Recovering America's Values from a Web of Lies

Sharon Farmer/John Kerry for President Inc.

John Kerry at July 15 rally in Charleston, W.V.

Random Lengths News | July 20, 2004
Recently, John Kerry has been talking a lot about values -- a key to a possible victory in November. But in doing so he's confronting a welter of myths, if not outright lies. The better he understands that, the better his chances of success. But the issue is much more than a single partisan victory-it's about restoring the roots of truth in our political discourse, and fighting future partisan battles on that basis.

It's about both sides drawing on honest arguments.

Let's consider four myths about values that are fundamental: First is the myth that liberals are somehow lacking in values--that values exist only on the political right. Kerry challenges this myth simply by using the word "values."

American history challenges it even more: The civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the environmental movement are recent examples of broad-based, liberal value-driven movements that have transformed our society. Freedom, tolerance, government by consent, indeed all the basic values of the American political system have their origins in liberal political theory. These liberal values directly conflicted with the traditional conservative values of authoritarian elite rule under divine sanction, which dominated pre-modern Europe, and continue to dominate much of the Moslem world today, where we easily recognize them as vestiges of an outmoded past. While millions of conservative Christians want a return to such a theocratic system--a phenomena little noticed in the corporate media--the majority of conservatives today firmly embrace, in the broadest sense, “liberal political values” that define American democracy. They are political liberals in the broadest sense, whether they admit to it or not.

Second is the myth that non-political, social values are inherently and uniformly "conservative." Kerry challenged this simply and directly on June 23 in San Francisco, when he said, "I was born at an Army hospital in Colorado during World War II. My dad was in the Army Air Corps. My mother, 50 years she served as a Girl Scout leader. Both of my parents, like yours, taught values. They taught me the value of service." What could be more obvious?

Perhaps what he told the Washington Post three weeks later: "The value of truth is one of the most central values in America, and this administration has violated it."

By invoking service and truth as bedrock values, Kerry also confronted the third big myth about values in politics -- that it only involves a handful of conservative social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage (which Kerry has called "little political hot-button, cultural, wedge-driven, poll-driven values.") Caring for "the least of these" is a religiously-supported value as well (Matthew 25:40, where Jesus explains how the righteous will be known on Judgment Day, identifying their treatment of the most lowly with that of the Most High). This touches on virtually every aspect of government, particularly issues of economic justice, and social inclusiveness.

Interestingly, when Bush cited Jesus as the most influential political philosopher in his life, he did not answer a follow-up question about what Jesus would have us do. Only Gary Bauer responded, citing the passage in Matthew where we are instructed to care for the least of these, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison. Bauer was generally regarded as well to the right of Bush, yet he and Kerry are drawing from the same well -- as did Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous speech, "The Drum Major Instinct," delivered just two months before his assassination. He referred to a parallel passage, Mark 10:35, in which, King explained, Jesus "transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness.... that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant."

The values of service are left-liberal values in their purest form -- values that many conservatives also share....unlike Bush’s born-again reactionaries.

This brings us to our fourth and final myth -- the myth that pins the "conservative" label on what is really a reactionary political agenda.

Kerry challenged this myth at a July 4th barbecue, saying, there was "nothing conservative" in values that produced growing deficits, stagnating wages and a middle-class squeeze caused by rising costs for health, education and child care -- all of which he connected to Bush.

With approval ratings in low-40s, Bush is vulnerable. Despite conventional wisdom (which branded Bush as invincible not so long ago) a Kerry-Edwards landslide is a distinct possibility -- since incumbents rarely outperform their approval ratings by much. As the New Republic's Ryan Lizza observed in the New York Times, "support for Mr. Bush should be seen more as a ceiling, while support for Mr. Kerry, the lesser-known challenger, is more like a floor." The National Journal's Chuck Todd added in May's Washington Monthly that "there's a potential -- and historical precedent -- for Kerry to win big."

Such a victory could even help Democrats retake the House and Senate.

The emphasis on values could be key to this outcome, precisely because Kerry is right. There is a distinct difference between conservative values and rightwing policies that most self-described conservatives oppose. What's more, there is dramatic polling data back as far as 1964 to prove it.

That year, Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free conducted a landmark survey, published three years later in the book "The Political Beliefs of Americans." One of their key findings was that almost half of self-described "conservatives" were liberals as far as supporting social spending. The same went for conservatives they identified by ideological beliefs. Beginning in the 1972, the General Social Survey (GSS) has repeatedly produced similar findings. Looking at cumulative results in seven issue areas, more conservatives usually wanted to raise spending, rather than lower it. This was true every time for education (22-0), the environment (22-0), health care (22-0), and social security (14-0), and most of the time for aid to cities (19-3) and defense (14-8). The conservatives only split decision came on aid to blacks (11-11). But when you add in those who want to keep spending the same, self-described "conservatives" who favor cutting spending are a minority every time.

Reactionaries have gotten around this opposition by focusing on different economic questions -- most notably, lowering taxes, while distracting voters' attention with culture war issues. Lowering taxes makes it extremely difficult to maintain or increase social spending, to care for "the least among us" as even a majority of conservatives would like to do. When the pressure grows too great -- as it recently has with prescription drugs -- reactionaries happily sacrifice fiscal conservatism, ballooning deficits rather than rolling back tax cuts for the country club set. The deception is obvious, for those who have eyes to see. But there's the rub. Reactionaries have always furiously demonized liberals in order to blind conservatives to the gulf between reactionaries and conservatives.

Bush and Rove are betting this will continue to work. That's why demonizing Kerry -- and now Edwards -- is so central to Bush's election campaign. Liberals have long made the demonization strategy easier by not talking openly and consistently about their own values. But the Kerry/Edwards campaign is signaling that this about to change.

Change seldom starts at the top, however. Well below the media's radar, grassroots activists and researchers have been promoting liberal values-talk for years. Indeed, the Christian Left has never stopped talking about values in opposing racism, poverty, and militarism, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did when he set the moral standard for our times. They may be largely ignored by the media, but their witness is true to the Gospels -- and is increasingly being heard by conservative Christians.

Consider the draft document on political involvement from National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility, which will eventually be circulated among the 30 million evangelicals in the United States. It represents a coming together of liberal and conservative evangelicals, which is loosening the hold of reactionaries on the latter. While it reaffirms traditional evangelical family-oriented social values, it also affirms responsibility for a just social order, taking note that the Bible "condemns gross disparities in opportunity and outcome that cause suffering and perpetuate poverty," and that "the Bible writers envision structural solutions, such as periodic land redistribution (Lev. 25:8-28)" -- where the principle of restoring land to its original owner during the jubilee year is laid out.

"For the Health of the Nation" also says that "government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation," and warns against excess nationalism and partisanship: Christians "must be careful to avoid the excesses of nationalism" and "must guard against over-identifying Christian social goals with a single political party."

The impact of this document will surely be more gradual than a single electoral campaign. It will not instantly swing millions of evangelicals into the Democratic column on November 2. But it does challenge all four value myths I have discussed. And it is in line with Kerry's effort to redefine values more broadly and compassionately, while portraying Bush as out of touch with their broad scope.

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