AMERICAN VALUES: 1968-1998
Struggle Over New Standards
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 27, 1998; Page A01
Last in a series of occasional articles
The sharply divided public reaction to the impeachment of President Clinton has provided a dramatic showcase of a struggle for American values that goes back to the 1960s and remains unresolved today.
As an emblematic figure from that troubled decade, polls and analysts said, Clinton confronts his fellow citizens with choices between deeply held moral standards and an abhorrence of judging others' behavior, a conflict the Baby Boomers have stirred all their adult lives.
This final installment of a series of surveys about values by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University follows on reports emphasizing the growing tolerance Americans now display for groups such as homosexuals that have suffered discrimination and toward practices ranging from interracial marriage to premarital sex that once might have been condemned. That tolerance also extends to free expression of controversial views.
But few issues are more revealing than Clinton's impeachment when it comes to highlighting how values have changed over the past 30 years. Almost without exception, experts interviewed said the public verdict in his case is far different than it would have been in the late '60s because the values environment has changed.
That conflict over the social order is notably less violent than it was in 1968, when the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, urban riots, and violent clashes between police and protesters at the Democratic National Convention scarred the nation's consciousness. But 1998, with a bitter, year-long battle in the courts and Congress climaxing in the first presidential impeachment in 130 years, has left deep divisions across social, political and generational lines.
They begin, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey, with a near-even split between those (50 percent) who think a president "has a greater responsibility than leaders of other organizations to set the moral tone for the country" and those (48 percent) who say, "As long as he does a good job running the country, a president's personal life is not important."
Reflecting the partisanship engendered by the long investigation of Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, most Republicans demand a moral example and most Democrats reject it.
But sociologists and other students of American life interviewed last week said the divisions go much deeper and have their roots in long-standing controversy generated not just by Clinton but by his Baby Boom generation.
While most Americans want Clinton to finish his term, and prefer censure as an alternative, few believe he is a good role model. Seven in 10 Americans -- including a majority of Baby Boomers -- said in the survey that Clinton does not have high personal moral or ethical standards. Six in 10 -- again including a majority of Baby Boomers -- also said his standards are no better or worse than "most people of his generation."
The public sees a nation that lacks agreed-upon ethical guidelines for itself. More than six out of 10 said the country "was greatly divided when it comes to the most important values," rather than being in agreement. Ironically, on this one question there was unity. Republicans and Democrats, men and women, young and old all said they see a society split on moral and ethical issues.
With some exceptions, the experts tend to agree. Some describe it as as a battle of extremes -- the Puritanism of the Religious Right vs. the permissiveness of the aging children of the '60s. Others see the acceptance of Clinton's actions as proof that Americans are utterly cynical about their political leaders, mute spectators at a television drama they despise but cannot escape.
Some say it is a symptom of national ambivalence, of individuals longing for moral values but resistant to imposing their standards on others. And the more hopeful say the preference for censuring the president -- rather than absolving him or removing him -- is a healthy effort at synthesizing those opposing tendencies. A few optimists say the upshot of all the discussion will be a standard for future presidents that is both more demanding and more realistic.
Few of the scholars are comfortable with the status quo, however. "No analysis can absolve the people themselves of responsibility for the quandary we appear to be in," said Don Eberly, director of the Civil Society Project in Harrisburg, Pa. "Nonjudgmentalism, the trump card of moral debate, seems to have gained strength among the people, especially in the sexual realm, and this clearly does not bode well for America."
Over the last 30 years, polling shows the proportion of people saying they think their fellow citizens generally are as honest and moral as they used to be has fallen significantly. In a 1952 survey, as many answered yes as said no. In 1965, there were three yeses for every four noes. But this year there were almost three noes (71 percent) for every yes (26 percent).
In the same period, trust in government also has declined radically. In 1968, 61 percent said they trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing most or all the time; in 1998, only 33 percent felt that way.
Pollster Dan Yankelovich wrote that "the transformation in values from the mid-'60s to the late-'70s confronts us with one of the sharpest discontinuities in our cultural history." In that period's "radical extension of individualism . . . from the politi domain to personal lifestyles," he notes, the concepts of duty, social conformity, respectability and sexual morality were devalued, in favor of expressiveness and pleasure seeking.
This was a time in which Bill Clinton, moving through his twenties at Georgetown, Oxford and Yale, rejected military service, experimented with marijuana. But in general, according to his biographer, Washington Post reporter David Maraniss, Clinton followed "a moderate course during an increasingly immoderate period." The stamp of that period remained on Clinton, in at least two areas: the evasiveness that characterized his dealings with the "threat" of military service and the permissiveness he allowed in his sexual life.
In judging Clinton's morals to be typical of his generation -- only 7 percent thought them better; 27 percent, worse -- most of those surveyed made it clear they disapproved of them.
Yankelovich argues that in the 1990s, "a shift is now occurring toward a perception of the self as a moral actor with obligations and concerns as well as rights . . . we are beginning to measure a shift back toward absolute as distinct from relative values." That theme of individual responsibility is one Clinton has emphasized in his speeches, if not always in his actions.
From this perspective, the divided public verdict on the Clinton case represents not just a legal argument about the standards for impeachment and removal of a president, or a partisan battle between Republicans and Democrats, but also an unresolved debate about fundamental values.
