As Democrats contemplate their seventh presidential defeat in the last 10 tries (a record that would have prompted heads to roll if George Steinbrenner were in charge), analysts have decided that John Kerry lost not to W but to V, as in values.
The President, it is being said, clearly is more in tune with American values. According to the Monday-morning quarterbacks, Democrats were fools to believe that a sort-of liberal Senator fromMassachusetts could speak to the values that motivate average voters.
This, of course, is patent nonsense. The question is not about values, but about how we define values. There was a time when America seemed to value social justice, progressive economic policies, a shared civic culture and—oh, yeah—peace. (“America hates war,” Franklin Roosevelt said in 1940.)
When the media talk about values now, however, they have in mind three issues, which are so delicately defined as “God, guns and gays.” Those were the buzz words in every post-mortem I read. Democrats have it wrong on all three. They’re anti-God, anti-guns and pro-gays.
There’s some truth in that stereotype, but the question ought to be not why are Democrats out of touch on values, but why only certain values are, well, valued.
Why isn’t the war in Iraq a values issue? Why isn’t tax policy a values issue?
The fact is, almost every issue can be expressed in terms of values. What’s also undeniable is that Democrats do a rotten job expressing their issues in terms of values, and Republicans are superb at defining their values.
Perhaps that’s because some liberals have always had a problem with this debate. They’ll argue (as they have often in the past) that values really shouldn’t be an issue because, after all, right-thinking people know that values are not absolute and who are we to impose our values on other people, etc.
By dismissing the values debate as unworthy of a modern, diverse nation, liberals have allowed conservatives to define the issue. And they’ve defined values as the three G’s: God, guns and gays. Not a word about justice. Not a word about equality. Not a word about war and peace. Not a word about our obligations to the needy, to the disabled, to the sick, to the least among us.
You’d think that given all the attention paid to the evangelical and conservative Christian movement, some Democrats would figure out that their party actually stands for values that ought to resonate with people of faith. The gospels, after all preach values that make John Kerry sound like a spokesman for corporate America. According to Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus was not much of a spokesman for the marketplace values that so many Republicans revere.
Imagine, for a moment, if a Democrat or liberal (not always one in the same) seized on the values preached in the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine a Democratic presidential candidate who cited Biblical values for opposing marketplace morality, for supporting a progressive tax structure, for insisting that labor and capital be taxed in equal measure because it is only fair.
For whatever reason, however, Democrats seem incapable of making this connection and, therefore, of redefining the values debate. And so hard-right Republicans—who are rewriting the tax code to favor the rich, who are hostile to the notion of a social safety net, who believe that the market creates its own morality – have become the spokesman for American values because their antagonists shy away from using the V word.
When, and how, did America become a place where a distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment is considered a “values” issue, but not social justice? Where, and how, did America’s chattering classes decide that abortion is a “values” issue, but the death penalty isn’t?
Where, and how, did the American media decide that the only values that matter happen to be, wouldn’t you know, the values embraced by Republican candidates?
If Democrats decide that they must find a way to neutralize Republicans on the G values, they’re doomed to extinction. Nevertheless, that kind of talk has already found its way in the mainstream media. While some kind of re-examination of these issues certainly would be useful – why are pro-life Democrats routinely marginalized? – the Democrats would be far better off broadening the idea of values. They could talk about the values that gave us Social Security and Medicare and civil rights. They could talk about the values that gave us unemployment insurance and environmental regulation and even—yes!—welfare.
They could talk about the values that have made America in 2004 a far more benevolent society than it was in 1904.
But first, Democrats have to accept that they do, in fact, have values, and that, yes, those values have a basis in—believe it or not—Scripture.