Will America Bury the Hatchet?

In her prescient 1999 book, One Nation, Two Cultures, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb described America as a deeply divided country. The immediate response was: Of course we are divided. Look at the tiny margins that decide our political contests. But the acrimony-beset results of Election 2000 indicate that the division of America at this political moment is something more than a near-even split in party preferences. It is a fundamental division in core values—the very kind of cultural battlefield that Himmelfarb wrote about in her book. Furthermore, it is not a division to be easily reconciled. As Abraham Lincoln famously observed about slavery, our nation will eventually be all one way or the other, depending on which set of values ultimately prevails.

The chief reason that American politics have become enmeshed in an ongoing culture war is that religiously active voters have been gradually migrating to the Republican Party, leaving the Democrats as the party of the religiously indifferent as well as the politically liberal. The migration began in the 1970s among morally conservative evangelical Protestants, especially in the South. Now, with Election 2000, it seems clear that religiously active Catholics are joining in, moving inexorably away from the solidly Democratic voting patterns that used to be a hallmark of American Catholics.

The realignment of party affiliation to reflect voters’ degree of religiosity rather than their traditional political loyalties is the big story of American politics over the last few decades. In November’s election it became a Catholic story as well. Among the 42 percent of U.S. Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, George W. Bush garnered 55 percent of the vote, in contrast to Al Gore’s 42 percent. Even among not-so-devout Catholics, Bush did fairly well, receiving 47 percent of the total Catholic vote in November, in contrast to the mere 37 percent of Catholic ballots cast for Republican candidate Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election.

CRISIS magazine can take credit for being among the first to detect the potential for Catholics to defect from the Democrats, launching its Catholic Voter Project in 1998, a comprehensive survey of Catholic voting behavior accompanied by research into Catholic political attitudes. The Bush campaign subsequently designated Catholics as its key target constituency. The Republican National Committee geared up its Catholic Task Force to identify religiously active Catholics in key target states and communicate with them regarding issues—such as abortion and the state of popular culture—of special interest to Catholics. The media quickly picked up on the Republican efforts, and Catholics became the most closely watched voting bloc in the 2000 election. Now, the results are in, and it is clear that Catholics are indeed a major part of the recent tectonic shift in party affiliations to mirror America’s yawning cultural divide.

Two Cultures

November’s voting patterns reflected our nation’s “two cultures” in many ways.

For one, the divide was geographical. Gore won the West Coast, the central and northern Atlantic seaboard, the states bordering the Great Lakes, and Iowa, which is part of the historically Democratic Mississippi River valley. Except for areas with majority nonwhite populations, the American heartland belonged to the Republicans, waterways to the Democrats. Furthermore, it is no accident that the Democrats flourish in areas most influenced by the liberal cultural elites of New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. Look closely at California. A political line runs down the state, north to south. Bush won the state’s interior, while Gore won the coastal population centers. There are two Californias, just as there are two Americas.

Also, the election was a referendum on President Clinton. The Voter News Service (whose election day exit polls are the basis of many of the statistics in this article) asked voters this question as they left the polling places: “Do you approve or disapprove of the job Clinton is doing as president?” This question proved to be a better predictor than party affiliation of whether the voters cast their ballots for Gore or Bush. Ninety percent of Gore’s vote (45 million ballots) came from people who approved of Clinton’s job performance (57 percent of the electorate as a whole). Bush owed 75 percent of his vote (37 million ballots) to those who disapproved of Clinton’s job performance. A separate question was whether voters used their vote to express support for or opposition to Clinton on personal as well as job-related grounds. The 10 percent who cast their ballots to support Clinton voted overwhelmingly for Gore (94 percent), while those who cast their ballots to express their personal disapproval of Clinton (18 percent of the electorate) went just as lopsidedly to Bush (92 percent). In terms of sheer numbers, Bush handily won this contest between Clinton-phobic and Clinton-philic voters, 17 million to 10 million.

Based on these data, it is clear Gore did not build a voting coalition essentially different from the coalition that first elected Bill Clinton in 1992 and has continued to support him.

In addition, old ideological categories remain relevant. In the final presidential debate and in his tactics during the closing weeks of the campaign, Bush sought to label Gore as a classic big-government, big-spending liberal. Although Gore responded in one of the debates that despite all the new government programs he planned to initiate, his administration would not hire additional federal employees—”not one, not a single one.” Bush got the better of this exchange. The exit polls indicted that whether a voter wanted the federal government to “do more” or “do less” was the second most determinative, thematic variable in the outcome of Election 2000.

The polls showed that 53 percent of the electorate wanted less government, and they gave 71 percent of their votes (39 million) to Bush. The 43 percent of voters who wanted more government gave 74 percent of their votes (33 million) to Gore. Seventy-eight percent of the Bush vote came from the smaller-government constituency, while 66 percent of the Gore vote came from the bigger-government crowd. The common wisdom was that eight years of Clinton had left us in a postideological political environment, but the voting data belied this speculation. The old ideological categories are tenacious, and if anything, Bush did not fully harvest the anti-big-government vineyard.

