Big Sort

Sex Ed—an Oldie and a Goodie, With Meaning

Seeing the McCain campaign’s advertisement claiming Obama voted to teach sex education to kindergarteners was like flipping across the radio dial and stopping on a great oldies station. Sex ed in the schools? Gosh, we haven’t heard that one in a while.

The set-piece wisdom in politics is that, in general-election campaigns, candidates must run to the middle. They have to move away from their more ideological supporters in order to scoop up all those independent voters lurking in the ideological center.

But part of the big sort has been a decrease in these independent voters over the past 30 years. Moreover, there’s good evidence that general-election voters are no less partisan or ideological than primary voters—and that candidates who moderate their tone risk alienating their supporters.

The Bush campaign in 2004 was the first to realize these generation-long trends. They looked at their polls in January of that year and saw that nobody was left in the middle. (Hey, how many truly undecided voters do you know?) At that point, they switched from a campaign aimed at convincing independents to one geared at turning out supporters. What the McCain sex-ed ad tells me is that the Republicans think they can win this thing by moving away from the middle. No need to compromise. Just fire up those supporters and party like it’s 2004.

Sex education is an oldie but a goodie because it’s about so much more than sex or education. Some of the earliest coalitions in the conservative movement were formed around schoolbook fights. In Orange County, California, anti-U.N.ers found common cause with evangelicals and small-government libertarians in late-’60s battles over what books should be used in the public schools. Sex education and books were a proxy for a constellation of beliefs that were defining modern-day conservatism.

Maybe we can see this phenomenon more clearly if we take a trip back to 1974 and the great Kanawha County, W.Va., schoolbook war.

In the spring of that year, the local school board introduced a new set of  “multicultural” texts. There had been a dispute about sex education in the Kanawha schools a year or two earlier, and one of the leaders of that protest had been elected to the board. She began to talk against the books, saying they violated “traditional Christian and American values.” Parents met. Then they protested. By the end of summer, they were holding mass marches in Charleston. And when school started, parents kept their children out of the classrooms. By the fall, much of the state’s coal-mining industry was shut down as union miners went on strike over the books. Things got out of hand. One minister prayed publicly for the deaths of three school board members. Shots were fired at a school bus, somebody dynamited a school, and several folks went to jail.

Ten years after the strike ended, a graduate student interviewed a large group of West Virginia’s schoolbook warriors. Don Goode found that pro- and anti-schoolbook advocates disagreed not just about schools but about everything.

Pro-book advocates believed in government and thought that perhaps taxes should be raised. They supported the Supreme Court’s ruling that prayer be banned from schools. They thought schools should serve hot meals to poor kids and provide day care. Pro-book West Virginians went to mainline churches (Methodist and Episcopalian) and lived mostly in the city of Charleston.

Anti-book activists told Goode they disagreed with the Supreme Court’s prayer decision. They thought government was too big, that tax money was wasted, and that schools shouldn’t try to take the place of families. They lived in the rural areas of Kanawha County and worshipped at nondenominational churches like the Two-Mile Mountain Mission Church and the Open Door Apostolic Church.

Goode also asked the West Virginians what values they thought were most important. Those who thought the new textbooks were OK ranked a “world of beauty in nature and the arts” quite high on Goode’s list of 18 values. They agreed that having a “saved, eternal life” was least important.

Those who opposed the books ranked eternal salvation first.

Talk about your two Americas …

McCain’s advertisement wasn’t about sex education. It was telling people McCain adhered to a matrix of beliefs that has defined conservatives for two generations. The sex-ed ad said the candidate would maintain traditional authority, build a strong military, and appoint conservative judges to the courts. In one 30-second ad, the Republican could send a message about faith, foreign policy, the size of government, and taxes. The political message was that McCain believes he can win without expanding the party, compromising, or promising some dreamy post-partisan future.

These boys are hunkering down. And the only people who misunderstood what McCain meant were those who thought the ad had something to do with a bill Barack Obama supported in the Illinois state senate.