This is a repost of an article published in Socialism Today, the publication of the Socialist Party of England and Wales, with which Socialist Alternative is affiliated, Issue 89 Feb 2005 (originally entitled “How far can the moral backlash go?“).
In exit polls during the November presidential election, the biggest group (22%) said they were influenced by “moral values,” with 80% of them voting for Bush. Voters in 11 states also overwhelmingly passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. John Kerry’s chief pollster consequently argued that “culture-based politics” had replaced “class-based politics.” CHRISTINE THOMAS looks at the role that “moral values” played and how far Bush could go in implementing the reactionary social agenda of the Christian right.
There is undoubtedly a real fear now among women, gays, lesbians, and people of color that a Bush second term will lead to a stepping up of attacks on their rights. “I hope we all realize that, as of November 2nd, gay rights are officially dead. And that from here on we are going to be led even closer to the guillotine,” wrote Garry Wills in the NY Times.
Such fears are not surprising given the comments of some newly-elected Republican senators. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, for example, advocates the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. Jim Demint, Republican senator for South Carolina, wants a ban on gays and single mothers teaching in schools.
Although Bush won substantial votes from Catholics and mainstream Protestants, right-wing evangelical Christians accounted for more than a third of his extra votes this time. Karl Rove, Bush’s main political adviser, calculated that around four million evangelical Christians failed to vote for Bush in the 2000 presidential elections. If they could be mobilised in these elections, he reasoned, they could help Bush secure the presidency.
The Christian right has its roots in the “culture wars” that developed in reaction to the protest movements in the 1960s against the Vietnam war and for civil rights for blacks, women, and sexual minorities, which led to a general ideological and cultural shift to the left in society. Opposition was focused on issues such as gay rights, women’s rights, prayer in schools, and parental control of school textbooks and curriculum.
Although the conservative groups are not homogeneous, their general aim is to restore traditional Christian values to social policy. In particular, family breakdown – the undermining of traditional male and female roles, and moral control over children – is blamed for the “moral and social degeneration” of society itself. Strengthening the traditional family and the “God-given” role of men and women are therefore paramount.
Opposition to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, became a rallying and unifying issue for the Christian right. Their opposition to abortion is not just based on the “right to life.” They view abortion as encouraging promiscuity among women and therefore challenging traditional gender roles.
During the 1970s, the Christian right became more politically involved. Concentrating their forces at a grassroots level, the Christian right gradually “infiltrated” the Republicans. They are now undoubtedly a significant electoral factor within the Republican Party.
In these latest elections, the Republicans mobilised 1.2 million grassroots volunteers, many of whom were from the Christian right. Around 45,000 evangelical churches were involved in Bush’s campaign, handing over membership directories and using evangelical radio and TV stations to broadcast their message to millions of potential voters.
There is no doubt that the Christian right views the 2004 elections as a turning point and feel emboldened to more vigorously pursue their “moral counter-revolution.” As far as they are concerned, it is payback time. “Make no mistake,” wrote Richard Viguerie, a right-wing, direct-mailing campaigner, in the NY Times. “Conservative Christians and ‘values voters’ won this election for George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress. It is crucial that the Republican leadership not forget this – as much as some will try.”
Shifting Social Attitudes
At face value, it can seem incredible that “moral” issues could be placed above the economy (20%), health care (8%), education (4%), or terrorism (15%) and Iraq (15%) in influencing how people voted in the elections. 36 million people live below the poverty line, a figure that increased by 4.3 million under Bush. At the same time, a brutal war in Iraq has claimed the lives of over 1,500 U.S. troops.
Yet these were not necessarily separate and distinct issues in the minds of voters. If you are living in what appears to be an increasingly insecure world; if you fear losing your job, and with it healthcare and possibly your home; if, at the same time, you are terrified of terrorist attacks – a fear whipped up by politicians and the media – then, where no alternative class program or ideology is being put forward on a mass scale that addresses the issues concerning you and your family, moral certainties can appear attractive. Appeals to “good” over “evil,” to the importance of traditional values, to “the family” and “faith,” and opposition to anything which appears to undermine these certainties, can gain an echo.
This does not mean, however, that everyone who cited “moral values” as most influential at the polls, including Bush voters, agreed with the reactionary agenda of those on the Christian right who define homosexuality as a sin and want to see abortion outlawed in all circumstances, including after rape or when a woman’s health is in danger.
“Moral values” is a very vague term which could mean different things to different people. Abortion, for example, was not listed as a separate poll issue in these elections. It was, however, in 1996 and 2000 when only 9% and 14% considered it important. Interestingly, although the biggest group of voters mentioned moral values as being the most important influence on the way they voted, proportionately this was less than in 1996 and 2000 when 40% and 35% said so.
