HOW FDR SPOKE ABOUT VALUES.
by Andrei Cherny
Post date: 11.14.04
Issue date: 11.22.04
n February 24, 2004, as John Kerry was winning another set of primaries on his way to becoming the Democratic nominee, George W. Bush went to the Roosevelt Room in the White House to announce to the nation that "the defense of marriage requires a constitutional amendment."
During this same period, Kerry's campaign was putting together the building blocks of his general-election message strategy. It was proposed that Kerry not cede marriage and family to the Republicans but rather that he unveil and run on an unabashedly "pro-family values agenda." By laying claim to this political terrain, Kerry could argue that the real threat to the American family was not gay marriage, which--whatever one's opinion about it--only affects a relatively tiny number of couples, but rather the daily strains affecting all couples and families. It would enable him to discuss proposals like expanding health insurance not only through an economic prism, but as ways to support basic values. At the same time, it would provide a rubric for speaking about ideas that would help families succeed and parents raise their children, such as after-school care and paid family and medical leave. Finally, it would send a powerful--and accurate--signal that he personally believed in family values and sought to defend them.
The idea was rejected. The decision was made that it was "unnecessary" for Kerry to talk about marriage and family values since Bush's anti-gay-marriage amendment was "already backfiring" by turning away swing voters with its divisiveness and supposedly upsetting the conservative base with its infringement on states' rights.
But exit polls in swing states indicated the extent to which moral and values issues influenced voters. While some, in the days after Kerry's loss, have argued that the "values" phrase in exit polls served as an overly broad catchall, the fact that voters who selected it as their most important issue went overwhelmingly for Bush (80 to 18 percent) indicates that it was a phrase with some meaning.
The question of that meaning has occupied Democrats' thoughts since Election Day--and will continue to in the months ahead. That is necessary. What is not necessary is that Democrats walk away from their core beliefs in tolerance and freedom to assuage those who disagree. Aside from the fact that Democrats cannot convince the country that they stand for something by compromising on their convictions, there is no political imperative for such a compromise. The same Election Day exit polls indicated that 55 percent of voters believe abortion should be "always" or "mostly" legal, and 60 percent of voters supported either gay marriage or civil unions.
Democrats need not--and should not--adopt the agenda of social conservatives, but we need to do a better job of speaking to the moral and spiritual yearnings that have always characterized the American experience. Since Election Day, many Democrats have griped about the fact that, in supporting Bush, so many middle-class voters failed to vote in their economic self-interest. That is entirely true--and completely beside the point. Americans do not enter the voting booth in the manner of accountants calculating take-home income. They have historically voted on hopes and resentments--slavery and civil rights, freemasonry and free love--that have nothing to do with the bottom line. The values inculcated by family and community--such as hard work, personal responsibility, patriotism, faith, and integrity--are not only religious in origin. Yet they are part of the nation's civic creed, and Republicans can no longer be allowed to have a near-monopoly in running on them.
Once, Democrats did talk about their vision in explicitly moral terms. In accepting the Democratic nomination in 1932, during the massive unemployment of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt pledged to "put men to work," not just because it would bring them "security for themselves and for their wives and children," but because of the "moral and spiritual values that go with" work. The following year, in his inaugural address, Roosevelt told the nation it must "face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike." He appealed not only to the values of Americans' pocketbooks, but also to those in their prayer books.
But somewhere in the "I'm OK, You're OK" 1970s and the "Me Decade" 1980s, many Democrats became uncomfortable passing judgment and issuing calls to action. The notion of politician as moral leader became subsumed by politician as wonk, proposing technocratic policies to address every problem. In 1992, Bill Clinton self-consciously rejected that idea and sought both to call on Americans' better angels and to call wrongdoers onto the carpet. Whereas Walter Mondale never used the word "responsibility" in his nomination acceptance address, Clinton used it seven times. In setting forth the ideas behind his candidacy in his first "New Covenant" address in October 1991, he said that, under Republican rule, the middle class had seen not only "their economic interests ignored" but "their values literally ground into the ground." He said that, under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, "Responsibility went unrewarded, and so did hard work." He declared that "responsibility is for everybody," and, during his campaign, he showed Americans that he actually believed it. In April 1992, he went to Wharton Business School--the home of junk bonds--and told students and faculty that their school was "a powerful symbol of where our country went wrong in the 1980s." In June 1992, more famously, he went to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and decried the rapper Sister Souljah's call for killing "white people."
