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It's Virtue, Not Values That Wins U.S. Elections

by Captain Future Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 04:53:50 AM EST

Consider this a window into U.S. politics. I post it because I value the thoughtful readers here, but perhaps it has application or relevance on your side of the Atlantic.  

As U.S. politicians sharpen their message for the stretch run, but also as we think about creating political support around progressive issues in whatever circumstances result from these elections, and looking forward to 08, I'd like to suggest the beginning of a different way to approach those issues, and the electorate.

I suggest we look behind "issues" and particularly turn away from focusing on "values," which we can only talk about as ambiguous abstractions.  I suggest we look to what motivates people to vote on values issues, and on other issues as well.

I believe that people vote on the basis of what makes them feel virtuous.  And the candidates that convince voters that voting for them is the expression of virtue will win.  The "virtue" over "values" also explains why many people who voted Republican in recent elections are turning against the party this year.  But it also could be a way to reorient and reposition progressive efforts in the future.


For years we've been obsessed with "values" issues and "values voters," but we really haven't gotten very far in understanding them.  We've been baffled because people seemingly voted against their own economic interests, or were excessively swayed by personality and code words, etc.  

Maybe we've been going about it the wrong way.  
"Values" are names for what we value--what we consider priorities.  But why?  When it comes down to the personal level, to a person acting--a person voting--isn't it more useful to consider that what motivates people is what makes them feel virtuous?

It's unlikely we're going to convince people to exchange one set of values for another.  We can work on changing how people feel about issues and actions by showing them how virtuous they will feel and will be by supporting them.

The right wing, and especially the religious right, has made a living on defining what's virtuous.  They've worked hard to simplify all the underlying feelings into one: voting for conservative Republicans is virtuous.  Voting against them is not.

There are complex issues that this approach makes very simple--and of course oversimplifies.  But let's stay with this one idea for now: how did the Republican/Religious Right define voting for them as virtuous?  

Republicans have succeeded by using the potential of modern politics to oversimplify, and to infuse those oversimplifications with emotion.  

Those emotions cluster around what they believe is or is not virtuous behavior. Political scientist Andrew Hacker believes the 2004 election turned on the beliefs of the middle of the middle class that their sense of virtue was reflected in Bush-Cheney.  These voters felt the war on terror and in Iraq was virtuous--it displayed courage in defense of country and family.  They are against those who support abortion because they themselves "show singular virtue by not doing such things that will lead them to resort to abortion."  

Liberal commentator Jeff Cohen is convinced that for many Americans, "liberal" means "libertine," which is precisely how the right has been defining it. That's why they're now trying to get traction with wild accusations about pornography, or about phantom links to a group advocating an end to restrictions on sexual predation of children.    

People feel virtuous when they do the right thing, and in many areas of life that comes down to self-control.  The extreme right has managed to convince many voters that liberals are for no self-control.  They are for sexual promiscuousness regardless of the consequences, and that's why they support abortion.  

Self-control means obeying the rules, and the rule is that men and women get married, have children and are financially and morally responsible for their families.  It doesn't matter if you want to sleep around, or you want to have sex with someone of your own gender, or you want to bum around instead of working.  You do your duty, what you are supposed to do, and that makes you feel virtuous.

There are ways to counter these positions by emphasizing other virtues.  Tolerance and community are still virtues in America.  In practice, gay couples raising otherwise unwanted children and supporting their community institutions often neutralizes opposition and destroys stereotypes.  This is just one example.

But virtue doesn't apply only to values issues.  It operates in economic issues as well. We are trained in this country to believe that working hard is virtuous, and that hard work is inevitably reflected in financial success.  So even if they are barely making ends meet, they will feel more virtuous than those who aren't.  They are virtuously providing for their families.  And they may feel that people who don't succeed--who are poor, homeless, can't pay their medical bills--must not be virtuous enough.

This can be overcome, with the right leadership, especially under circumstances that hit everyone economically, like high gas prices.  There is already growing support for a raise in the minimum wage.    

Of course, such politically powerful oversimplifications run roughshod over realities.  But voters are not going to be convinced by facts without the context of why facts and arguments support their ideas of virtue.

The extreme right Republicans used these oversimplifications, these either/or formulas to create a politics of virtue carried to the extreme. This politics of virtue says we are the virtuous, we are the good people, and those others are not virtuous; they are the evil-doers.  It is a short step to believing that because we are the virtuous, everything we do is virtuous, and because they--terrorists, liberals, etc.--are evil, everything they do, think and feel is evil, and always will be.