There is no evidence to support the assertion of a swing to the right in social attitudes over abortion or other “moral” issues. In reality, the so-called moral majority is a minority – 55% of the population are broadly in favor of abortion, 42% are opposed. This represents no change over the last four years. A majority (60%) support either gay marriage or civil unions and are opposed to changing the constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. The polls indicate, in fact, a society becoming more supportive of gay rights, with 42% now saying that same-sex marriages should be legal compared to 27% in 1996.
Conservative family values which place women firmly in the home no longer coincide with the needs of capitalism internationally. It is true that the capitalists want to slash public spending in order to reduce their share of taxation and boost profits, and that they therefore still rely on the family, and women in particular, to pick up the slack by providing services for free to “economically unproductive” members of society. At the same time, they want women in the workforce where they can exploit their labor.
It is one of the contradictions of capitalism that this places intolerable burdens on families and personal relationships, leading to family breakdown. However, it is not in capitalism’s overall interests to reverse the process of women’s increasing economic participation in the workplace by pushing them back into the home. And it is extremely unlikely that they would be successful in this, even if they wanted to do so.
Nevertheless, the family is of continued ideological importance for capitalism. Historically, capitalism has relied on the family as a means of social control and continues to do so, albeit with modifications. The traditional bourgeois family “ideal,” comprising a married male breadwinner with dependent female homemaker and children, has gradually been broadened in response to social changes to incorporate women who work outside the home. There is much more tolerance now of relationships which do not fit this ideal – unmarried couples with children, lone parents, and same-sex relationships.
However, because of the structural crisis of capitalism, the family remains an important institution both economically and ideologically, placing limits on how far capitalism can adapt and resulting in insoluble contradictions. This means that there is still a minority reservoir of support for more backward ideas which the ruling class can draw on at a time of crisis to sow divisions among the working class. It can also be exploited by political parties, as with the Republicans, to win electoral support. But it is a strategy which can backfire, threatening the interests of the capitalists themselves.
In April 2004, the biggest march in U.S. history took place in Washington, D.C. against the piecemeal undermining of abortion rights under Bush. Over one million people took to the streets, giving an indication of the massive opposition movement that would be unleashed if the Supreme Court tried to strike down a woman’s right to choose.
The Christian right helped Bush win the presidency and there has been an increase in Republican senators sharing their views. But these are not representative of the party as a whole. One wing of the Republicans understands that if the party goes too far in pushing the moral agenda of the conservative right, they risk a political backlash, especially amongst women, which could seriously undermine their future electoral prospects and even split the party.
The big corporations expect a second-term Bush presidency to vigorously pursue policies in their interests. It is one thing to use “moral” issues as a smokescreen in elections; it is quite another for those issues to dominate government, diverting attention from the real needs of big business. So while we can expect more attempts to impose restrictions on abortion at a state level, and an all-out attack on Roe v. Wade cannot be totally ruled out, Bush will come under pressure from the big corporations and his own party to tread carefully on “moral” issues. He will want to keep “moral” issues on the boil, but is more interested in privatising Social Security and other economic attacks.
The elections have underlined how, particularly in a situation of crisis and insecurity when no viable alternative is on offer, social and “moral” issues can be used to obscure class divisions in society by diverting attention away from economic issues such as jobs and poverty pay.
If a mass workers’ party had existed, with an alternative class and “moral” agenda, then the outcome of the elections could have been very different. Pre-election polls showed that 55% of Americans thought the country was moving in the wrong direction, and only 49% approved of the job that Bush was doing.
Many of those who voted for Bush, including 36% of union members and 40% of those earning less than $30,000 a year, could have been won to a mass party that attacked the “moral values” of a capitalist class that thinks it acceptable for Corporate America to make massive profits while throwing millions of workers out of a job, destroying the environment, and waging brutal wars for profit and prestige. An alternative class agenda, posed on a mass scale, could also have energized the 40% who did not bother to vote at all.
Clearly, Kerry, a billionaire representative of big business who supported war in Iraq, did not provide such an alternative. Even on “moral” issues such as gay rights, Kerry did not come out clearly against Bush. He supported civil unions but opposed gay marriage (the same position as Bush on the eve of the elections). Although he has a pro-choice record on abortion, he was extremely apologetic on the campaign trail. Now, drawing the completely wrong conclusions from the election results, the dominant section of Democratic Party leaders are discussing softening their position on abortion and gay rights even further.
The elections exposed clearly the need for a third party – a workers’ party with an alternative class program. The underlying weakness of the economy means that class issues will inevitably come to the fore as workers move into struggle. This does not necessarily mean, however, that social issues such as abortion will “disappear.” On the contrary, past struggles have shown that when working-class women in particular are mobilized around “bread-and-butter” issues, they also become radicalized on social issues and begin to challenge all aspects of the double oppression they face in society.
Full version of this article on-line at: www.socialismtoday.org/89/morals.html