At the extremes, the conflict amounts almost to the "culture war" some trace directly back to the 1960s. Randy Tate of the Christian Coalition and William J. Bennett, former education secretary, have accused Clinton of subverting standards of honesty and decency so blatantly that he cannot be allowed to remain in office. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and many Democrats in the House have accused Clinton's opponents -- notably independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr -- of practicing "sexual McCarthyism," trampling civil liberties and invading people's privacy.
Alan Wolfe, a Boston University sociologist, argued in his book, "One Nation, After All," that the "culture war" is confined to political elites, and that most individuals struggle to balance their yearning for clear standards against their discomfort with passing judgment on others.
Wolfe said in an interview that he sees exactly that happening in the Clinton case -- "even though people are torn, they are looking to find a way to negotiate through these competing impulses." Wolfe said he thought last January, when Lewinsky first became a household name, that "people would forgive adultery but lying in public would not pass. But people realized that the lying and the adultery were part of the same thing. I don't agree, but I recognize the wisdom in making that connection."
Others see the conflict in starker -- and more worrisome -- terms. David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute of American Values in New York, said the reaction to Clinton demonstrates that "many middle-class Americans obey an 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not judge. They view morality as a private matter. What I find troublesome is that . . . apart from treason, there is nothing worse than a democratic leader engaging in ongoing public lying. And yet, a substantial number Americans have accepted this. . . . Remove ethics, and it makes this a society where politics trumps everything else."
Several observers traced this back to the 1960s. Christopher Gates, president of the Denver-based National Civic League, said that pollster George Gallup Jr. "says the '60s and '70s were the time when our country fell apart and the bonds began to dissolve. You had a war between the generations, a war between the genders, you had Vietnam, break-ins, resignations, pardons. You had a huge dissolution of trust. And we have gone from a time when we presumed good intentions on the part of our leaders to the presumption of bad intentions."
Blankenhorn suggested that as a result of that legacy, "Clinton is in many ways the beneficiary of people's very low expectations of politicians and government."
But Georgia Sorenson, director of the center for political leadership and participation of the University of Maryland, pointed out that, "Participation has been deteriorating since the '60s, and it makes it hard for any person to lead now, no matter how committed."
Michael Sandel, director of the Harvard institute for policy studies, said the consequences go further. "We've witnessed a politics of scandal, sensation and spectacle that has turned the president into another figure in the celebrity culture," he said. "The majesty and dignity of the presidency have been stripped away, but paradoxically that hasn't destroyed the popularity of this president.
"As citizens, we have become just spectators, even voyeurs. . . . We've told the pollsters we want the whole issue to be over, and yet we can't bring ourselves to change the channel. . . . It reflects a cynicism beyond mistrust. It reflects a view that government really doesn't matter, except as it provides occasional spectacular entertainment. It is not good news for democracy."
The Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey attempted to test Sandel's thesis by asking how many respondents had contacted their members of Congress about the impeachment issue. About one out of nine -- 11 percent -- claimed to have done so. Among the vast majority who did not, the main reasons were that they didn't think it would make a difference (53 percent) or the issue wasn't important enough for them to get involved (21 percent).
But other experts interviewed are not nearly so concerned about public indifference or a decline in trust or an erosion of values. And there was some support for their views in the survey. About half those interviewed (48 percent) said they thought their representative in Congress had paid at least "a fair amount of attention" to opinions in their district, while only a third (35 percent) thought their elected officials largely ignored their constituents.
Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif., said, "What the Clinton thing says to me is that the majority are making subtle, sophisticated distinctions. They condemn what he did, but they want proportionality in punishment. They're questioning not only Clinton's values but those of the people who have gone after him."
Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Ray, Calif., and David Mathews, president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, said the partisanship of the House impeachment proceedings sent a worrisome signal to people. "Everyone thinks it is [political] positioning," Josephson said. "Otherwise, why would Republicans and Democrats come out so differently?"
"But," Mathews added, "they have deep feelings about accountability and taking responsibility, not just by the president but by everyone. And when they see it disappearing, it scares them."
That may be true, but Wolfe and Eberly said politicians are not seen as the ones to lead a values revival. "When government becomes involved in moral matters, Americans are no longer sure they can trust it," Wolfe wrote in "One Nation, After All."
Eberly said, "The people just don't see the answer to our moral condition coming predominantly from lawmakers. . . . Americans tend to be generous toward sinners and hard on hypocrites, and the working assumption of many Americans is that most politicians fall into the latter category. While the American people strongly disapproved of Clinton's behavior, they grew steadily more unwilling to approve of action against him as it became clear that Congress would serve as judge and jury."
When asked what will be important to them in the presidential election of 2000, more of those surveyed in the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll said the candidates' stands on issues than the combined total for those naming personal morals and ethics and broad principles and values.
On the other hand, looking to the future, a majority of Americans -- 55 percent -- said in the survey they fear this society will become too accepting of behaviors that are bad for people, while 38 percent said their greatest worry was that the country would become too intolerant of actions that pose no such threat.
The survey indicates the divisions that have marked the past 30 years are likely to continue into the next generation.
While more young people between 18 and 34 say they are more pessimistic about the threat of moral decline than their parents and grandparents, they are also more conflicted over values. They, more than their elders, express the greatest tolerance toward divorce, adultery and casual drug use. While many young Americans say that values are important to their politics, young adults are the least likely to agree that a president has a special obligation to "set an example with his personal life."
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