Republicans have gotten pretty far by fostering this image.  I believe it helps to explain why so many Bush voters in 2004 believed that Bush held positions on issues directly opposite to his actual positions. It wasn't simply that these supporters were ignorant of the issues, but that they assumed that the virtuous candidate would hold virtuous positions.        

But now we are seeing what happens when people who claim the monopoly on virtue are exposed doing unvirtuous things that no one can ignore forever, like Republicans using their power to steal and cheat and lie, and now to prey on young people, and then cover it up for their own benefit.  

This also explains why they need to use fear--fear of terrorism mainly, but also fear of libertine liberals, of weakness and untrustworthiness.  Fear pushes everything into either/or extremes: fight or flight, us or them, good or evil.  And situations of danger and threat are when virtue is most important.

But at the moment the Mark Foley affair together with increasing anger over lies and failures in Iraq (honesty and competence are virtuous), are removing the halo from Republicans.  They are no longer the paragons of virtue.  

For some voters that will still not be enough.  They will curse all politicians and officeholders as corrupt and incompetent.  And even if all Republicans are not virtuous, they need to be convinced why Democrats are.  But this provides an opening.  Democrats who begin thinking about issues in terms of virtue may find ways to change the political dialogue and the political landscape.

If Democrats do win Congress, they will have an opportunity to begin re-focusing the national dialogue.  How they attempt this may be crucial.  It won't be enough in the long run to have benefited from the Republicans losing their halo of virtue.

 Democrats will need to convince people that supporting a plan to end the Iraq war and deal realistically with terrorism, plus election reform, universal health care and perhaps the key to everything--an international mobilization to address the Climate Crisis and create new jobs and a new economy at home with clean energy technologies--are all virtuous.  They will help them support their families, support their communities, and display the virtuous behavior that is at the core of their religious or ethical and patriotic selves.          

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Be careful when you talk about "creating" new jobs with policy, even if you are correct here.  I submit that, while there will, of course, be new jobs created in a renewable energy industry, the true benefit would be the positive externalities associated with a more stable energy supply -- and a long-run benefit at that, since, with improvements in technology and an unleashing of fierce competition, renewable sources can be made cheaper, unlike our finite oil supply.  Living standards could see a permanent, and ongoing, improvement if we address the climate crisis.  Today, computers cost a hell of a lot less in real (and nominal) terms than they did five or ten years ago, and you get a hell of a lot more bang for your buck.  Imagine being able to produce that on services that people need instead of merely want.

As an economist, I find that to be an incredibly exciting idea, but frustrating, since we never make an effort to get it done.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 05:35:17 AM EST
I must admit that, initially I bought the thesis proposed in "what's the matter with kansas ?" that republicans had cleverly subverted "values" voters into voting against their own interest. How else to expalin how a poor community that ought to be reflexively democrat could vote so overwhelmingly republican.

However, I've been gradually persuaded that a different dynamic is taking place. After all, religious people aren't the only ones with values or virtues or whatever. I'm as avowed an atheist as you could meet, but when I vote I do so according to my values and principles. There is a real issue that the religious are considered virtuous and those who are indifferent are less so. So values have become a specifically religious attribute. Which is hogwash.

No, the other dynamic that informs me is actually a cousin of Nader's "there ain't no difference between 'em". Quite literally most people in the USA feel disenfranchised by the political process cos nobody is talking about their concerns (most eligible citizens abstain from voting).

Republicans are billionaires for billionaires. Democrats are millionaires for millionaires. It's largely a plutocracy where the people who make it to Washington are those for whom the American dream worked. They have no interest in fixing a system they don't believe is broken; after all it worked for them.

So when most people are falling through the increasingly tattered safety nets of social security and health care in the US, they don't see it. And the people falling away can't see the point of voting for people who won't make any difference in their lives.

that's why Kansas voted republican, the only ones who could be bothered voting were voting in their self-interest.

Everybody votes for their values. Worrying about finding the right buzz-word misses the point. It's more important to find a more inclusive set of policies that work for middle america rather than merely the wealthy middle classes and above. Right now, most lower middle calss and poor people don't believe either of 'em will do that.

After all, the Dems won't admit it, but the working class know who signed the NAFTA bill; aka the fuck-the-poor-by-sending-their-jobs-to-Mexico bill. And it wans't Bush.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Oct 24th, 2006 at 10:15:08 AM EST


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