Monday, August 16, 2004

The Values Shell Game And Twin Billing

In his most recent column, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post notes, with a tinge of bemusement, the peculiar dilemma Republican U.S. Senate hopeful from Colorado Pete Coors finds himself in the midst of. Recognize the name? If you do, it's for good reason, Pete Coors is from that Coors family, of Colorado brewing reknown, the famous purveyor of the popular Coors and Coors Light brand beers.

The problems for Pete Coors first arose in the pitched battle against social conservative stalwart Bob Schaffer for the party nomination in the recently decided primary. Coors emerged victorious from the primary, but not before Schaffer could call into question Coors' conservative family values bona fides. Schaffer argued that Coors willingly used degrading, over-sexualized images of women to sell his products, most famously the "twins" from the ubiquitous football-themed Coors Light commercial, thus exposing the hypocrisy of his appeals to family values.

Thus was Coors faced with sharp attacks from Schaffer, and even more from an independent ad campaign organized by former senator Bill Armstrong. A staunch conservative, Armstrong attacked Coors for running "brewery ads that are degrading to women and nearly pornographic."
This tension between social conservativism and free market conservative values has implications that are far reaching in scope. As Dionne points out:

Conservatism is a noble tradition and an intellectual mess. Conservatives say they revere both traditional and market values. But those two sets of values so often contradict each other that conservatives have to cover their eyes -- from the twins ads, for example -- if they are to pretend to be consistent.
The prevailing conservative narrative tells of a disempowered conservative class being subjected to the morally decadent assault on traditional family values at the hands of a vast liberal elitist conglomeration of interests. According to the story, the liberal media, hollywood and the entertainment industry are pushing their liberal social agenda on the religious, pious and conservative who lack the power to fight back. These sentiments have been used with great guile by Republicans to garner political spoils that have positioned the GOP at the helm of all three branches of the Federal government, and with a majority stake at the local level nationwide. Despite this ascension to political power, the claims of underdog and outsider remain a constant, and the finger of blame is kept pointing in the direction of the liberals, and never at the right wing captains of industry who are using sex and violence to ply their wares.

The obvious contradiction inherent in the marriage of free market ideals and social conservativism has been successfully concealed for the past 30 years, but there appear to be some cracks in the facade, as evidenced by the hypocrisy exposed in the Colorado race. How can a group dedicated to laissez faire economics and the virtue of profit maximization over social concerns continue to rationalize the use of sexual explicitness, violence, irreverence, hedonism, and indulgence to sell their products while at the same time preaching about the values of restraint, abstinence, forbearance, temperance, and modesty?

What is the most powerful force for permissiveness in the United States? It is not liberalism. It is the free market's use of sexuality to sell products. Children in our country are exposed to many more sexual images in television ads -- especially those selling beer -- than in raunchy magazines sold under the counter. The beer ads run heavily during sports broadcasts watched by sports-minded kids who love healthy competition, achievement, discipline and victory. Rather "conservative" values, no?
To reinforce this point, it is important to note that even the so-called liberal bastion of Hollywood, and the entertainment industry in general, are themselves businesses, and big ones at that. Entertainment is the United States' number one export to the rest of the world, with sales totaling in the billions annually. Entertainment is our black gold. These businesses are governed by corporate principles and the goal of increased profits more than any social agenda. Movies and television are produced with the intention of increasing revenues and profits, as are media ventures, and this the foundation of conservative economic values.

How can the GOP maintain this precarious juggling act in the future? How do the Coors's of the GOP maintain their credibility despite the inherent hypocrisies of their business practices? One possible outcome is revealed by Thomas Franks' observations of the recent sea change that has occurred in Kansas's political landscape, which could serve as a cautionary tale to those who, to some degree disingenuously, abuse the demagoguing of values in the political context. Franks, in his acclaimed book What's The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, reveals how hard it is to get the horses of social conservativism, once freed, back in the barn.

Nowhere in America has the political narrative of the disenfranchised and disempowered social conservatives battling the Goliath of liberal moral decay been used with more success than in the one time progressive state of Kansas. But something interesting happened along the way to the forum. In Kansas there developed, over time, a divide between moderate Republicans, who had historically dominated the state's political machine, and ultra-conservatives, the usurping new-comers to the scene. The moderates have a more socially liberal agenda in a relative sense. They tend to support abortion rights, are tolerant of homosexuality and are comfortable with teaching evolution in public schools. The ultra-conservatives have a religious right social agenda, which includes banning abortion, criminalizing homosexuality and banning the teaching of evolution in favor of creationism.

The irony is that the ultra-conservatives began to use the same demagoguery of values to undermine the moderate conservatives, even going as far as to attack them as liberals and elites. The results have been staggering, as moderates have fallen one after the other like dominoes to ultra-conservative candidates.

While the moderate Coors prevailed over the ultra-conservative Schaffer in Colorado this year, the handwriting is on the wall, which should give some in the Republican leadership a pause for concern. The GOP, when considering the political future of its party, should be careful when using the values issue to exploit the religious and moral sentiments of the population for political gain. Better stick to the strategy on display at the Republican National Convention, by putting forth social liberals and moderates like Giuliani, Pataki, Schwarzenegger, Bloomberg, Zell Miller and McCain, rather than the ultra-cons appealed to by the bold strategies of Karl Rove. That is an awfully big corporate suite made of glass from which to be casting stones, and chickens have a knack for coming home to roost.

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