SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

How far can the moral backlash go?

In exit polls during the US presidential election, the biggest group (22%) said that they were influenced by ‘moral’ issues (80% of Bush voters). At the same time, voters in eleven states overwhelmingly passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. John Kerry’s chief pollster consequently argued that ‘culture-based politics’ had replaced ‘class-based politics’. CHRISTINE THOMAS looks at the role that ‘moral’ issues played and at how far Bush could go in implementing the reactionary social agenda of the Christian right.

THERE IS UNDOUBTEDLY a real fear now amongst women, gays, lesbians and minorities in the US that a Bush second term will lead to a stepping up of attacks on their rights. "I hope we all realise that, as of November 2nd, gay rights are officially dead. And that from here on we are going to be led even closer to the guillotine", wrote Garry Wills in the New York Times. Such fears are not surprising given the comments of some newly elected Republican senators. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, for example, advocates the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. Jim Demint, Republican senator for South Carolina, wants a ban on gays and single mothers teaching in schools.

Although Bush won substantial votes from Catholics and mainstream Protestants, right-wing evangelical Christians accounted for more than a third of his extra votes this time. Karl Rove, Bush’s main political adviser, calculated that around four million evangelical Christians failed to vote for Bush in the 2000 presidential elections. If they could be mobilised in these elections, he reasoned, they could help Bush secure the presidency.

The Christian right has its roots in the ‘culture wars’ that developed in reaction to the social protest movements in the 1960s against the Vietnam war and for civil rights for blacks, women and sexual minorities, which led to a general ideological and cultural shift to the left in society. Opposition was focused on issues such as gay rights, women’s rights, prayer in schools and parental control of school textbooks and curriculum. Although the conservative groups are not homogeneous, their general aim is to restore traditional moral and Christian values to social policy. In particular, the family is considered central to the health of society. Family breakdown – the undermining of traditional male and female roles, and moral control over children – is blamed for the ‘moral and social degeneration’ of society itself. Strengthening the traditional family and the ‘God-given’ role of men and women are therefore paramount.

Opposition to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Roe v Wade, which stated that women had a constitutional right to abortion, became a rallying and unifying issue for the Christian right. Their opposition to abortion is not just based on the ‘right to life’. They view abortion as encouraging promiscuity amongst women and therefore challenging traditional gender roles.

During the 1970s, the Christian right became more politically involved. At the end of the decade, Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s failed presidential campaign in 1988 spawned the Christian Coalition which was primarily orientated towards electoral politics. At a 1990 convention in Washington, Robertson declared his aim was to elect a pro-family Congress by 1994 and a pro-family president by 2000.

Concentrating their forces at a grassroots level, the Christian right gradually ‘infiltrated’ the Republicans, working to influence nominations and party platforms and get right-wing pro-family candidates elected. In some areas they succeeded in taking control of the party at a local level. Their impact on policies has varied from state to state, but they have undoubtedly become a significant electoral factor within the Republican Party.

In these latest elections, the Republicans mobilised 1.2 million grassroots volunteers, many of whom were from the Christian right. Around 45,000 evangelical churches were involved in Bush’s campaign, handing over membership directories and using evangelical radio and TV stations – the ‘electronic church’ – to broadcast their message to millions of potential voters. In eleven states, initiatives to ban same-sex marriages were placed on the ballot to energise the Christian right vote. "That certainly galvanised the church", said one activist in Ohio. "The fact that there was a presidential election was just another factor. People would have gone to the polls to vote on the marriage amendment whoever was on the ballot for president". (The Guardian, 5 November 2004)

There is no doubt that the Christian right view the 2004 elections as a turning point and feel emboldened to more vigorously pursue their ‘moral counter-revolution’; as far as they are concerned it is payback time. "Make no mistake", wrote Richard Viguerie, a right-wing, direct-mailing campaigner, in the New York Times. "Conservative Christians and ‘values voters’ won this election for George W Bush and Republicans in Congress. It is crucial that the Republican leadership not forget this – as much as some will try". The president of the American Family Association was even more forthright: "We are going to hold their feet to the fire for the next few years". (Observer, 7 November)

Abortion rights

IN HIS FIRST term, Bush showed that he is prepared to use Republican control of the presidency and Congress to promote conservative ‘moral’ values. One of his first acts was to reinstate the rule that overseas organisations receiving US funds do not advocate or provide abortions, even using their own money. Although often referred to as ‘symbolic’, this has damaged the health and lives of many thousands of poor women internationally.

