Let's Not Devalue Ourselves

It says something about the iron grip of the culture wars on our politics that no less a liberal than John Kerry – with his 100 percent ratings from NARAL, Human Rights Campaign, the AFL-CIO and the NAACP – recently claimed that he represents "conservative values." There may even be a sense in which that's true. "Values" is one of those bland, spongy, good-for-you words that are the verbal equivalent of tofu: It means whatever you want it to mean. As for "conservative," in certain key states that's a synonym for "not a crazy hippie," and by that definition Kerry undoubtedly qualifies. Values, even conservative values, don't have to mean the three G's (God, guns and gays) or the four A's (antiabortion, abstinence, antifeminist and anti-affirmative action), either.

In any case, the reason Kerry is so concerned about values has a lot to do with the unfairness of the Electoral College, which awards outrageously disproportionate political power to rural conservative states with fewer voters than, say, the enlightened borough of Brooklyn. Through one of those ironies with which history is so replete, the Electoral College, intended by the Founding Fathers to insure that the President was chosen by the ruling elite, has become an antidemocratic mechanism of quite another kind, giving unequal weight to votes based merely on the state in which they are cast. (How unequal? A vote from Wyoming counts almost four times as much as a vote from California.) In a country that actually practiced the principle of one person, one vote, the political landscape would be markedly different: Every vote in a presidential election would be campaigned for – the Texas liberal and the Massachusetts right-winger – and candidates would have to address the issues important to the largest number of people instead of pampering the vanity of tiny demographic slivers favored by geography. Candidates would have to wrestle with the fact that most Americans are not family farmers, that 43 percent seldom or never go to church, that one in four is nonwhite. We wouldn't obsess over swing voters in Ohio – what, they still haven't made up their minds? they've had four years! – and Thomas Frank's fascinating analysis of the growth of the right in the so-called heartland, What's the Matter With Kansas? would be a curiosity, not required reading.

Given the current system – which will never change, because the small states would have to approve a constitutional amendment and why would they do that? – Kansas matters, and Kansans care about values. As political currency, "values" may be, as Frank argues, counterfeit coinage in which working-class and lower-middle-class red staters are paid to forgo their economic and social interests in favor of the pleasures of moral superiority over the Sodom and Gomorrah that are the blue states. (Illusory moral superiority, I might add, when you consider that rates of divorce, teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock childbearing are higher in the Bible Belt than in the latté-sipping, sushi-nibbling Northeast.)

The usual Democratic response in the values debate is either to change the subject – "It's the economy, stupid" – or concede the high ground. Thus, Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Barnard and an evangelical Christian, urged Kerry in a recent Nation piece to stress his personal opposition to abortion and his commitment to making abortion, as Clinton put it, "safe, legal and rare." This may be the only time in The Nation's 139-year history that a candidate followed its advice – interviewed on Larry King Live, Kerry not only said abortion should be "rare, but safe and legal"; he said he wanted to talk about "morality, responsibility, adoption, and other choices." In other words, anti-choicers are right: Abortion is bad, women are insufficiently thoughtful about it and they should feel even worse about choosing abortion than they already do. This from the man who hopes to win the single-woman vote!

It is a mistake to give the right a monopoly on values by agreeing with them in a half-baked, yes-but, wishy-washy way. Sure, abortion should be rare – but it should be rare thanks to birth control and support for women and children, not because women guilt-trip themselves into continuing crisis pregnancies. It's not a satisfying answer, either, to change the subject, as when Kerry said that "good-paying jobs" is a Democratic value. People need to hear about those good jobs, but they also need to hear about a social vision that isn't just about their own immediate self-interest.

We liberals and progressives and leftists have our own noble principles, our own beautiful abstract words. We should take our stand on them. Fairness is a liberal value. Equality is a liberal value. Education is a liberal value. Honesty in government, public service for modest remuneration, safeguarding public resources and the land – these are all values we share. Liberty is a liberal value, trusting people to make their own decisions, letting people speak their minds even if their views are unpopular. So is social solidarity, the belief that we should share the nation's enormous wealth so that everyone can live decently. The truth is, most of the good things about this country have been fought for by liberals (indeed, by leftists and, dare one say it, Communists) – women's rights, civil liberties, the end of legal segregation, freedom of religion, the social safety net, unions, workers' rights, consumer protection, international cooperation, resistance to corporate domination – and resisted by conservatives. If conservatives had carried the day, blacks would still be in the back of the bus, women would be barefoot and pregnant, medical care would be on a cash-only basis, there'd be mouse feet in your breakfast cereal and workers would still be sleeping next to their machines.

Of course, it won't be easy for Kerry to make these points, even if he wants to. For one thing, it's hard to run as an economic populist when corporate donors are paying your bills. For another, a lot of those precious swing voters have strong conservative views – it's often a mistake to think people who disagree with you really don't, deep down. For a third, there's Iraq, a subject on which Kerry has yet to present a clear and coherent position.

Still, in the war over values, we needn't be shy. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – it has a certain ring to it, don't you think?


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