With all the trumpeting of red values after the election, I think Frank Rich’s upcoming column in the New York Times provides a prospective that Democrats need to keep in mind. The GOP may scream about “moral values” as the religious right interprets them to mean anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-pornography, but in reality, it is the general cultural coarseness, most often on display on your TV set, that has people upset. Yet, some of the worse purveyors of such coarseness are the big-time Red backers.
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”).
What the conservatives don’t realize, Rich writes, is that they’re getting taken for a ride.
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 despise.
But they’re still getting the votes they need to win, until people like Cary and Tara Leslie wake up.
…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.
That’s the challenge for Democrats, but one that can be met if they’re willing to make moral judgments condemning the coarse culture that both Republicans and Democrats exploit for profit. The great triumph of the Republican Party is to not only get people to vote against their pocketbook interests but also offend their moral values and then fail to deliver on that moral agenda.