In the US, the Bush administration diverted $100 million away from poverty programmes in order to use the welfare system to extol the virtues of marriage. At the same time, the education department has promoted abstinence in sex education. Over 100 such programmes exist in 25 states. But a 2004 report released by Democratic Representative, Henry Waxman, of the twelve most widely used, federally funded projects, found the information they gave "false, misleading and distorted". This included ‘information’ that HIV can be contracted through sweat and tears, touching genitals can result in pregnancy, and a 43-day-old foetus is a conscious being. A Columbia University study revealed that 88% of teenagers who took virginity pledges ended up having premarital sex and that, when they did, they were less likely to use contraception than other teenagers.

Abortion has in many ways been the touchtone for Christian conservatives. The ultimate goal of many is for abortion to be made completely illegal. From the moment that the Roe v Wade ruling was made, the anti-abortionists mobilised against a woman’s right to choose. The first major victory came in 1977 when the Democratic Party president, Jimmy Carter, signed into law the Hyde amendment banning federal funding for abortions, except in extreme cases. This effectively withdrew the right to abortion for poor women who did not have health insurance and could not afford to pay to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Many working-class women found that a constitutional right is meaningless if the resources do not exist on the ground to enforce that right. In fact, only 13% of US counties now provide abortion services.

Tactics employed by the anti-abortionists have varied from state to state, according to which party is in office at any particular time, and how confident they feel of success. Extreme measures, carried out by pro-life organisations like Operation Rescue in the 1990s, involving murdering doctors who carried out abortions and blowing up abortion clinics, proved counter-productive. They alienated public opinion, including many who considered themselves ‘pro-life’. Most anti-abortion groups have since modified their approach, concentrating instead on waging an ideological war aimed at creating a climate which would be more conducive to further curtailments on abortion rights.

In practice, the anti-abortionists’ ‘salami tactic’ of whittling away abortion rights by stealth has had some effect. In the last seven years, individual states have placed at least 300 restrictions on abortion, including imposing waiting periods, limiting mobility between states in order to secure an abortion, and implementing parental consent laws.

In November 2003, Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, the first federal restriction on abortion for 30 years. It is not clear exactly what the legislation will mean in practice as the wording is imprecise and is currently under appeal in the courts. However, even the emotive name of this act, which incorrectly refers to an abortion procedure carried out in the second trimester, marks an ideological victory for the moral right. Encouraged by this ‘victory’ and the election results, anti-abortionists have already succeeded in inserting a clause into a spending bill in Congress, which would allow healthcare companies, hospitals and insurance companies to not fund or provide abortions, overriding state laws which require them to do so.

A raft of other anti-abortion measures is being drawn up. Religious fundamentalists are also flexing their muscles in areas such as Dover, Pennsylvania, determined that the creationist theory of ‘intelligent design’ becomes a compulsory part of the science curriculum. And, having failed by 19 votes to get the Senate to agree a federal amendment to the constitution banning gay marriage, Bush will come under increasing pressure from the Christian right to try again.

In particular, the conservative right will be looking to Bush to tip the balance of forces in the Supreme Court in a right-wing, anti-abortion direction. The nine Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. One, William Rehnquist, is seriously ill and others could retire soon. Judges are nominated by the president but require Senate approval. Bush has declared that his favourite justices are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two of the most right-wing. They opposed a recent ruling to strike down anti-sodomy laws in Texas, and Scalia warned of a homosexual agenda causing a wave of incest and bestiality throughout America.

It is clear that the Democrats are preparing to give in to Bush’s judicial nominations and, in a recent case, the Supreme Court upheld the woman’s right to abortion by just one vote. There are serious concerns, therefore, that a second term Bush presidency could see an all-out assault aimed at overturning Roe v Wade. According to the Centre for Reproductive Rights, up to 30 states are poised to make abortion illegal should that happen.

Shifting social attitudes

HOWEVER, SECURING LIMITED restrictions, at a state and even federal level, which make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions is very different from overturning Roe v Wade and criminalising all abortions. Any attempt to do so could unleash a massive opposition movement.

At face value it can seem incredible that ‘moral’ issues could be placed above the economy (20%), health care (8%), education (4%), or terrorism (15%) and Iraq (15%) in influencing how people voted in the elections. In the US, 36 million people live below the poverty line, a figure that increased by 4.3 million under Bush. He is the first president since Herbert Hoover in the 1930s to finish his first term with more jobs lost than when he started. At the same time, a brutal war and occupation in Iraq has claimed the lives of over 1,400 US troops. Yet, these were not necessarily separate and distinct issues in the minds of voters. If you are living in what appears to be an increasingly insecure world; if you fear losing your job, and with it health care and possibly your home; if, at the same time, you are terrified of terrorist attacks – a fear whipped up by politicians and the media – then, where no alternative class programme or ideology is being put forward on a mass scale which addresses the issues concerning you and your family, moral certainties can appear attractive. Appeals to ‘good’ over ‘evil’, to the importance of traditional values, to ‘the family’ and ‘faith,’ and opposition to anything which appears to undermine these certainties, can gain an echo.

