A Nation Undivided: Misperceptions about Moral Values

November 9th, 2004

Posted by: admin

If you have turned on the news or picked up a paper at any point in the days since the election, you have surely heard that 22% of exit-polled voters in last Tuesday’s election held “moral values” as the most important factor in their choice for president. This statistic, while suspect, has produced a firestorm of discussion about the state of the nation by those eager to determine the surefire explanation for the victory of the Republicans this time around.
And out of this discussion has emerged the overt assumption that values belong to one of the two major parties, and that those values are inextricably linked to faith. Some quotes to that end:

-From Thomas Friedman’s Nov. 4 column:
‘”The Democrats have ceded to Republicans a monopoly on the moral and spiritual sources of American politics,” noted the Harvard University political theorist Michael J. Sandel. “They will not recover as a party until they again have candidates who can speak to those moral and spiritual yearnings.”‘

-From Todd Purdum Nov. 4 News Analysis:
Rahm Emanuel, representative from Illinois asserted that the democrats “need a nominee and a party that is comfortable with faith and values. And if we have one, then all the hard work we’ve done on Social Security or America’s place in the world or college education can be heard.”

- From Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon, Oct. 11 Weekly Standard:
“If you had to pick a single reason why the Democratic party is weaker at all levels than at any time in the last 50 years, it is the transformation of moral-values issues into an overwhelming Republican asset.”

These are just a few of the many election-related proclamations that values lie on the other side of the aisle from the Democratic Party. Some analysts have taken these proclamations a step further and have declared that the foundation of American democracy, “Enlightenment values – critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences” have in fact dissolved with the election of George W. Bush. (From Garry Wills NYTimes op-ed).

With this and the previous assertions, analysts on both sides of the aisle define the Democratic Party as the party of reason and evidence and the Republican Party as the party of values and faith. And each side surrenders to a land divided.

But I argue that this surrender is both misinformed and dangerous. It assumes that values can be one-sided, that value-free decisions are possible, and that Democrats operate in this value-free realm. None of these assumptions are true.

Every decision that we make from the individual to the national level is a commitment to one set of values over another. And each of us, regardless of our political or religious affiliation, makes this commitment from some set of base values with which we view the world. To define moral values as a republican strong-hold is to misconstrue the nature of decision making. Democrats do not make decisions on scientific information alone, and likewise Republicans do not make decisions on values alone.

If we assume that they do however, we divert our policy discussions away from real issues and value debates to the sort of polarizing science v. faith debates implied above. Science and values do not lie opposite each other. When we claim that they do, as Garry Wills did above and again in his assertion that America is now defined by “fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity ., [and] fear and hatred of modernity,” we falsely simplify the decision making process.

To illustrate: with regard to climate policy on a national scale, the two candidates had opposing views, both influenced by values. President Bush promoted further research and voluntary emissions reductions, as a means not to harm the economy. In making this decision, he determined that the nation can best achieve well-being through sustained and unburdened economic growth. Senator Kerry on the other hand promoted the development of renewable energy sources and an increase in fuel efficiency standards. Value-wise, he determined that the well-being of the nation lied in environmental preservation as a first priority and he did not see limits on growth as a barrier to the well-being and wealth of the nation.

Real decisions like this one are far too complex for a simple values v. reason distinction. This decision comes down to a value dispute between environmental preservation versus economic freedom, both of which ultimately strive for well-being. If we label it as such, we steer clear of the polarizing claims that Senator Kerry understands scientific fact and rightly keeps values out of his decision, or that President Bush’s position is devoid of logical explanation.

When we debate policies and their associated values, we must consciously avoid the current desire to establish a false science versus values dichotomy within the nation. Let’s engage the value debate differently. Let’s be honest about all the values at play.

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