The remarkable adaptability of ‘family values’ voters

The Republican party likes to portray itself as defenders of ‘traditional family values’, which seem to many of us to be synonymous with narrow-minded, bigoted, and religiously-motivated ones. But that’s fine. People have their own moral standards and need some measures by which to evaluate candidates and they have every right to expect the candidates they support to have the same values that they do.

But what is odd is that rather than letting the values determine who their candidate should be, many of those voters seem to reverse the process and let the candidate determine their values at any given moment. When these voters find a candidate they really like for some reason but whose values seem different from the ones they hold, they are able to spin on their axis with no difficulty and espouse the new set of values as enthusiastically as they had rejected them just a short while before.

The most glaring example of this came during the 2008 campaign when it emerged soon after being announced as the Republican vice presidential nominee that Sarah Palin, who had been eagerly clasped to the bosom of the Christian voters, had an unwed high school daughter who was pregnant. This really should have had no bearing on Palin’s eligibility for office. In my opinion, the private lives of candidates should play only an incidental role in political discussions, and the lives of their relatives and friends even less so. But unfortunately this is not the case. Those with long memories will recall the episodes involving Gary Hart, Billy Carter (Jimmy Carter’s brother), Bill Clinton, and so on where there was enormous interest in the private lives of politicians and their families.

In the case of Bristol Palin, it would have perfectly reasonable for Palin’s defenders to say that her life was her own and her family’s to deal with and the rest of us should keep our noses out of it. But that is not what happened. Almost overnight, a narrative sprang up among Palin’s supporters that having an unwed pregnant teenage daughter was somehow a positive factor, that it showed that the Palin family was ‘real’ and faced the kinds of ‘real’ problems that most Americans have to deal with and that this in fact added to her qualifications for office. In a post titled Shameless double standards that I wrote back in September 2008, I said that while this unprincipled reversal disgusted some conservatives, most seemed to go along with it. I added,

I suspect that had McCain nominated someone who later was revealed to be a serial killer but who said he loved Jesus, opposed abortion, and favored policies that favored the wealthy, these same people would suddenly say that ‘real Americans’ have prison records and the ability to kill without compunction is just the kind of toughness we need in a national leader in order to deal with terrorists. They would also decry as wimps the Democratic candidates because neither had the gumption to shoot a man, just to watch him die.

I wrote the above sarcastically but sure enough, along comes a conservative who says that Newt Gingrich’s history with women, which would normally have been denounced and deemed him unfit for office by ‘traditional family values’ voters, in fact reflects favorably on his candidacy. The honors for articulating this radical theory goes to Fox News commentator and psychiatrist Keith Ablow who says, presumably with a straight face, that what we know of Gingrich’s history with women shows that he would make such a great leader that the problem will be that we won’t be able to get enough of him.

When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.

So, as far as I can tell, judging from the psychological data, we have only one real risk to America from his marital history if Newt Gingrich were to become president: We would need to worry that another nation, perhaps a little younger than ours, would be so taken by Mr. Gingrich that it would seduce him into marrying it and becoming its president.

Yes indeedy, that is what passes for serious analysis on Fox News.

Jon Oliver of The Daily Show also thinks that his history shows Gingrich’s strength.

At least with Oliver we know it is satire. With Ablow, I don’t know what to think.


  1. Henry Gale says

    I think what might be happening is not the changing of values, but the forgiveness of violating values if someone is a Christian.

    I suspect that if Palin were an atheist you would have seen all the rhetoric that one would expect from conservative Christians towards a single teenage unwed mother. But because the Palin household is a Christian household, the rhetoric was tamped down.

    That said, I wonder if because McCain rubbed many Christian Republicans the wrong way Palin got a little extra leniency. The fundamentals on the right needed a reason to back McCain and Palin (warts and all) provided that.

    We see this Christian forgiveness with George W. as well. A former alcoholic and coke user should have been sent packing by Christian Republicans, but since he had a ‘come to Jesus moment’ he was given a pass.

  2. says

    What he said might be true if it was only that Newt had three wives (yes, I’m reaching) but he conveniently glosses over the fact that Newt cheated on two of them, and filed for divorce when they were diagnosed with major illnesses.

    If he had cheated on his wife when he was, say, in his 20s, and had come clean about it, said how much he regretted it, he and wife have reconciled, etc., then that would be fine. None of us are perfect, and owning up to your mistakes takes character. Unfortunately for Lizard, I mean Newt, he did none of that.

  3. stonyground says

    I would normally be in agreement that a politician’s private life should be nobody’s business but their own but there are exceptions. Here in the UK I would never vote for a Catholic. Not because of prejudice but because any Catholic politician is likely to be pressured by the RCC to vote in ways that I am very likely to be opposed to.

    In the case of Sarah Palin she was, I believe, in favour of abstinence only contraception. This has been proven without doubt to be a bad idea in the wider world, but she has proof that it doesn’t work right under her own stupid nose. If elected, she would be inflicting her demonstrably false, delusion driven policies on the entire nation. Why would anyone with a brain vote for her, ever?

  4. Airplane Butcher says

    Cognitive dissonance? Perhaps these commentators are an easy out for people who have problems formulating thier own views. People with a magical world view are likely to follow their emotions rather than use sound reasoning. The doctors whole argument is an appeal to emotion. He provides them a back door to exscape through. Discard one of the conflicting ideas beleived to be true, and the problem is solved. Que the ardent supporters of hypocrisy. Rinse repeat.

  5. frustum says

    Stonyground said:

    Here in the UK I would never vote for a Catholic.

    Maybe Catholics in the UK are different than Catholics in the US, but the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the US will grant the Pope authority only in areas where it doesn’t affect them. When it comes to personal issues, most Catholics in the US don’t give a thought to what the Pope might think about it. It was an issue before JFK was elected, and other than showing the little pope to any skirt he could catch, being Catholic apparently didn’t affect his decision making.

    The birth rate for US-born Catholics is pretty indistinguishable from any other group. Catholics who emigrated to the US have a much higher birth rate, but I suspect that is due in part to cultural norms (macho men don’t need to use condoms).

    I’d say in this case you should not use this a litmus test and instead try to evaluate the position they espouse.

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