This is particularly the case in a country where religious observance is relatively high compared to many European countries (although there are regional differences, it being particularly concentrated in the central states and the south). Nearly two thirds of those who voted for Bush and 41% who voted for Kerry go to church every week – compared with just 10% of Labour and 13% of Tory voters in Britain – and 59% of Americans say that religion plays a ‘very important’ role in their lives.

This does not mean, however, that everyone who cited ‘moral’ issues as most influential at the polls, including Bush voters, agreed with the reactionary, social agenda of those on the Christian right who define homosexuality as a sin and want to see abortion outlawed in all circumstances, including after rape or when a woman’s health is in danger. Bush’s religious support was much broader than just the socially conservative evangelical right, with a majority of Catholics voting for him this time. And, ‘moral issues’ is a very vague term which could mean different things to different people. Abortion, for example, was not listed as a separate poll issue in these elections. It was, however, in 1996 and 2000 when only 9% and 14% considered it important. Interestingly, although the biggest group of electors mentioned moral values as being the most important influence on the way they voted, proportionately, this was less than in 1996 and 2000 when 40% and 35% said so.

There is no evidence to support the assertion of a swing to the right in social attitudes over abortion or other ‘moral’ issues. In reality, the so-called moral majority is a minority – 55% of the US population are broadly in favour of abortion, 42% are opposed. This represents no change over the last four years. A majority (60%) support either gay marriage or civil unions and are opposed to changing the constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman – which would effectively ban same-sex marriages. The polls indicate, in fact, a society becoming more tolerant of gay rights, with 42% now saying that same-sex marriages should be legal compared to 27% in 1996.

This mirrors a shift in social attitudes that has occurred in most advanced capitalist countries and is one which politicians have not been able to ignore. When Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian candidate to become the European Union justice commissioner, declared that homosexuality was a sin and attacked single parents, the ensuing furore forced the withdrawal of his candidacy. Even the Tories in Britain, who have formerly taken a right-wing stance on ‘family values’, have recently adopted a more tolerant approach to ‘moral’ issues. A section of the party understands that to maintain a reactionary attitude towards the rights of women, gays and lesbians, for example, would be a barrier to breaking out of the party’s narrow social base and attracting sufficient support to win a general election.

As has often been the case with regard to social issues, political parties have responded to changes already underway in society. Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium have legalised same-sex marriages and several other countries have recognised civil partnerships. Elected following the Madrid bombing, Spain’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, moved rapidly to implement a radical social agenda, legalising gay marriage, introducing a law against domestic violence, and reversing a ban on stem-cell research. These policies reflect changing social attitudes in what was once considered a conservative Catholic society and will be particularly welcomed by oppressed groups in Spain. But they have also served as a useful distraction from PSOE’s pro-capitalist policies which have nothing to offer working-class people.

Conservative family values which place women firmly in the home no longer coincide with the needs of capitalism internationally. It is true that the capitalists want to slash public spending in order to reduce their share of taxation and boost profits, and that they therefore still rely on the family, and women in particular, to pick up the slack by providing services for free to ‘economically unproductive’ members of society. At the same time, they want women in the workforce where they can exploit their labour. It is one of the contradictions of capitalism that this places intolerable burdens on families and personal relationships, leading to family breakdown. However, it is not in capitalism’s overall interests to reverse the process of women’s increasing economic participation in the workplace by pushing them back into the home. And it is extremely unlikely that they would be successful in this, even if they wanted to do so.

Nevertheless, the family is of continued ideological importance for capitalism. There is no prospect of Tony Blair going into the general election in Britain on a pro-life, anti-gay marriage platform as Bush did. But he is preparing to emulate Bush by playing on people’s fears and insecurities, particularly over crime, to win back the working-class support which New Labour lost because of the war in Iraq and its pro-big business policies on public services, etc. In a speech in July 2004, Blair blamed the Sixties and ‘different lifestyles’ for crime and social breakdown. Parents are made to feel totally responsible for juvenile crime and become a convenient scapegoat for capitalism’s failures and inadequacies. Historically, capitalism has relied on the family as a means of social control and continues to do so, albeit with modifications.

The traditional bourgeois family ‘ideal’, comprising a married male breadwinner with dependent female homemaker and children, has gradually been broadened in response to social changes to incorporate women who work outside the home. There is much more tolerance now of relationships which do not fit this ideal – unmarried couples with children, lone parents and same-sex relationships. However, because of the structural crisis of capitalism, the family remains an important institution both economically and ideologically, placing limits on how far capitalism can adapt and resulting in insoluble contradictions.

This means that there is still a minority reservoir of support for more backward ideas which the ruling class can draw on at a time of crisis to sow divisions amongst the working class. It can also be exploited by political parties, as with Bush and the Republicans, to win electoral support. But it is a strategy which can backfire, threatening the interests of the capitalists themselves.

