[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: Frank Rich: On 'Moral Values, ' It's Blue in a Landslide

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Fri Nov 12 08:01:20 PST 2004

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Frank Rich: On 'Moral Values,' It's Blue in a Landslide

November 14, 2004


FAREWELL to Swift boats and "Shove it!," to Osama's tape
and Saddam's missing weapons, to "security moms" and
outsourced dads. They've all been sent to history's dustbin
faster than Ralph Nader memorabilia was dumped on eBay. In
their stead stands a single ambiguous phrase coined by an
anonymous exit pollster: "Moral values." By near universal
agreement the morning after, these two words tell the
entire story of the election: it's the culture, stupid. 

"It really is Michael Moore versus Mel Gibson," said Newt
Gingrich. To Jon Stewart, Nov. 2 was the red states'
revenge on "Will & Grace." William Safire, speaking on
"Meet the Press," called the Janet Jackson fracas "the
social-political event of the past year." Karl Rove was of
the same mind: "I think it's people who are concerned about
the coarseness of our culture, about what they see on the
television sets, what they see in the movies ..." 

And let's not even get started on the two most dreaded
words in American comedy, regardless of your party
affiliation: Whoopi Goldberg. 

There's only one problem with the storyline proclaiming
that the country swung to the right on cultural issues in
2004. Like so many other narratives that immediately
calcify into our 24/7 media's conventional wisdom, it is
fiction. Everything about the election results - and about
American culture itself - confirms an inescapable reality:
John Kerry's defeat notwithstanding, it's blue America, not
red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a
landslide. Kerry voters who have been flagellating
themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worthy of
"The Passion of the Christ" should wake up and smell the

The blue ascendancy is nearly as strong among Republicans
as it is among Democrats. Those whose "moral values" are
invested in cultural heroes like the accused loofah
fetishist Bill O'Reilly and the self-gratifying drug
consumer Rush Limbaugh are surely joking when they turn
apoplectic over MTV. William Bennett's name is now as
synonymous with Las Vegas as silicone. The Democrats'
Ashton Kutcher is trumped by the Republicans' Britney
Spears. Excess and vulgarity, as always, enjoy a vast,
bipartisan constituency, and in a democracy no political
party will ever stamp them out. 

If anyone is laughing all the way to the bank this election
year, it must be the undisputed king of the red cultural
elite, Rupert Murdoch. Fox News is a rising profit center
within his News Corporation, and each red-state dollar that
it makes can be plowed back into the rest of Fox's very
blue entertainment portfolio. The Murdoch cultural stable
includes recent books like Jenna Jameson's "How to Make
Love Like a Porn Star" and the Vivid Girls' "How to Have a
XXX Sex Life," which have both been synergistically, even
joyously, promoted on Fox News by willing hosts like Rita
Cosby and, needless to say, Mr. O'Reilly. There are "real
fun parts and exciting parts," said Ms. Cosby to Ms.
Jameson on Fox News's "Big Story Weekend," an encounter
broadcast on Saturday at 9 p.m., assuring its maximum
exposure to unsupervised kids. 

Almost unnoticed in the final weeks of the campaign was the
record government indecency fine levied against another
prime-time Fox television product, "Married by America."
The $1.2 million bill, a mere bagatelle to Murdoch
stockholders, was more than twice the punishment inflicted
on Viacom for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction."
According to the F.C.C. complaint, one episode in this
heterosexual marriage-promoting reality show included
scenes in which "partygoers lick whipped cream from
strippers' bodies," and two female strippers "playfully
spank" a man on all fours in his underwear. "Married by
America" is gone now, but Fox remains the go-to network for
Paris Hilton ("The Simple Life") and wife-swapping
("Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy"). 

None of this has prompted an uprising from the red-state
Fox News loyalists supposedly so preoccupied with "moral
values." They all gladly contribute fungible dollars to Fox
culture by boosting their fair-and-balanced channel's rise
in the ratings. Some of these red staters may want to make
love like porn stars besides. (Not that there's anything
wrong with that.) An ABC News poll two weeks before the
election found that more Republicans than Democrats enjoy
sex "a great deal." The Democrats' new hero, Illinois
Senator-elect Barack Obama, was assured victory once his
original, ostentatiously pious Republican opponent, Jack
Ryan, dropped out of the race rather than defend his taste
for "avant-garde" sex clubs. 

The 22 percent of voters who told pollsters that "moral
values" were their top election issue - 79 percent of whom
voted for Bush-Cheney - corresponds almost exactly to the
number of voters (23 percent) who describe themselves as
born-again or evangelical Christians. They are entitled to
their culture, too, and their own entertainment industry.
And their own show-biz scandals. The Los Angeles Times
reported this summer that Paul Crouch, the evangelist who
founded the largest Christian network, Trinity Broadcasting
Network, vehemently denied a former employee's accusation
that the two had had a homosexual encounter - though not
before paying the employee a $425,000 settlement. Not so
incidentally, Trinity joined Gary Bauer and Fox News as
prime movers in "Redeem the Vote," the Christian-rock
alternative to MTV's "Rock the Vote." 

