Brawner: Values debate divides country

Steve Brawner

The partisan differences separating many Americans aren’t just about policies like Obamacare or the national debt. According to one of America’s most influential pollsters, they’re also about something much deeper — religious values.


The pollster, Dr. Frank Luntz, is one of the Republican Party’s most important figures during the past two decades. He’s used thousands of polls and focus group sessions to measure voter attitudes to help Republicans craft their message. For example, he found that Americans support the “estate tax” but not the “death tax,” even though the terms describe the same thing. Republican candidates have been calling it a “death tax” ever since.

About a year ago, Luntz conducted a poll of 2,000 Americans. Respondents were given two choices to the question, “Which would be better for America and our future?” Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said, “Embracing and promoting a more tolerant, open-minded perspective on faith, religion and values.” The other 21 percent said, “A renewed commitment to the Judeo-Christian values and principles upon which this nation was founded.”

Among Republicans, the response was exactly the opposite, as 79 percent supported a renewed commitment to traditional values and 21 percent wanted more tolerance. Add the two parties together, and the ratio was 53 percent for more tolerance and 47 percent for traditional values.

“This is why we don’t get along. This is why we can’t connect,” Luntz said in a speech sponsored by the Milken Institute that can be viewed on YouTube.

In response to a question from the audience, Luntz blamed politicians for deliberately dividing Americans, and while that’s certainly true, this goes much deeper than political rhetoric. The two parties are split over values because Americans are split.

This explains why certain Americans have such visceral reactions to certain politicians. President George W. Bush increased the size of government, which Republicans say they oppose. But he got a pass from many conservative Americans, at least while he was in office, in part because he always seemed to represent traditional Judeo-Christian values. Many liberals disdained him even though, based on his policies, they should have had mixed feelings. President Obama, meanwhile, always seems to represent the supposedly more tolerant perspective. Because of that, many conservatives will never give him a chance, while many liberals will be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

If Luntz’s numbers are accurate, it will be difficult for presidents to broaden their appeal based on their policies. For example, during Obama’s first term his administration deported illegal immigrants much more aggressively than previous administrations. Think that made him a hero of the right? “Bringing the country together” will be next to impossible except after an extreme national emergency such as the Sept. 11 attacks.

Many Americans always will assume a president doesn’t share their values based on a party label, which leads to this question: How can anyone govern a country that’s divided not just politically but religiously? It hasn’t worked out elsewhere where that’s the case.

The values divide between the two parties may become even wider. It’s likely that many of the 21 percent of Democrats favoring traditional values live in the heartland, and that some of them will decide to be Republicans before too long, as they have in Arkansas. I’m thinking the 21 percent of pro-tolerance Republicans tend to live on the East and West Coasts. How much longer before some of them switch?

The good news is that more Americans than ever consider themselves neither Republican nor Democrat but independent, according to a 2013 Gallup Poll. On the other hand, most independents lean toward one party or the other.

By the way, Luntz is working a lot less politics these days. He’s doing more corporate and TV work and recently sold a majority interest in his company. According to a January article in The Atlantic, he became depressed after Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012. He also became discouraged by his many conversations with Americans, who he says are too angry, too dependent on the government, and too unwilling to consider opinions differing from theirs.

He was discouraged because we’re so divided. I’m not sure how we can’t be.

(Follow Steve Brawner on Twitter @stevebrawner)