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Monopolizing values

Andrea Laidman | Monday, November 5, 2007

At the end of September, the four Republican frontrunners for President skipped a debate focused on minority issues. They cited “scheduling conflicts,” yet their websites reported only ordinary campaigning and fundraising events for the day of the PBS-sponsored debate. Mitt Romney was at an IHOP in Sacramento, Calif. Fred Thompson was charging $500 per dinner plate in Franklin, Tenn. Rudy Giuliani was visiting one cafe after another in Santa Barbara, Calif. before seeking the endorsement of anti-immigration ex-California Gov. Pete Wilson in Santa Monica. And John McCain was in New York speaking to the conservative Hudson Institute (whose President, by the way, has publicly called for an American military strike on Iran since the summer of 2006).A month later, a different forum brought all of the Republican Party candidates to Washington, DC. Calendars were clear for the second-annual Values Voters Summit, an event not to be missed, which culminated in a straw poll won narrowly by Romney.What is most surprising about this convention of Christian conservative voters is the arrogance and carelessness of its very name, and the widespread use of “values voters” as an acceptable or reasonable term by the American media and public.Such a classification of one purportedly like-minded political bloc injures our sense and conception of voters and issues as the 2008 presidential election approaches.First, as one Washington Post columnist put it over a year ago, who isn’t a “values voter?”The phrase suggests that only social conservatives vote to further their values. It implies that one segment of the population, and indeed, one extreme of the political spectrum, has a monopoly on moral sincerity and importance when it comes to political participation.Second, the “values” label seems to apply to a relatively narrow set of issues (namely those surrounding certain life issues, a definition of marriage or family, and religion in the public sphere). So, when conservative voters discuss other tenets of their party, like tax cuts or limited government, are they talking about values-free issues?By creating the idea of the “values voter,” participating social conservatives suggest not only that they are more morally conscious than the rest of the electorate, but that certain political issues are embedded with values and ethics, while others lay outside of this realm. This is a dangerous framework for the presidential race – one that both parties should feel wary about – but unfortunately, that the social conservative leadership functions within.In a piece exploring why the “values voters” crowd isn’t rallying behind Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister sticking with his first wife and first position on abortion (rare qualities amidst this year’s pool of Republican hopefuls), New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes, “Huckabee’s problems say more about the leaders of the religious right than about him.”Collins continues: “Considerations like who has the most Christian attitudes toward illegal immigrants don’t register. And the fact that as governor Huckabee spent a lot of time trying to spend money on the needy doesn’t go over all that well with the ones who believe that God’s top priority is eliminating the estate tax.”Indeed, the death tax has been a major part of the discussion among the voters who have seized both “life” and “values” as their own.At the Values Voters Summit, the Republican candidates stooped to a competition in pandering, each attempting to prove himself to be the man of the Christian right.Formerly pro-choice and noted Mormon, Romney somehow came out on top. Giuliani did not fare as well (though few expected a brilliant reception for the pro-choice mayor with a tendency to support gay marriage and with a marriage record of his own).In the weeks before the Summit, it was the death tax, rather than personal record of social conservatism, that was the point in question.”Let’s kill the death tax!” was the rallying cry of Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani took it a step further: “Let’s give the death tax the death penalty!”We can’t be sure if Rudy’s statement was values-laden or not. But in the context of this piece, it underlines the trend of inconsistencies among America’s defenders of life and values.

Andrea Laidman is a senior political science and peace studies major. Her column’s title recalls advice given to John Adams by his wife, Abigail: “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” She can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.