While values questions can be wielded as weapons by energized advocates on both sides, there is a wide swath of Americans who regard these as either dangerous or impractical debates. The pragmatists among us know that community life requires acceptance of people whose values are different from one's own.
WASHINGTON – On the day that John Edwards joined John Kerry on the Democratic ticket, President Bush told an audience in Edwards' home state of North Carolina that he was confident its voters would realize that “the senator from Massachusetts (Kerry) doesn't share their values.'' The same day in Council Bluffs, Iowa, first lady Laura Bush affirmed that “I really do believe that President Bush and Vice President Cheney share the values and the character that Americans have, that most Americans have, and certainly Americans in the heartland have.''
At almost the same hour, Edwards was with Kerry in Cleveland, proclaiming that he and John Kerry “share the same values. I'm talking about the values that I grew up with in that small town in North Carolina – faith, family, opportunity, responsibility, trying to make sure that everybody gets a chance to do what they're capable of doing.'' To which Kerry responded, “Together, we are going to restore to America the values that belong to Americans.''
The day's news reminded me of a recent dinner party conversation with the wife of a European diplomat in Washington. It struck this politically knowledgeable woman that the American preoccupation with values is something that does not occur in European countries. “We discuss personalities and programs and, sometimes, strategies,'' she said. “We don't debate values.''
What explains the centrality of value questions in American politics? Is this just rhetoric or are we really being asked to choose between rival value systems?
My inclination was to view the values debate with deep skepticism. I know that most voters have a cynical view of politics and politicians, and do not look to government as the source of moral tutelage. That is why they were inclined to judge President Clinton on the basis of the economy, rather than on his escapade with Monica Lewinsky.
And I remember that when Harry McPherson, the wise counselor to President Lyndon Johnson, was once rebuked because the Great Society economic programs were not addressing the moral chaos in many slums, he replied, “We can barely manage a war on poverty. Don't ask us to wage a war on anomie.''
Nonetheless, a conversation with William Galston has persuaded me that the values debate is not misplaced. Galston, a University of Maryland professor and one-time Clinton adviser, has spent as much time thinking and writing about the moral dimensions of politics as anyone I know.
He makes a couple of important points: The United States is unique in two respects, he says. The nation is defined not by its ethnic identity, but by its “political creed, a constitutional faith'' in representative government. And it is far more religiously observant than most European countries.
In the space of about a decade, Galston notes, Supreme Court decisions on school prayer and abortion in 1962 and 1973 divided Americans on moral lines, and the anti-Vietnam War protest “morphed into a generalized counterculture movement'' that challenged a wide range of traditional values.
Although all that happened a generation ago, the echoes remain – and in some respects have deepened as both sides in the culture wars have dug deeper into their own foxholes. In a recent essay, Galston traces how the platform language of Democrats and Republicans on the abortion issue has moved from acknowledging the legitimacy of differing views to more and more adamant statements of opposing positions.
Now, court decisions on gay marriage have added fresh fuel to the fire – and sparked a contentious Senate debate.
Does that mean that we are destined to continue fighting pitched battles over these values questions? Not necessarily, Galston says. For one thing, the values debates tend to be overshadowed when the classic issues of war and peace and economic anxiety are present. Values issues were more prominent in 1988 than in 1992, and were more salient in 2000 than they are likely to be this year, with Iraq and terrorism on voters' minds.
Further, while values questions can be wielded as weapons by energized advocates on both sides, there is a wide swath of Americans who regard these as either dangerous or impractical debates. The pragmatists among us know that community life requires acceptance of people whose values are different from one's own.
Both sides have signaled that they recognize the role of values in personal and public life. It would be healthy if they were honest enough to acknowledge that virtue is no one's monopoly.
David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. David Broder's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org