Dems Miss Out On Values

Election '04

When John Kerry gives his speech at the Democratic convention tonight he's sure to use the word "values" as often as possible. Demonstrating his commitment to values is important, but the question remains: Which values, exactly, does Kerry stand for?

Republicans have spent the last 20 years speaking clearly about the values they represent. They have even developed a brand – "family values" – to represent a range of conservative proposals, from promoting prayer in school to restricting abortion to banning gay marriage.

By contrast, liberal or "progressive" groups and Democrats have spent the same period of time defining themselves against conservative values – without ever articulating a coherent morality they can call their own. Part of the problem is that many of the intellectuals who staff progressive think tanks and the Democratic Party are so repelled by the religious right's use of "family values" that they have assiduously avoided examining the values that underlie their own politics. They see values as a distraction from "the real issues" – namely their technical analyses of social and environmental policy.

The consequence of this anti-values mindset is that progressives and Democrats have unwittingly accepted how conservatives have set the terms of the debate: "values issues" are seen today by the media and the public alike as synonymous with "social issues," including abortion and gay marriage. Meanwhile, issues like the economy, health care and foreign policy are framed as unrelated to values.

But for social scientists who study and measure them, the term "values" has a totally different meaning. Values refer to deeply held beliefs that determine our political positions and our political identities (e.g. Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive). These scientists understand that some values are traditional, like conservative "family values," others are modern, like "liberal" enlightenment values, and others (like a whole world of consumer values) fit into neither category. These values inform how individuals develop a range of opinions, on everything from the war in Iraq to sex education, to what's the best SUV on the market.

What strategists within the Republican Party and conservative think tanks understand better than Democrats is that values are not another "issue" but rather are core beliefs that underlie all political positions.

For example, Republicans framed across-the-board tax cuts around the value of fairness and the notion that all Americans, no matter how rich or poor, deserve equal treatment. Those values of fairness and equality are also linked to the value of individual freedom. In the words of President Bush, "It's your money – not the government's money." This strategy allowed Republicans to focus voters' attention on the proposal's principles – fairness, freedom and equality – instead of the proposal's impact, a $112,000 tax cut for individuals making more than $1 million per year versus the median tax cut of $470.

In contrast, while Bush talks about individual freedom and equality, Kerry promises to create jobs through "International Tax Reform" and fix health care through technical policy solutions like a "25 percent health care tax credit for people ages 55 to 64 whose salaries fall below 300 percent of poverty."

It has become fashionable among many liberals to explain this difference in approach as a difference between conservatives who see the world in simplistic, black-and-white terms and liberals who see the world in all its complexity and who understand that the solutions aren't simple. Ironically, this explanation grossly oversimplifies and underestimates the conservative mind.

The Republicans' successful tax cut proposal demonstrates how well conservatives understand that Americans vote not according to their economic self-interest but rather according to their values. Despite all the brave new talk about values, Democrats continue to frame their proposals around policies, not values.

If John Kerry hopes to connect with voters on values then he must start using core American values to frame his positions on the issues. He must avoid the tendency to see "values" as a single position in a long list of them, from health care to the war in Iraq, or as a way to respond to the conservative "family values" agenda. Rather he should start seeing his own values as central to what motivates and guides his politics. Doing so is crucial if Kerry is to position himself as a strong leader who stands up for what he believes in.

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