The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Values Revisited

Let’s review the values debate a little more closely before we all decide to head South in a rattling, rusty school bus filled with bibles. The argument goes that the Democratic Party is elitist and out of touch. That they mock family values and they mock religion. That they fail to respect the most devout expressions of faith and religiosity.

But who EXACTLY mocks it? Kerry didn't. Clinton didn't. Gore didn't. If anything, national Democratic candidates give it lots of lip service. Remember when Dean was leading in the polls and decided to start talking about his faith? (He couldn’t even get his bible stories straight, but there he was talking about faith). And Democrats do more than just talk. In fact, Democratic candidates may, in many instances, be more religious than their Republican counterparts. We can go back to Carter (Well, I can since I can’t go back much farther in my memory). He was one of the most devout Presidents we have had. Nevertheless, in the first awakenings of the Moral Majority, he lost the religious vote to Reagan, a man who was almost rarely seen in church and never identified with any organized religion.

This criticism of the Democrats as the Godless Party or as James Dobson of Focus on the Family says about Pat Leahy - ‘The God’s People Hater Party’ -- is an easy line, but is it true? My hunch is that people are echoing what they hear in the media "ethosphere." Lots of people have been repeating this slander for years. Stephen Carter of Yale University got a good deal of press a number of years ago for a book that claimed that liberals were scornful of religion. And the number of commentators and pundits in the media who repeat this shibboleth has become like a multitude of biblical locusts. So it’s easy to see how this could become filtered and absorbed into the conventional wisdom that everyone accepts as simply true.

Now it’s probably true that some members of the media and entertainment world do express mocking sentiments. And it is also likely that the least religious of Americans tend to break to the Democrats in elections. But how has the Democratic Party en toto gotten paired with this calumny when the Party doesn't in any way cast aspersions on organized religion and most Democrats are devout people? Echoing around the blogosphere is the line that Democrats can no longer ignore this issue or try to explain it away or come up with weak excuses. But where exactly is the weak excuse coming from? Does the weakness lie with those who are irreligious and don’t know it? Or with those who have a particular vision of how the world should be, of what constitutes faith and morality, and who have a complete intolerance for anyone who might see things otherwise or even be willing to tolerate the existence of people who see things otherwise?

I think you can see where I am heading. It’s an easy stereotype but it’s still a stereotype. And an especially false and pernicious one at that. I feel that this line that Democrats are faithless and disregard religion is a weak excuse to explain away a vote for a particularly dogmatic view of faith and morality and a few hidden, subconscious fears of the evil other and social change.

We know from psychological studies that most people don’t make up their mind in a linear, rational fashion in which they reason through pros and cons and come to a conclusion. Rather, they make quick decisions on the basis of rough generalizations, a few facts, and superficial perceptions. They then proceed to go through a process of rationalization called ‘sensemaking’ in which they discover the reasons why they decided as they did. I think that the values issue is an expression of sensemaking that explains away a host of other reasons why people voted for Bush.

Underneath the broad penumbra of values lies a whole host of anxieties about change and about unsettling social developments that threaten some people’s core identities and sense of social order. Concern about values can be interpreted as an expression of a deeper concern about changes in the social order. Let’s not forget that the rise of the evangelical Right in Southern politics coincided with the shift of white voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party after the Civil Rights Act. Such trends are only further accelerated when society makes way for the entry of women into new and powerful roles that challenge traditional notions of endowment and place in the labor force and social structure. This trend is then compounded by economic forces that transform the work place so that expectations about job security, control, and economic power can no longer be taken for granted. Finally, we throw in new notions of sexuality and sex roles for both men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Now who is doing all this throwing? Is it Democrats? No, it’s the complex phenomenon of social change rooted in a host of issues connected to modernization, globalization, industrialization, de-industrialization, and advanced capitalism. If you live in a free, open society connected to the global market place and based on capitalist principles you are going to subject your selves and your community to these forces and pressures and be hard pressed to stop them. But Democrats have often championed the resulting social change and it is this reason why they have come to be blamed for it. The Democratic Party has been the Party for progress in Civil Rights, that has pushed for the advancement of women in society and the workplace, that has championed individual freedoms to do as one pleases as long as it harms no one else, and which now stands to ensure that members of the community who happen to be gay not experience undue discrimination from others. But Democrats haven’t been a force for such social change rather than stewards of rapid social changes taking place throughout society. In Thomas Franks new book, "What’s Wrong With Kansas" he shows how the religious Right has targeted liberals for the social changes that they react against. But when you look at the things that actually constitute their grievances in the book, you quickly see that liberals did not bring these things about. Instead, they are typically the result of economic forces acting upon the news media, the entertainment media, global corporations, and others.

Does that mean that people really aren’t concerned with values? Does it mean that Democrats can ignore the values debate? No, not at all. Rather it reminds us that Democrats do not suffer from a failure to adequately demonstrate faith. That Democrats may champion social change but they are not its cause. And that Democrats are unlikely to make much headway on the values debate unless they are willing to sacrifice some core values.

Democrats who accuse the Party of lacking sufficient adherence to religious values play to the Republican desire to cast Democrats as the Party of Sodom and Gomorrah. Democrats are not going to turn their back on abortion rights and they are not going to willingly participate in discrimination efforts against gay people. Democrats will persist in being the party of personal liberty. And as long as they do, there will be those who are uncomfortable with homosexuality, abortion and social change that will invoke ‘values’ to explain their opposition to Democrats.