This month's election results should serve as a powerful reminder to Democrats of the need to set forth their vision in starkly moral terms, to address Americans' longing for a sense of spirituality and community. Most people are not religious right-wingers, but most people are religious. Democrats need to do a better job of listening and speaking to them in explicitly moral and spiritual terms.
The first step for Democrats in the months and years to come is to stop thinking of "values" as a discrete topic--with an encomium to the concept shoehorned into a speech or a set of policies listed alongside health care and education on a candidate's homepage. Instead, just as Bush sold his policies on Iraq and tax cuts, as well as abortion, through the prism of values, Democrats need to see values as an overarching umbrella for their agenda.
Democrats should hold Americans to an ethic of personal responsibility; a demand for moral decency that stretches from crooked CEOs to common criminals. Think of the way most Democrats discussed the Enron scandal: with a combination of a lawyerly denunciation of financial impropriety and a social worker's concern for the livelihoods of the harmed workers. Then consider how Roosevelt spoke of an earlier round of corporate misconduct: "[T]here must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live." It is the thunder of a prophet. In 2004, Democrats should have decried the values of WorldCom with the same passion that some Republicans criticized the values embodied by "Will & Grace."
In fact, discussing economic issues in the context of values is the rule, not the exception, in U.S. history. Visiting the United States in 1889, Rudyard Kipling noticed that Americans felt extremely strongly about the tariff--especially if they were Democrats and especially if they were drunk. Barroom boozers argued about import duties not because of a deeply held Ricardian faith in free trade, but because of a conviction that the tariff was fundamentally unfair to average workers while favoring those who lazed about in great mansions.
This popular disgust with the protective tariff was fueled not by class resentments but by irritation at those who violated the civic faith in hard work. The same notion animated John Edwards's discussions of "wealth versus work" in the primary campaign. And, despite claims among some pundits that Kerry resorted to old-fashioned populist appeals in order to win the primaries, he in fact aimed for what might be called "values-oriented populism"; not "the people versus the powerful," but the favoring of "those who are doing the right thing over those who are doing wrong to their employees, their companies, or their country."
It is not just on economic issues that Democrats need to find their moral voice. Environmental degradation is a sin against nature's God--and we should not hesitate to say so. Persistent poverty among children and working parents is a moral outrage--and we should be prepared to do something bold about it. And if, on the Sunday after the election, Karl Rove can go on "Meet the Press" and call global aids a values issue for the Republican base, then surely Democrats can say the same.
Many Americans see Democrats as part of the culturally different "other" that Republicans have had so much fun and success castigating since the late '60s. This is, in large measure, due to overt GOP campaign ploys. But Democrats too often have seen values, such as work, family, responsibility, and faith, as Republican buzzwords rather than as part of their own party's DNA.
Democrats need to speak directly to the yearning that Americans feel for a sense of spiritual fulfillment and community. There is a natural reticence to do so. The separation of church and state is well-enshrined and important. A community, fully realized, can be stifling. A community involves a set of demands we make of one another as citizens. When these sometimes subtle obligations become too harsh or demanding--when there is pressure to dress the same way or to worship the same God--they create authoritarianism or conformity. Yet, without these obligations, we witness the very atomization of American life and civic culture that so many voters fear.
The sociologist Alan Wolfe has written of "top-down" and "bottom-up" cultural issues. Republicans prey on voters' fears with top-down issues--such as gay marriage--hot buttons and wedges that get partisans' blood boiling on both sides of the aisle. In contrast, the bottom-up issues are the ones that actually affect Americans on a daily basis. These include the difficulties faced by parents trying to balance work and family and the coarsening of a popular culture that often degrades women and makes it difficult to raise honorable, decent children. It is on these issues that Democrats should speak out and act. By strengthening the hand of community institutions, by insisting on a widespread spirit of national service, by standing proudly on the side of parents struggling to raise their children, Democrats will not only win over the "values voters," they can strengthen the moral fabric of the country they seek to lead.
Andrei Cherny, a visiting fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, was the director of speechwriting and a special adviser on policy for the Kerry for President campaign between February 2003 and April 2004.