The Myth of the 'Values' Voter
Lenny Bruce had a bit in his old stand-up act where he said we should all say the N word (though of course he didn't use that euphemism) over and over, and soon enough the slur would lose its meaning and ability to hurt people. I'd like a similar fate for the V word—values—at least as applied to a political context, and it may be that the House page scandal can help. "Values voters"—descended from "Joe Six-Pack" and "soccer moms" and other products of the market segmenters who have invaded our politics—are not all wing nuts. Most are principled Americans with legitimate gripes about what's happened to old-fashioned notions of decency. But the term is loaded and unfair, and was popularized by lazy-minded journalists. It implies that people on the other side—those who, in the smug cliché of the day, "do not share our values"—aren't just wrong but morally inferior.
While the political value of "values" has been known for decades, the concept got a big boost from exit polls after the 2004 election. In an otherwise close race, John Kerry lost to President Bush, 59 to 40 percent, among voters who are married with children. And exit polls showed that 22 percent of voters cited "moral values" as their top concern. Democrats had mostly themselves to blame. They'd forgotten that millions of parents really do fight a daily war with crude popular culture for their children's attention. And it looked as if anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives would lead to armies of conservative voters storming to the polls to vote Republican. Forever.
But a funny thing happened on the way back to Pleasantville. A closer look at the exit polls showed that security in fact trumped values in 2004 (those citing Iraq and terrorism totaled 39 percent), and Iraq is obviously a much bigger issue this November. At the same time, social conservatives like James Dobson have begun charging that Bush was merely paying lip service to their priorities. (A new book by former White House aide David Kuo argues that Bush's team was indeed cynical about the uses of religious voters.) With the exception of Bush's veto of the embryonic-stem-cell bill, the "traditional values agenda"—including constitutional amendments banning abortion and gay marriage—remains unfulfilled.
Now fallout from the Mark Foley story is giving the GOP establishment a taste of its own sanctimonious medicine, as Democrats tsk-tsk their way back into power. While it's hard to imagine many incumbents losing their seats over the Foley issue alone, the lingering subtext will likely dampen conservative turnout and could help tip close races. Publicity about an influential gay Republican subculture in Washington makes the GOP's pandering on gay marriage less persuasive. And the story adds to the overall sense that the current congressional leadership has failed to offer oversight on a series of moral issues, from corruption to burdening our children with debt to protecting minors from predators in what is supposed to be the "Daddy" party.
Most important, after years of obtuse elitism, the Democrats are finally getting in the values game. Al Gore describes his fight against global warming as a moral imperative. Progressives from the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine ("When did Jesus become pro-war? When did Jesus become pro-rich?") to Sen. Barack Obama are finding an audience for their message: that liberals have a tradition of sensibly integrating faith and politics. Obama's new book, "The Audacity of Hope," published this week, may kick off a 2008 presidential campaign (the odds of his running are now about 50-50) that would offer Democrats their best chance yet to grab "values" back from the right.
More likely, the word will turn into a political football pulled so hard by each team that it finally deflates. Good. That could help lead us back to the hard policy choices we face and the values we have in common. Consider the new book "Applebee's America," a cross-aisle collaboration among President Bush's pollster, Matthew Dowd, President Bill Clinton's political director, Douglas Sosnik, and Ron Fournier, formerly of the Associated Press. While full of pop sociology and business-world bromides, the book does help strip "values" of partisan coloration. The authors argue that success from politics to religion to the restaurant industry comes to those who tap into the most powerful American value of all: the hunger for community.