5 Myths About Values Voters

By Dick Meyer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Values" is a word that clings to American office-seekers like rhetorical lint: They all have traditional ones and their opponents don't. The trick, of course, is in the definitions. Traditional values for one group may be "un-American" in another part of the country, we have been told lately.

Since the Reagan years, conservatives have been winning the battle to define values, and many now blindly accept that opposition to abortion or support for praying in school have been at the core of "real America" ever since the Founding Fathers. There's some irony to that as "values" is relatively new to common usage. The Latin word "valere" meant "be strong, be well, be of value" and is related to "valiant." Old French transformed that into a word for worth; the Germans brought on the sociological uses of the word. Values became a popular term in America mostly in describing the kinds of ideas and customs that are specific or relative to different societies or cultures, as distinct from absolute or universal. Conservatives are supposed to prefer absolutes, of course, but they've done a good job co-opting values talk.

Political battles aside, much of what we think we know about values in America isn't really of much value.

1. "Moral values" determine who wins elections . This canard is back with a vengeance because of how Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy is being processed by the political class. "She was a hockey mom, she became a mayor, she understands the values of America," Roberta Combs, the president of the Christian Coalition of America, said after Palin's nomination. Values are supposed to equal votes.

The myth of the values voter became 21st-century conventional wisdom because of the exit polls conducted for the 2004 election. In a question about which issue mattered most to voters, the most-cited issue on the list of seven was "moral values" at 22 percent; "economy/jobs" came next on the list at 20 percent, followed by terrorism (19 percent), Iraq (15 percent) and then health care, taxes and education in single digits. This immediately became The Explanation for President Bush's reelection. "Faith, Values Fueled Win," declared the Chicago Tribune. The problem was, the exit poll messed up.

First, "moral values" means different things to different people. Some voters undoubtedly meant to express that they voted for the candidate who they thought had better values and character. Second, the question was constructed poorly. If "Iraq" and "terrorism" had been combined into one option, that would have been No. 1 by far; if "economy/jobs" and "taxes" were lumped together, moral values would be about as talked about as the Moral Majority is now -- in the past tense.

Gary Langer of ABC News helped design the exit poll. Right after the election he wrote in the New York Times that "this hot-button catch phrase had no place alongside defined political issues on the list of most important concerns in the 2004 vote. Its presence there created a deep distortion -- one that threatens to misinform the political discourse for years to come." It has, and with Gov. Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket, the role of moral values is being distorted anew.

2. Americans have broadly rejected "traditional values." Actually, Americans retain our traditional values more than just about any other developed country in the world.

That's what University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker found in his 2005 book, "America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception." Baker uses the World Values Surveys to look at American values from a broad, global perspective. He describes human values on two planes. The first is a scale of values from traditional to secular-rationalist. Societies with more traditional values emphasize the importance of God and religion, family and parenting, national identity and pride and absolute standards of morality, not relative ones. Secular-rationalist values are pretty much the opposite: nonreligious, open to abortion and euthanasia, skeptical of national pride or patriotism and evolving away from family, duty and authority.

The second range of values runs from survival values to self-expression ones. In less developed and safe societies, survival values reign. Procuring physical security and meeting basic material needs dominate; foreigners and ethnic diversity are seen as threatening; intolerance is exaggerated. Self-expression values concern creativity, self-fulfillment and lifestyle.

Compared with other countries, the United States emphasizes both traditional values and self-expression values. If you plotted it on a graph, the traditional/self-expression countries near America are Britain, Canada and Australia. Among developed countries, only Ireland embraces traditional values more than the United States.

There is, of course, a tension between self-expression values and traditional values. A devoted mother who is a church-goer and a hardworking professional, for example, may also graze the self-help aisle at bookstores for help "reinventing" herself. And that tension fosters another myth.

3. Americans are polarized and fighting a culture war over values. This myth has been the dominant narrative of American politics since Generalissimo Pat Buchanan declared a culture war at the 1992 Republican National Convention. It is hogwash.

"Americans are not divided into two opposed camps based on incompatible views of moral authority," Baker wrote from a sociologist's perspective. "In fact, Americans tend to share attitudes, values, and beliefs, and to be united when it comes to the most important values."

Political scientist Morris Fiorina took on the civic version of this malignant malarkey in his influential book, "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America." He also found that "voters are not deeply or bitterly divided." In fact, the reason that recent presidential elections have been so close, and Congress so narrowly divided, is that voters actually share both a broad distrust of both political parties and government and a basic civic outlook. For example, in 2000, the Mother of All Red/Blue Elections, he found that exactly 62 percent of voters in red states and blue states should tolerate each others' "moral views." But finding neither team attractive, voters naturally split their votes about evenly between the two unpopular sides. That isn't polarization; it is simple sorting.

This is true, however: The political elite are polarized and increasingly inclined toward extremism and demonizing the other side. They are the practitioners of politics, and the commentariat, but do not reflect the vast majority.

4. Traditional values are "family values" or "moral values." Nope. We use the term "values" to talk about deep things -- what is most important to people, what organizes their lives. "Family values," by contrast, is the term for a collection of transient political positions that began their prominent political life as "wedge issues" in the campaigns of the 1980s: opposition to abortion and gay marriage or support for prayer in school and teaching creationism.

Traditional values in the United States, Baker found, are very different than in other nations. Unlike nations where collective identity is based on common ancestry, in the United States, he wrote, the imagined community is "a shared set of ideas." These are the ideas of the Constitution: personal liberty, equality, democracy and the rule of law. America was invented, not inherited. Our traditional values don't come from the fatherland, the volk or an ancient regime. Nor are our most basic shared values a selection of moral positions held by conservative American Christians.

Seen in this way, it is clear that traditional American values are alive and well. Constitutional ideals have unchallenged legitimacy, as do the worth of family, religion (or spirituality) and national pride. This is a stark contrast to the countries that have radically rejected their traditional values: Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Japan and the former Eastern Bloc nations.

5. Basic values, properly understood, are compatible and harmonious. This is what most of the world's religions and great systematic philosophies teach. The harmony of ultimate values is a comforting thing to believe in. But it is a dangerous political philosophy in real, live societies because it fosters wishful thinking and rationalizes the irrational. For example, liberty and equality are basic ideals in American democracy, but they often clash. In our contemporary politics, Democrats do not accept that raising personal income taxes represents a substantial restriction of liberty; and Republicans do not accept that cutting taxes can be a substantial barrier to equality. Instead of being honest about such conflicts in policy and government, politicians paper them over and obfuscate (we can cut taxes and the deficit; we can increase the size of government and make it more efficient; we can deregulate financial markets and make them less risky.) This infantilizes politics and then breeds cynicism.

The bottom line on values is that there is no crisis: Americans have not rejected traditional values. They are not deeply divided over questions of values. Noisy, persistent conflicts aren't a sign of civic rot, but of humans being human. Americans are indeed frustrated and challenged by a lack of community, by rapid social and technological change and by economic pessimism. But our values are not the problem.

Dick Meyer is the author of "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium" and the editorial director for Digital Media at NPR.

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