A Republican Monopoly On Values?
In today’s Washington Post, George Will asks the question “Just who is a values voter?” The phrase has certainly become a media codeword for social conservatives, but, by its terms, is meaningless. Absent the outright purchase of votes as is often alleged by any side of the aisle during elections season, the act of selecting a candidate or deciding on a referendum is by definition an expression of the voter’s values.
An aggressively annoying new phrase in
's political lexicon is "values voters." It is used proudly by social conservatives, and carelessly by the media to denote such conservatives. America
It is odd that some conservatives are eager to promote the semantic vanity of the phrase "values voters." And it is odder still that the media are cooperating with those conservatives.
Conservatives should be wary of the idea that when they talk about, say, tax cuts and limited government -- about things other than abortion, gay marriage, religion in the public square and similar issues -- they are engaging in values-free discourse. And by ratifying the social conservatives' monopoly of the label "values voters," the media are furthering the fiction that these voters are somehow more morally awake than others.
Today's liberal agenda includes preservation, even expansion, of the welfare state in its current configuration in order to strengthen an egalitarian ethic of common provision. Liberals favor taxes and other measures to produce a more equal distribution of income. They may value equality indiscriminately, but they vote their values.
So why has the label so persistently adhered to social conservatives? To some extent, the label works so well because social conservatives have gainfully framed their politics as morally superior. The conservative revolution, begun by Reagan and solidified with the wild success of Contract with America, derived its success by casting itself as a counterpoint to the ineffectual largesse of liberal spending on issues promoted by the misguided idealism of the left. Like it or not, exit polls conducted during the 2004 elections revealed that 22% of voters listed “moral values” as their primary issue in selecting a candidate . Of these, 80% voted for Bush. Of course, this data does not necessarily reveal that Bush supporters have a monopoly on moral values. Surely voters who selected multilateralism, or any other hot button issue in the campaign, did vote their morals. It does show, however, the wild success the right has had in casting themselves as morally superior to a sizeable segment of the American population. (Or at least the segment of the American population that votes. Rather than assume that those who choose not to vote are morally inferior to voters, I will be charitable and consider that a moral choice as well.)
But you cannot blame Republican genius (e.g., Messrs. Atwater and Rove) at framing issues for the success of this label. Even Bill Clinton had to position himself on the center-right of the Democratic political spectrum, and much of his success derived from the strategy of triangulating White House policy with the liberal mainstream of his party. Welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act, the premier acts of triangulation, were geared specifically to presenting his presidency as a counterpoint to two issues that have traditionally been the bulwark of the Democratic party: using government revenue to solve social ills and promotion of gender politics.
The success of the label also points to the right’s ability to promote its agenda as proactive and concrete. The Democrats seem to have settled into the role of an opposition party, but have failed make the final leap that allows an opposition party’s transition into a governing party. That the party has failed to produce a concrete agenda is a common Republican charge and one often repeated by Democrats too. To some extent, this can be blamed on the lackluster, or even the absence of, party leadership. The party selected Howard Dean as their chairman, and he has thus far failed to beat Republican fundraising success. That such a capability was even touted as a primary selling point the party rank-and-file, is even more telling. Where is the ideological leadership? Dean was a little-known candidate who marked his turf with his ideas, often espoused quite loudly, but it is abundantly apparent that he did not convince the mainstream of his own party to select him for his ideas.
At the end of the day, the left’s failure can be read as either a fundamental shift in the political realities of the United States—that today’s voter does see the right’s agenda as morally superior to the lefts, or it can be read as the left’s failure to counter an effective Republican message machine. The mid-term elections are coming up, but they may not be the best indicator of the reality on the ground. Mid-term voters are notorious for punishing the party in charge. A better gauge of reality would be the 2008 elections. The left will have a real chance to both formulate a sellable platform and a chance for someone—anyone—to assert leadership of a headless party.
Endnote (Courtesy of Ezzie):
This article is a perfect way in which to start off this blog. It behooves us to recognize that those who do disagree with us do not do so because they do not have values; rather, they do not share the same values as we do. Or perhaps they do share those values – but they feel that the best way to achieve or protect those values is not the same as our own. Our discussions must be predicated on this understanding and recognition of each other’s values. Our purpose is to see where are values overlap and where they differ, and in what ways we can reach a compromise when it is the latter.