This just in from Our Man in Dayton, Tennessee covering the big American events of recent days:
“Life down here in the Cumberland mountains realizes almost perfectly the ideal of righteous and devoted men. That is to say, evangelical Christianity is one hundred per cent triumphant. It may seem fabulous, but it is a sober fact that a sound Episcopalian or even a northern Methodist would be regarded as virtually an atheist in Dayton. Here the only genuine conflict is among true believers. Of a given text in Holy Writ one faction may say this thing and another that, but both agree unreservedly that the text is impeccable, and neither in the midst of the most violent disputation would venture to accuse the other of doubt.
“In brief, this is a strictly Christian community. Its people are simply unable to imagine a man who rejects the literal authority of the Bible. The most they can conjure up, straining until they are red in the face, is a man who is in error about this or that text. Thus one accused of heresy among them is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap.
“The town courthouse is surrounded by a large lawn, and it is peppered day and night with evangelists. One and all they are fundamentalists and their yells and bawling fill the air with orthodoxy. I have listened to twenty of them and had private discourse with a dozen, and I have yet to find one who doubted so much as the typographical errors in Holy Writ.
“Even the Baptists no longer brew a medicine that is strong enough for the mountaineers. The sacrament of baptism by total immersion is over too quickly. What they crave is a continuous experience of the divine power, an endless series of evidence that the true believer is a marked man, ever under the eye of God. It is not enough to go to a revival once or twice a year; there must be a revival every night. And it is not enough to accept the truth as a mere statement of indisputable and awful fact: it must be embraced ecstatically to the accompaniment of loud shouts, dreadful heavings, and gurglings.”
Our Man in Dayton, of course, is the notorious and sometimes noxious H.L. Mencken, and he filed his dispatch in 1925 at the opening of the Scopes Trial, in which the defendant was tried for teaching evolution. Obviously, Mencken was on to something. The reporter from the Baltimore Evening Sun (he liked to refer to himself as a “Baltimoron”) ventured into the hinterland and found “a people who not only accept the Bible as an infallible handbook of history, geology, biology and celestial physics, but who also practice its moral precepts. It would be hard to imagine a more moral town than Dayton. If it has any bootleggers, no visitor has heard of them. There is no gambling. There is no place to dance. The relatively wicked, when they would indulge themselves, go to Robinson’s drugstore and debate theology.”
More than three-quarters of a century later, Mencken, who coined the term “booboisie” (he might have added “boobetariat,” “boobigentsia,” and “middle-class Homo Boobus” as well), would not be surprised by the faith-based voting that carried U.S. President George W. Bush to re-election earlier this week.
Now that we’ve observed a brief period of decent mourning in silence, and read the bloggers’ logorrheic post-mortems on how the exit pollers got it wrong, why the record turn-out didn’t favour the challenger, and that the youth vote didn’t save us, notwithstanding rapper P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die!” urgings to his constituency, time for some emotions recollected in tranquillity, as the poets like to say.
First, though, the facts. Bush won handily, with a solid 51-48 per cent majority. Not a landslide, but pretty much a landslide in heartland states where Bush’s majority ran at about 62-38 per cent. Still, some 55 million Americans, out of the 113 million who cast a ballot, opposed the incumbent. The one unique fact to emerge from election day issue polling is that 20 per cent of voters said that the No. 1 issue for them was not terrorism, the war in Iraq, or the economy, but “moral values.” Those who identified moral values as their priority voted for Bush by 80 per cent margins, and clinched the election.
As Larry Kudlow, economics editor of the boobigentsia’s National Review, put it, “Bush’s core support group has all along been the born-again Christians. They make up roughly 40 per cent of the American population. They are middle-class folk who go to church, read the Bible, and practice traditional virtues and values—make that religious values—in their daily lives. They are married and tend to stay married… They drive SUVS. They shop at Wal-Mart and JCPenney. They are middle-class.” In short, Mencken’s booboisie.