Political backlash

IN APRIL 2004, one of the biggest marches in US history took place in Washington DC against the piecemeal undermining of abortion rights under Bush. Over one million people took to the streets, giving an indication of what could happen on a much larger scale if the Supreme Court tried to strike down a woman’s right to choose.

‘Moral’ issues can themselves trigger broader protests, as happened in the ‘White March’ in Belgium in 1996 (see Socialism Today No.13). The Belgian state’s handling of a paedophile ring became the catalyst for a mass movement around which economic grievances, such as opposition to public-sector cuts because of the Maastricht treaty, coalesced. But with no clear class lead given to the movement, capitalist politicians were able to portray it as a ‘moral’, non-political protest and channel it in a safe direction.

The Christian right helped Bush win the presidency and there has been an increase in elected Republican senators sharing their views. But these are not representative of the party as a whole. One wing of the Republicans understands that if the party goes too far in pushing the moral agenda of the conservative right they risk a political backlash, especially amongst women, which could seriously undermine their future electoral prospects and even split the party.

The big US corporations expect a second term Bush presidency to vigorously pursue policies in their interests. It is one thing to use ‘moral’ issues as a smokescreen in elections, it is quite another for those issues to dominate government, diverting attention from the real needs of big business. When, in 1999, the Kansas state school board voted to change the science curriculum to include creationism and present evolution as just one theory, an Oregon firm immediately announced that it was reconsidering whether to locate there. The school board’s decision gave Kansas the image of a backward state which some sections of big business considered damaging to their economic future. Bush’s ban on embryonic stem cell research is widely viewed as costing the US its lead in important areas of scientific research.

So, while we can expect more attempts to impose restrictions on abortion at a state level, and an all-out attack on Roe v Wade cannot be totally ruled out, Bush will come under pressure from the big corporations and his own party to tread carefully on ‘moral’ issues for fear of provoking a political backlash. He will want to keep ‘moral’ issues on the boil, but is more interested in privatising social security and other economic attacks.

The US elections have underlined how, particularly in a situation of crisis and insecurity when no viable alternative is on offer, social and ‘moral’ issues can be used to obscure class divisions in society by diverting attention away from economic and ‘bread-and-butter’ issues such as jobs and poverty pay.

If a mass workers’ party had existed in the US, with an alternative class and ‘moral’ agenda, then the outcome of the elections could have been very different. Pre-election polls showed that 55% of Americans thought the country was moving in the wrong direction and only 49% approved of the job that Bush was doing. Many of those who voted for Bush, including 36% of union members and 40% of those earning less than $30,000 a year, could have been won to a mass party that attacked the ‘moral values’ of a capitalist class that thinks it acceptable for corporate America to make massive profits while throwing millions of workers out of a job, destroying the environment, and waging brutal wars for profit and prestige. An alternative class agenda, posed on a mass scale, could also have energised the 43% who did not bother to vote at all.

Clearly Kerry, a billionaire representative of big business who supported war in Iraq, did not provide such an alternative. Even on ‘moral’ issues such as gay rights, Kerry did not come out clearly against Bush. He supported civil partnerships but opposed gay marriage (the same position as Bush on the eve of the elections). Although he has a pro-choice record on abortion he was extremely apologetic on the campaign trail. Once in office, Democrat promises on abortion rights have evaporated. Clinton failed to pass a freedom-of-choice act or repeal the Hyde amendment. He restricted abortion rights by denying federal funding for prisoners’ abortions and banned abortions in military hospitals. When governor of Arkansas, he banned federal employees’ health insurance from covering abortion procedures. Now, drawing completely the wrong conclusions from the election results, the dominant section of Democratic Party leaders are discussing softening their position on abortion and gay rights even further.

The US elections exposed clearly the need for a third party – a workers’ party with an alternative class programme. The underlying weakness of the economy means that class issues will inevitably come to the fore once more if the US workers move into struggle. This does not necessarily mean, however, that social issues such as abortion will ‘disappear’. On the contrary, past struggles have shown that when working-class women in particular are mobilised around ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, they also become radicalised on social issues and begin to challenge all aspects of the double oppression they face in society.

But it cannot be guaranteed that new political formations, which arise in the future in the US and elsewhere, will have a clear programme on social issues. When some unions came together a few years ago, for example, in a (subsequently unsuccessful) attempt to establish a Labor Party, the new formation did not adopt a clear policy on a woman’s right to choose. Genuine socialists are therefore faced with the task of both campaigning for the formation of workers’ parties and fighting for those parties to adopt an alternative class programme which addresses all the concerns of working-class people and clearly fights for the rights of all oppressed groups.


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