Freak out III: The power of small, vulnerable minorities

Under normal conditions, I am not a big-time reader of the business sections in American newspapers. Most of the time, they focus 99 percent of their ink on people who own businesses, instead of covering the people who work in them, are affected by their actions or who purchase goods and services from them. It's a corporate thing. In a way, it's like the old religion pages in newspapers that only covered what was going on in religious denominations and bureaucracies. Where are the people?

Anyway, I digress.

Being stuck in an airport for a few hours tends to send me deeper into a newspaper and, thus, I wandered into the business pages of the New York Times on Thursday, while traveling to Nashville to take part in the fall National College Media Convention. And lo, I discovered that the wave of pew-gap coverage had swept all the way back into the column called the Economic Scene. I urge you to check this one out, because Virginia Postrel -- author of "'The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness" -- may have written the most level-headed piece in the newspaper that day. As a rule, I don't like question leads, but this one is fascinating:

Have religious issues become more important in politics because too few Americans go to church? That is the surprising suggestion of a new working paper by the Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser and two doctoral students, Jesse M. Shapiro and Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto. ...

The paper starts with a puzzle: In a majoritarian system like ours, political economists generally predict that candidates will converge toward the center of the spectrum, so as to attract as many votes as possible. This is the "median voter theory." But it doesn't seem to describe what's happened in American politics. On divisive religious issues like abortion, the two parties aren't hugging the center. They're abandoning it.

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that this is true -- in part, because it is hard to compromise on moral issues. This is the political version of the old via media theological approach found in Anglicanism. One side says "Jesus is Lord." The other side says "Jesus is not Lord." The via media compromise is "Jesus is occasionally Lord." This is not a victory for the traditionalists. It is for the progressives. Or let's try it with a social issue: "Sex outside of marriage is sin." The other side says "Sex outside of marriage is not sin." The via media is "Sex outside of marriage is occasionally sin."

Now, the cases I just cited are theological, not political. But the same thing is happening on political/moral issues such as abortion and the redefinition of legal terms such as "marriage," "fidelity" and "monogamy" in public life and institutions. Only in this case, the activists on the left are being just as hard-nosed as those on the right. Truth is, the Massachusetts Supreme Court just re-elected George W. Bush.

Postrel gets it. Once again, she returns to the Harvard publication:

While most people know that the Republican Party has taken an increasingly strong anti-abortion position, the authors note that the Democratic Party has simultaneously moved in the opposite direction.

In 1976, the Democratic platform said, "We fully recognize the religious and ethical nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject of abortion," while terming a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade merely "undesirable." In this year's platform, by contrast, Democrats declared that they "stand proudly" for a woman's right to an abortion, "regardless of her ability to pay."

Actually, the 2004 Democratic platform goes much further than that -- stripping away a conscience clause that gave pro-life Democrats a shred of political dignity. Do you think the Democrats wish they had those votes now?

Postrel's essay is hard to edit, so I will not try. She notes that some religious voters are struggling with the decision of whether they can vote at all, because picking a flawed candidate forces them to compromise on these -- for them -- life-and-death issues.

And what if the leaders of both the religious left and the religious right felt increasingly vulnerable? The rising profile of the gay-rights movement, and its strategic clout in blue-county elite culture, increases attacks on its views, as well as its power. Ditto for the leaders of the religious right, even though their numbers are apparently quite large -- especially in red-county America. What if the realization that you are a minority actually undercut your ability to compromise?

And what if you had few political options? Perhaps the religious left and the anti-religious left face the same dilemma as the religious right. Where do they go? What are their options in the voting booth, other than deciding to stay at home? How will Dr. James Dobson dance with the Terminator? Could Hollywood embrace an old-fashioned Democrat, one who was conservative on cultural issues and progressive on economics?

Once again, this has journalistic implications. How do the cells of progressive journalists in places such as Atlanta, Dallas and the rest of red-county America sell newspapers to people whose lives they do not understand and whose views they do not respect? (Yes, this post features an early version of the 2004 map.)

Maybe journalists have become a small, vulnerable, endangered neo-religious group who have lost the ability to compromise -- which would mean doing old-fashioned journalism that tries to deal fairly and accurately with the views of people on both sides of tough political and cultural issues.

Audiophile postscript: The theme song of our three posts on The New York Times' post-election coverage, "Le Freak," is available as an iTunes download.

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