“Yes, and they believe in God–as does their candidate, George W. Bush,” waxes Kudlow. “They also believe in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. And as befits the traditional nuclear family, they love their children and believe strongly in a child’s right to life. In Ohio, which turned out to be Bush’s most important swing state, one-fourth of voters identified themselves as born-again Christians and they backed Bush by a 3-1 margin. These folks turned out heavily to support Ohio’s state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In fact, voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments limiting marriage to one man and one woman.” Kudlow concludes, “In the end the evidence points to the Evangelicals as Bush’s primary engine of victory.”
So, then, can it be that “it’s not the economy, stupid,” to paraphrase the Bill Clinton campaign’s well-known internal reminder to keep on-message? Probably Mencken would have said, “It’s the stoopid people, stupid.” A more complex analysis is offered by Thomas Frank, whose book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan, 2004), analyses the relationship between capitalist economics, militarism and the culture war.
Frank argues that the American culture war is mostly a smokescreen that obscures the real cause of distress, namely, unconstrained free-market capitalism, which has routed social and political forces that once kept it constrained. Cowboy capitalism, Frank claims, has outsourced the blue-collar prosperity of cities like Wichita and devastated the farm-belt, yet aggrieved Kansans have banded together not to fight unregulated capitalism, but to re-elect the very proponents of that laissez-faire philosophy.
This “bad-faith” paradox, he argues, is a product of what he calls the 30-year “Great Backlash,” which “mobilizes voters with explosive social issues–summoning public outrage over everything from busing to unchristian art–which it then marries to pro-business economic policies.” But it’s not a non-gay marriage between equals, he adds. The business agenda gets enacted, the cultural agenda remains unfulfilled. Well, at least so far. What backlash strategists have most successfully repackaged is the notion of an evil liberal elite. The term doesn’t refer to members of the country’s economic upper crust, who get the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation, rather “elitist” refers to a member of the cultural elite, defined as liberal snobs in the media, academia, and government who sneer at the values of ordinary Americans. Remember former Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s rants at the “nattering nabobs of negativity”? (For more on Tom Frank and his book, see Bob Thompson, “The Author Who’s Got Himself in a Purple State,” Washington Post, Oct. 29, 2004, from which the above paragraphs are more or less plagiarized.)
Critics of this analysis reply that although there’s a holy brew of religion, capitalism, and militarism, Frank may be underestimating the appeal of the culture war, even if it’s a form of deluded bad faith. Naturally, Mencken had a snooty answer for those asking, How is it possible for so many to believe the bizarre tidings of the Second Coming? The boob’s “reasons fo
r hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex–because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meagre capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple and even obvious.”
“The popularity of fundamentalism” among Homo Boobus is easily explicable, said Mencken. “The cosmoganies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex… But the cosmogany of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistable reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters. Politics and the fine arts repeat the story… How much easier to follow a mountebank with a shibboleth.”
Mencken thought we were condemned to the rule of our intellectual inferiors. Those of us committed to the democratic proposition can’t indulge in such comforts. Thomas Frank, for example, puts it this way: “The culture wars are a way of framing the ever-powerful subject of social class. They are a way for Republicans to speak on behalf of the forgotten man without causing any problems for their core big-business constituency.” Frank argues that the Democrats’ only hope is to directly tackle the issue of social class, and to “confront the cultural populism of the wedge issues with genuine economic populism.” (Thomas Frank, “Why They Won,” The New York Times, Nov. 5, 2004.)
I doubt that the solution is that neat. Or simple enough to cram into an op-ed piece. Faith-based voting is produced by a vast ideological and material ensemble of churches, faith-fuelled political parties, educational institutions, think-tanks, and media, and it now commands a majority, albeit a small majority, in the American electorate. As in the Muslim world, large numbers of people in born-again America believe in their gods, their souls, and a nuclear family morality that claims an obligation to preserve every human embryo and to condemn every act of unapproved sex. I don’t think the faith-based are going to be reasoned out of it anytime soon.
Nov. 5, 2004