A Moral Crisis

Voters’ perception of a pending moral crisis also made a difference. The exit polls also asked voters about their general satisfaction with America. Did they think that “things are going in the right direction” or that “things are off on the wrong track”? By this measure, Gore ought to have been elected in a landslide: 65 percent of those polled said that their country was going in the right direction (under the Clinton-Gore administration), and only 31 percent believed that America was generally on the wrong track.

But those same voters were also asked more specifically whether they thought that America was in the throes of moral decline. There, the numbers were quite different. Some 57 percent of those polled said our country was on the wrong moral track, and only 39 percent believed we were headed in the right moral direction. What is surprising about these numbers was that they were not even more skewed. In national surveys of public opinion, upwards of 80 percent of respondents typically agree that the nation is in the midst of a moral crisis.

The issue of perceived moral decline, despite general satisfaction with life in America, is a crucial one for conservative Republican strategists. It is the foundation of our social divide, the engine of the incremental realignment of voters according to their religious activism, and the coming dominant issue in American politics.

Republican strategists did not do as good a job as they could to rally voters on this issue in November. While Gore’s core constituency was smaller than Bush’s, he did a better job of coalescing them around his candidacy. Seventy percent of those who believed that we were on the right track morally (that is, the nihilists, libertines, relativists, and radical individualists among us) voted for Gore. They were the source of 57 percent of his total vote. Of the much larger potential constituency of Americans who believed there was a pending moral crisis, Bush was able to attract only 62 percent, although this number represented 74 percent of his total vote.

Gore thus solidified his base. People who acquiesced to the culture of the liberal elite got the message that they had an investment in Gore’s election. But the majority that is concerned about our country’s moral condition did not perceive to the same degree that Bush’s election was relevant to their fears. This was because Bush tended to muffle moral issues in his campaign, while Gore sought to reassure those morally concerned voters—by selecting the religiously conservative Joseph Lieberman as his running mate and making anti-Hollywood noises—that he was on their side. Had Bush done as well among the morally concerned as Gore did among the morally indifferent, he would have added five million more votes to his total.

The Catholic Difference

The Catholic vote was a significant factor for Bush. Among all Catholics, practicing and nonpracticing, Gore won 50 percent of the vote, and Bush, 47 percent. This meant that Bush added ten percentage points, or two million additional Catholic votes, to Dole’s 1996 showing of 37 percent. In a race as close as that in November 2000, Bush’s performance among Catholics obviously made a difference. Moreover, Bush’s performance among Catholics was just one percentage point behind his performance among the electorate as a whole, indicating that Catholics were not disproportionately loyal to Gore just because he was a Democrat. This, despite the fact that Catholics have a higher level of union affiliation than the electorate as a whole, and labor wholeheartedly supported Gore. Simply put, Catholics are no longer part of the core Democratic constituency.

And among religiously active Catholics, who have a discernible political identity in contrast to the nonreligiously active, Bush won by 55 percent to Gore’s 42 percent. (The figures on Bush’s support among Mass-attending Catholics comes from a postelection survey commissioned by CRISIS and conducted by QEV Analytics and Penn, Schoen, Berland, a Democratic polling firm formerly associated with the Gore campaign.) This was the best Catholic showing for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972, equal to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 showing and better than his 1980 showing. In November 2000 Bush performed substantially better among all voters than have the past two Republican nominees, Dole in 1996 and former President Bush in 1992. But the increase in religiously active Catholics’ support for the GOP nominee grew at an even faster rate. Never has the gap between the Republican vote among religiously active Catholics and the overall Republican vote been wider on the plus side.

Bush was uniquely well-suited to capitalize on his potential Catholic support. He is a person of profound Christian faith, and by selecting as his running mate Dick Cheney, who had a strong antiabortion record as a representative from Wyoming, went into the election on an unambiguously pro-life ticket. Bush’s concept of compassionate conservatism was uniquely compatible with principles of Catholic social teaching.

Because Mass-attending Catholics voted so heavily for Bush, he managed to garner 59 percent of the religiously active vote overall. This percentage has only been surpassed by the Reagan landslide of 1984 and the Richard Nixon landslide in 1972. This is evidence of precisely the sort of migration of religiously active Catholic voters toward a Republican presidential candidate that the Glum Catholic Voter Project anticipated in 1998. This migration also strongly suggests that there will be further bifurcation of the American electorate according to their relative religious activism. The Republican Party has become the party of choice for people of faith. What CRISIS did not anticipate was how quickly the Democratic Party would become the party of choice for the nonreligious—as November’s election so dramatically shows.

