Bush secure the biggest popular vote of any American president, but the Republicans also crushed the Democrats in Congress, with even the Democrat Senate leader Tom Daschle booted out of his seat in South Dakota.
The overwhelming reason for this was the moral clarity of Mr Bush’s message. He stood for a set of principles which were consistent, to which he had stuck despite ridicule from the ultra-sophisticated arbiters of American culture, and which — most importantly — resonated with America’s mainstream voters.
While his stand on terror and the Iraq war were at the forefront of people’s minds, moral values nearer to home were equally crucial to his victory. More than one in five voters said that moral issues were more important than the economy or terrorism. And among such voters, Mr Bush scored over Senator John Kerry by an overwhelming margin.
Conventional political wisdom dictates that, to achieve victory, politicians must always tack to the centre ground — generally identified as a soggy terrain of unprincipled compromises and policies that avoid any hard choices. But Mr Bush’s campaign manager, Karl Rove, used a quite different tactic.
He concentrated instead on drawing out to the ballot-box those conservative and evangelical Christian voters who had stayed at home at the last election. And he did so by playing to the President’s great strength — his staunch position in favour of family, faith and freedom.
For Mr Rove understood that this resonated deeply with the American mainstream because they share these values. And because Mr Bush is not ‘nuanced’ — as is the rejected Senator Kerry — but is clear and consistent in his principles, people feel reassured that they know where they are with him. That creates trust — and trust wins elections.
The result was that, particularly among religious Americans, the President’s opposition to gay marriage, abortion or stem-cell research galvanised them into voting for him. Indeed, the election delivered a crushing blow to gay rights activists, as no fewer than 11 states voted in addition overwhelmingly to ban same-sex marriage.
The reaction to all this among the intellectual elite in Britain is to dismiss it as evidence that something weird or downright sinister has been unleashed within the American psyche. It’s all blamed on the Bible Belt, and as any bien-pensant knows, religious belief is indicative of imbecility or even insanity. Britain, its commentators tell themselves smugly, is a totally different society from the primitive red-necks across the pond.
Karl Rove, meanwhile, is portrayed as an evil genius who devilishly planted gay marriage into the political agenda in order to terrify the American public into voting for Mr Bush. In fact, the issue was detonated by the liberal judges of the Massachusetts Supreme Court who, by approving same-sex marriage, lit the blue touch-paper for social and religious conservatives across the nation.
Such people understood that, far from the anti-discrimination measure that its supporters claimed it to be, same-sex marriage posed a mortal threat to the core values of American society. Not only would it undermine the institution of marriage itself, but it further called into question what it actually meant to be human.
It therefore crystallised a whole raft of concerns about issues which seemed to threaten fundamental values such as family stability, respect for human life or the distinction between right and wrong. In particular, there is considerable opposition to stem-cell research on embryos, an argument which in turn has exacerbated the never-settled and seminal American controversy over abortion rights.
All these deeply contested issues form part of what have been called the ‘culture wars’, in which two completely opposing views of the world have fought for supremacy over fundamental values. In one camp is the majority trying to defend the moral codes of the Judaeo-Christian heritage against a sustained assault; in the other, the radical minorities and would-be wreckers of western society, which seek to overturn such values in favour of an amoral free-for-all.
In recent years, socially conservative Republicans have scored some success in these battles. By introducing the concept of zero tolerance of crime, limiting welfare for lone mothers and promoting sexual abstinence among schoolchildren, they managed to reduce crime and teenage pregnancy. In drawing such a line in the sand and succeeding in halting the drift towards social chaos, they forced liberally-minded Democrats to follow suit.
Now, though, the moral battleground issues have shifted to gay rights, embryo research and a revival of the ever-present abortion issue. But on these topics, the Democrats are still in the opposite camp from the Republicans.
Unlike Britain, American judges — who can be appointed by the President to the Supreme Court — play a key role in deciding such controversies. If Mr Bush fills any imminent vacancies —as he is expected to do — with conservative judges it is likely that abortion rights may be curbed, along with gay marriage or stem-cell research.
Thus President Bush’s victory may usher in a much more devastating defeat, not just for the Democratic party but for the values that it espouses throughout American society.
So are there important lessons from this victory to be learned by the British Conservative party? Could similar tactics work here?
Certainly, there are very significant differences between the two countries. America is much more religious and more conservative than Britain. The Republicans’ core electoral base is larger than that of the Conservative party. And maybe more important still, in Britain there are no alternative cultural voices to challenge the prevailing, left-wing orthodoxy that has the media and intellectual life in its grip.
In America, there are right-wing radio talk-shows, while the churches defend the moral line. In Britain, the churches were long ago swept along by the tide of moral collapse, while the secular church of the monopoly BBC daily promulgates the world-view of the left as if it were holy writ.
Nevertheless, the values of the majority in Britain are fundamentally the same as they are in America. As a recent survey carried out by the Centre for Social Justice revealed, most people believed that children raised without one of their parents were usually damaged by the experience; that children should be brought up to avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and any kind of sexual relationship until they were at least 17 or 18; and that the welfare state benefited the undeserving over the needy.
And this British majority feels disenfranchised and abandoned. This is not a question of appealing to the ‘religious right’ or the Conservatives’ core voters. A far wider constituency feels that its values are under attack and that no politician will stand up for them.
In America, a President has been elected to reaffirm virtue — by voters who at the same time decisively rejected a relaxation of the gaming laws. In Britain, the government is legislating decadence with all-night drinking, liberalised drug use — and a relaxation of the gambling laws, to the horror of most voters.
Certainly, the issues sometimes play out differently on either side of the Atlantic. Abortion and stem-cell research don’t have the same salience here as in the US — although they probably arouse more concern than many might think.
But the British public is still socially conservative. It is hugely concerned about drugs, family collapse, teen pregnancy, crime. And as for homosexuality, maybe it is not regarded as a sin as widely as it is in America —but people in Britain still don’t like being told that gay lifestyles are morally and legally equivalent to married family life.
Unlike the Republicans, however, the Tories just can’t see this. They think instead they have to adapt to a changed world. They can’t grasp that people see some of these changes as a direct assault upon their core values.
And these people really don’t like this at all. They don’t like the fact that morality has been stood on its head. They don’t like the fact that men are demonised, parents undermined and marriage penalised. They don’t like the fact that minorities are given precedence over the majority, with the only stigma being attached to those who object. As a result, mainstream values are demonised as extreme.
Americans know what President Bush stands for. One would be hard put to say what the British Tory party stands for. The most it can articulate is a smaller state and lower taxes — and even then it can’t agree about those. But these are means, not ends. They are not the great issues that divide people and will propel them to vote.
Mrs Thatcher once famously said that the facts of life are conservative. Despite the culture wars, Britain is still a conservative country. Most people want stability and security for themselves and their families. Most want to feel attached to community and to nation. Most aspire to virtues rooted in the Judaeo-Christian moral codes.
If the Tories were to champion and defend such beleaguered values, the effect would be seismic. They would galvanise a large section of the nation. Yes, they would be viciously attacked and smeared by the metropolitan intelligentsia. But beyond these charmed circles, millions of ordinary, decent, bewildered people would be listening intently and with an overwhelming sense of relief.
Americans have understood that their values are under attack both from within and from without. Instinctively, President Bush has understood that the only language that matters is the language of moral values. Tony Blair speaks this language, but it has been shown to be bogus. The Tories don’t have the wit or courage to speak it at all.
George W Bush understands very well the people he aspires to govern. The British Tories do not. Unless they display similar insight, courage and above all moral leadership, they will find that the victory pulled off by President Bush will never be theirs.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)