But the distance between this hard-core red culture and the
majority blue culture is perhaps best captured by Tom
Coburn, the newly elected Republican senator from Oklahoma,
lately famous for discovering "rampant" lesbianism in that
state's schools. As a congressman in 1997, Mr. Coburn
attacked NBC for encouraging "irresponsible sexual
behavior" and taking "network TV to an all-time low with
full frontal nudity, violence and profanity being shown in
our homes." The broadcast that prompted his outrage on
behalf of "parents and decent-minded individuals
everywhere" was the network's prime-time showing of Steven
Spielberg's "Schindler's List." 

It's in the G.O.P.'s interest to pander to this far-right
constituency - votes are votes - but you can be certain
that a party joined at the hip to much of corporate
America, Mr. Murdoch included, will take no action to
curtail the blue culture these voters deplore. As Marshall
Wittman, an independent-minded former associate of both
Ralph Reed and John McCain, wrote before the election, "The
only things the religious conservatives get are largely
symbolic votes on proposals guaranteed to fail, such as the
gay marriage constitutional amendment." That amendment has
never had a prayer of rounding up the two-thirds majority
needed for passage and still doesn't. 

Mr. Wittman echoes Thomas Frank, the author of "What's the
Matter With Kansas?," by common consent the year's most
prescient political book. "Values," Mr. Frank writes,
"always take a backseat to the needs of money once the
elections are won." Under this perennial "trick," as he
calls it, Republican politicians promise to stop abortion
and force the culture industry "to clean up its act" -
until the votes are counted. Then they return to their
higher priorities, like cutting capital gains and estate
taxes. Mr. Murdoch and his fellow cultural barons - from
Sumner Redstone, the Bush-endorsing C.E.O. of Viacom, to
Richard Parsons, the Republican C.E.O. of Time Warner, to
Jeffrey Immelt, the Bush-contributing C.E.O. of G.E. (NBC
Universal) - are about to be rewarded not just with more
tax breaks but also with deregulatory goodies increasing
their power to market salacious entertainment. It's they,
not Susan Sarandon and Bruce Springsteen, who actually set
the cultural agenda Gary Bauer and company say they

But it's not only the G.O.P.'s fealty to its financial
backers that is predictive of how little cultural bang the
"values" voters will get for their Bush-Cheney votes. At 78
percent, the nonvalues voters have far more votes than they
do, and both parties will cater to that overwhelming
majority's blue tastes first and last. Their mandate is
clear: The same poll that clocked "moral values" partisans
at 22 percent of the electorate found that nearly three
times as many Americans approve of some form of legal
status for gay couples, whether civil unions (35 percent)
or marriage (27 percent). Do the math and you'll find that
the poll also shows that for all the G.O.P.'s efforts to
court Jews, the total number of Jewish Republican voters in
2004, while up from 2000, was still some 200,000 less than
the number of gay Republican voters. 

When Robert Novak writes after the election that "the
anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, socially conservative
agenda is ascendant, and the G.O.P. will not abandon it
anytime soon," you have to wonder what drug he is on. The
abandonment began at the convention. Sam Brownback, the
Kansas senator who champions the religious right, was
locked away in an off-camera rally across town from Madison
Square Garden. Prime time was bestowed upon the three
biggest stars in post-Bush Republican politics: Rudy
Giuliani, John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. All are
supporters of gay rights and opponents of the same-sex
marriage constitutional amendment. Only Mr. McCain calls
himself pro-life, and he's never made abortion a cause.
None of the three support the Bush administration position
on stem-cell research. When the No. 1 "moral values" movie
star, Mel Gibson, condemned the Schwarzenegger-endorsed
California ballot initiative expanding and financing
stem-cell research, the governor and voters crushed him
like a girlie-man. The measure carried by 59 percent, which
is consistent with national polling on the issue. 

If the Republican party's next round of leaders are all
cool with blue culture, why should Democrats run after the
red? Received Washington wisdom has it that the only
Democrat who will ever be able to win a national election
must be a cross between Gomer Pyle and Billy Sunday - a
Scripture-quoting Sun Belt exurbanite whose loyalty to
Nascar does not extend to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was fined
last month for saying a four-letter word on television. 

According to this argument, the values voters the Democrats
must pander to are people like Cary and Tara Leslie,
archetypal Ohio evangelical "Bush votes come to life"
apotheosized by The Washington Post right after Election
Day. The Leslies swear by "moral absolutes," support a
constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and mostly watch
Fox News. Mr. Leslie has also watched his income drop from
$55,000 to $35,000 since 2001, forcing himself, his wife
and his three young children into the ranks of what he
calls the "working poor." Maybe by 2008 some Democrat will
figure out how to persuade him that it might be a higher
moral value to worry about the future of his own family
than some gay family he hasn't even met. 



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