There is one caveat: Although Bush won 59 percent of the religiously active vote in Election 2000, religiously active voters accounted for a smaller percentage (52 percent) of his total vote than for Dole’s in 1996 (some 57 percent of Dole voters described themselves as religiously active). That can partly be accounted for by the fact that Bush’s total vote was much higher than Dole’s. There was also a decline in the percentage of voters who described themselves as Catholic: 26 percent, compared with 29 percent in 1996 (the improbably large drop may be a statistical glitch). And the 42 percent of all voters who said they were religiously active represented a decline from the 44 percent who described themselves as such in 1996.

Other Factors

There were other insights to be gained from Election 2000. Catholics in general were evenly divided (45 percent to 45 percent) on whether their bishops and pastors should issue statements or deliver sermons encouraging voters to oppose pro-choice candidates. Among religiously active Catholics, however, 56 percent favored such efforts, while only 34 percent opposed them.

Had Bush selected a pro-choice running mate, he would have lost 29 percent of his vote. Among religiously active Catholics, he would have lost 34 percent of his vote. Could Bush have won, say, Pennsylvania, by putting that state’s pro-choice Republican Governor Tom Ridge on the ticket? Not likely. Bush lost Pennsylvania by 200,000 votes that Ridge might have brought, but he might have lost pro-life votes with Ridge. The 23 electoral votes he might have gained with Ridge on the ticket would probably have cost him Florida’s 25 votes at the least, and probably more electoral votes in other pro-life states.

More Bush voters voted affirmatively for Bush (because they liked him rather than because they disliked Gore) than Gore voters voted affirmatively for Gore (rather than because they disliked Bush). Fifty-four percent of Gore voters voted for Gore rather than against Bush, but 63 percent of Bush voters voted for Bush rather than against Gore.

By a 2-to-1 margin (53 percent to 27 percent), religiously active Catholics believed that Bush would do more than Gore to address their moral concerns.

A huge majority (89 percent) of religiously active Catholics believed there is too much violence and sexually explicit programming on television in the early evening (between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.), and 80 percent strongly agreed with that position. In the country as a whole, 87 percent agreed with that position, 71 percent strongly. Among religiously inactive Catholics, however, only 78 percent agreed that early-evening television contains too much sex and violence, and only 58 percent agreed strongly. This is why it was so crucial for the Republicans that Gore not win “the Hollywood issue,” even though he tried. Fortunately for Bush, Gore blurred his message by making a conciliatory (and fund-raising) trip to Hollywood.

More voters (34 percent to 28 percent) believed Bush rather than Gore would actually take steps to limit sex and violence during family television hours.

Asked which presidential candidate would be more supportive of the Catholic Church, 39 percent of all Catholics selected Bush, while 19 percent selected Gore. Among religiously active Catholics, 36 percent selected Bush and 17 percent selected Gore.

Although Bush’s Republican rival, John McCain, accused Bush of pandering to anti-Catholicism in the primaries, Gore would have defeated McCain 64 percent to 26 percent had he been the Republican nominee. Among religiously active Catholics, who were probably turned off by McCain’s position that people of faith have too much influence in politics, McCain would have lost 76 percent to 17 percent.

A Political Remedy

What do all of these poll results suggest? Although the majority of Americans (57 percent, according to the exit polls) are concerned about the deteriorating moral character of our society, we have not yet defined that deterioration as a political issue. Witness the short life of the political response to the 1999 Columbine tragedy, certainly the most profound indictment of American societal decay.

November’s election certainly touched on certain moral issues with political overtones: violence and sexual promiscuity on television, the anti-Boy Scout campaign, and same-sex marriage. The Republican campaign discussed all these questions in mailings to religiously active Catholics in target states. But in general, those who perceived the moral crisis did not yet see it as having a political remedy.

Traditionally it has been Democrats who have introduced issues into the political arena, often inappropriately, and Republicans who have resisted, usually unsuccessfully. But if the Republican Party is to fulfill its mission as the party of choice for people of faith, it must take on the traditional Democratic role by turning the issues that concern people of faith into political issues. Ironically, Gore is something of an ally in this process—he put Hollywood (the moral quality of popular culture) into play as a political question.

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “conservatives…are likely to stumble in the future negotiating the minefield of culture.” Such pessimism is unwarranted if one has faith, as we Catholics do, in the power of truth. The undeniable truth is that the quality of life for all Americans is diminished by living in a society in which the dominant moral code is dictated by the liberal elite. And this is most assuredly a political question. If we are prepared to argue empirically rather than merely ideologically, we need not fear, as Fukuyama does, the charge of being “moralistic.”

Extremely divided presidential elections can sometimes presage dramatic realignments in the electorate. The potential exists for Bush to achieve at least a landslide reelection the next time around, if not a genuine reordering of American moral and political concerns. To do this, he needs to coalesce that solid majority of Americans who perceive the nation to be in social decline and give them hope that the decline can be arrested. In a nation of two cultures, he needs to make it clear that one culture will prevail.


At the time this article was published, Steve Wagner was president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm in Washington, D.C.

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