August 1, 2008


Will Culture War Overshadow Real War in 2008? (Ira Chernus, 8/01/08, TomDispatch)

Pundits and activists who oppose the war in Iraq generally assume that the issue has to work against McCain because they treat American politics as if it were a college classroom full of rational truth-seekers. The reality is much more like a theatrical spectacle. Symbolism and the emotion it evokes -- not facts and logic -- rule the day.

In fact, the Pew Center survey found that only about a quarter of those who say they'll vote for McCain base their choice on issues at all. What appeals to them above all, his supporters say, is his "experience," a word that can conveniently mean many things to many people.

The McCain campaign constantly highlights its man's most emotionally gripping experience: his years of captivity in North Vietnam. Take a look at the McCain TV commercial entitled "Love." It opens with footage of laughing, kissing hippies enjoying the "summer of love," then cuts to the young Navy flier spending that summer of 1967 dropping bombs on North Vietnam and soon to end up a tortured prisoner of those he was bombing.

McCain believed in "another kind of love," the narrator explains, a love that puts the "country and her people before self." Oh, those selfish hippies, still winning votes for Republicans -- or so McCain's strategists hope.

Obama agrees that the symbolic meanings of Vietnam and the "love generation" still hang heavy over American politics. The debate about patriotism, he observed, "remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s… a fact most evident during our recent debates about the war in Iraq."

Obama is right -- sort of. The so-called culture wars have shifted away from social issues to war, terrorism, and national security. The number of potential voters who rate abortion or gay rights as their top priority now rarely exceeds 5%; in some polls it falls close to zero. Meanwhile, Republicans are nine times as likely as Democrats, and far more likely than independents, to put terrorism at or near the top of their most-important list. And Republican voters are much more likely to agree with McCain that Iraq is, indeed, the "the central front in the war on terrorism."

Sociologists tell us, however, that the "culture wars" so assiduously promoted by conservatives are mostly smoke and mirrors. Despite what media pundits may say, the public is not divided into two monolithic values camps. Voters are much less predictable than that. And few let values issues trump their more immediate problems -- especially economic ones -- when they step into the voting booth. The almighty power of the monolithic "values voters" is largely a myth invented by the media.

Yet, the "culture war" story does impact not only debates about the war in Iraq, as Obama said, but all debates about national security. Beyond the small minority who are strict "values voters," there are certainly millions of "values plus" voters. Though they can be swayed by lots of issues, they hold essentially conservative social values and would like a president who does the same. This time around, it's a reasonable guess that they, too, are letting war and security issues symbolize their "values" concerns. Put in the simplest terms: They are the McCain campaign's only chance.

So just how much of a chance does he really have? At this point, only two-thirds of those who say they trust him most on Iraq plan to vote for him. That means less than 30% of all voters are solidly prowar and pro-McCain. But another 12% or so who do not trust McCain on Iraq say they'll vote for him anyway, keeping him competitive in polling on the overall race. Most of them are surely part of the huge majority who, whatever they think of his Iraq specifics, trust McCain most to protect us from terrorism and see him as the person most desirable as commander-in-chief. (There's that "experience" again.)

The crucial voters are the 10% to 20% who want troops out of Iraq soon, won't yet commit to McCain, but "trust him" most to do the right thing on Iraq and terrorism. They are choosing the man, not the policy position, on the war. A lot of them fall among the 5% to 20% -- depending on the poll you pick -- who won't yet commit to either candidate.

McCain can swing the election if his campaign can only convince enough of them to vote with their hearts, or their guts, for the "experienced" Vietnam war hero, the symbol of the never-ending crusade against "Sixties values." So he and his handlers naturally want to turn the campaign into a simple moral drama: Sixties values -- or the nation's security and your own? Take your pick.

...and the bastards keep voting values....

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 1, 2008 8:46 AM

Pundits and activists who oppose the war in Iraq generally assume that the issue has to work against McCain because they treat American politics as if it were a college classroom full of rational truth-seekers.


Frat House College - yes

rational no

Posted by: Sandy P at August 1, 2008 11:32 AM

McCain voters are irrational, they "vote with their hearts". Obama voters are rational, they vote for his skin color.

Can anyone tell me what Obama stands for? What Obama voters are voting for?

Posted by: ic at August 1, 2008 12:22 PM
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