WASHINGTON In 1994, when the Gingrich revolution swept Republicans into power, ending 40 years of Democratic hegemony, the mainstream press needed to account for this inversion of the Perfect Order of Things. A myth was born. Explained the USA Today headline: "Angry White Men: Their votes turned the tide for the GOP."
Overnight, the revolution of the Angry White Male became conventional wisdom. In the 10 years before the 1994 election, there were 56 Nexis mentions of angry white men in the media. In the next seven months, there were more than 1,400.
At the time, I looked into this story line and found not a scintilla of evidence to support the claim. Nonetheless, it was a necessary invention, a way for the liberal elite to delegitimize a conservative victory. And even better, a way to assuage their moral vanity: You never lose because your ideas are sclerotic or your positions retrograde but because your opponent appealed to the baser instincts of mankind.
Plus ca change . . . Ten years and another stunning Democratic defeat later, and liberals are at it again. The Angry White Male has been transmuted into the Bigoted Christian Redneck.
In the post-election analyses, the liberal elite, led by the holy trinity of The New York Times Krugman, Friedman and Dowd just about lost its mind denouncing the return of medieval primitivism. As usual, Maureen Dowd achieved the highest level of hysteria, cursing the Republicans for pandering to "isolationism, nativism, chauvinism, puritanism and religious fanaticism" in their unfailing drive to "summon our nasty devils."
Whence comes this fable? With President Bush increasing his share of the vote among Hispanics, Jews, women (especially married women), Catholics, seniors and even African-Americans, on what does this victory-of-the-homophobic-evangelical rest?
Its origins lie in a single question in the Election Day exit poll. The urban myth grew around the fact that "moral values" ranked highest in the answer to Question J: "Which ONE issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?"
It is a thin reed upon which to base a General Theory of the '04 Election. In fact, it is no reed at all. The way the question was set up, moral values was sure to be ranked disproportionately high. Why? Because it was a multiple-choice question and moral values cover a group of issues, while all the other choices were individual issues. Chop up the alternatives finely enough, and moral values is sure to get a bare plurality over the others.Look at the choices:
- Education, 4 percent
- Taxes, 5 percent
- Health care, 8 percent
- Iraq, 15 percent
- Terrorism, 19 percent
- Economy and jobs, 20 percent>
- Moral values, 22 percent
"Moral values" encompasses abortion, gay marriage, Hollywood's influence, the general coarsening of the culture, and, for some, the morality of pre-emptive war. The way to logically pit this class of issues against the others would be to pit it against other classes: "war issues" or "foreign policy issues" (Iraq plus terrorism) and "economic issues" (jobs, taxes, health care, etc).
If you pit group against group, moral values comes in dead last: war issues at 34 percent, economic issues variously described at 33 percent, and moral values at 22 percent i.e., they are at least a third less salient than the others.