Sunday, September 24, 2006

Values and Voting

Everyone has values as both individuals and as individuals-in-society. It takes a complete misunderstanding of the word "values" to say that there are those people with values and those without. But this is precisely what's done in the media and in American politics. What this exclusionary language actually means in media and politics is "people who vote based on a particular set of values."
To the daunting challenges facing Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections, add another: angry "values voters" who feel used and abandoned.

"We put these people in power in 2004," said Sue Means, a home-school activist from suburban Pittsburgh. "I really expected more. I'm disappointed."

The failed federal marriage amendment, waffling on stem cell research, no new limits on abortion - Means sees little but broken promises from the Republican Congress. And she's far from alone among like-minded people whom many credited in 2004 with helping pass same-sex marriage bans in 11 states and being key to President Bush's re-election.

I disagree with this set of values. You know why? Because I have differing social values!

The media-political language is symptomatic of a broader inability to have much of a debate about the normative dimensions of policy-making in the United States. They're obviously important to many people. All people subscribe to various sets of social and non-social values. The perpetuation of the media-political language of "values-voters," however, is a lazy way of allowing a certain social group to lay absolute claim to something we all have. That is, the religious right wants to see its values strengthened in national politics and has thus coopted the term "values" as applying only to their beliefs.

This happens also to be a standard totalitarian move - take a commonly-shared characteristic or belief or concern and then proclaim that one's particularistic description or beliefs or answers to be the only possible ones. This forces one's opponent to articulate their own sets, but such articulation is always-already inferior in political life when the terms of debate are already set. This generates a Sisyphean battle for the opponent. The debate, therefore, is an unequal one and generally not a debate. Fair debate takes place on a more or less neutral field in which each debater has a voice. The dialogue we have in the US is one in which the first step is to eliminate voices by applying pre-packaged value-judgments to them and then pronouncing them outside of normal discourse. Opposing views are then left knocking on the door to public debate. In the US, this means that some voters are characterized as "values voters" and the rest, by implication, are not. The "values voters" are, in fact, those with a certain set of values (those listed in the cite above), and not all those who vote based on various sets of values. The former is a small minority of American society. The latter is every last one of us, and this could not be otherwise.

What are values in this context? They are those things - objects, events, beliefs, activities, policies, etc. - to which humans ascribe worth rather than only simple existence. This distinction already in itself is, however, a difficult one to make - it rests on a distinction between factual statements and evaluative statements (or the classic fact/value dichotomy in philosophy). The former is often thought to be most pristinely the domain of science and the latter the domain of ethics. But the distinction between the two is unclear and, perhaps, theoretically incoherent. My own view is that value is pervasive in all human experience, and that the fact/value distinction is an analytical but not an ontological one.

Most germane to the present context of discussing the political sphere, however, is the distinction between social values and non-social values. The non-social might be those of material wealth, physical goods, etc., although many would claim - as Marx did in his analysis of money - that these are not merely non-social values (money, a dollar bill, for instance, is a physical object with no real value until it becomes a medium of exchange ascribed with worth through a social system in which various participants acknowledge its value. Otherwise, it's simply paper and ink.). More complex types might be utility in the old utilitarian sense of individual pleasure or happiness; individual liberty; the neoclassical economic notion of "preference"; etc. Of course, these may all shade into forms of social value. For instance, regarding the value of democracy, it depends on whether one thinks of democracy as merely an aggregative outcome - a collection of individual votes - or participatory or deliberative, in which the processes of democracy are constitutive themselves of social goods.

Social values, on the other hand, are those things - such as family, friendship, political goods, fraternity, participation, education, etc. - that are "social" precisely because they affect and are dependent upon other people and often drive policy decision-making. These kinds of values are what are at stake in the discussion about "value voters." The claim is that liberals stand by supposedly neutral forms of social value in which each individual may determine what is valuable and what is not.

"Value voters" and their prophets (James Dobson, etc.) maintain, however, that they are in the exclusive possession of a sense of social value. This is, of course, flatly false. The old idea of liberal procedural and structural neutrality has come under theoretical assault even by liberals. It's extremely difficult or impossible to articulate a fair-because-neutral set of political procedures without importing in some other set of values about, for example, what broad objectives ought to be sought through politics, what goods ought to be distributed, what those "goods" are in the first place, etc. But that's really not what is in play in the "value voters" discussion.

What is in play is what I mentioned above: an ignorance about social and non-social values, combined with one group's particular beliefs posing as universals, combined with a stupid media that has no capacity to make any of these distinctions and thus who run with the expression "values voters." The continued propagation of that misnomer simply builds an accidental political power into what is essentially a rightwing view on socio-cultural politics.

Yet, at the same time, the left and progressives haven't been terribly adept of late at spelling out in clearer terms just what kinds of social and non-social values they reasonably think ought to be at the core of the broader political discussion. As such, they've found themselves defending particular policies but not providing terribly compelling reasons to accept those policies over others. The religious right provides such a substantive explanation to its constituents, even if, in my own view, it's wrong, exclusionary, and even punitive.

What's the point of this discussion? Simply, to urge liberals, progressives, and others to take up the difficult task of articulating more clearly just what kinds of values are in play in the political sphere - both their own and others.' Clearly, progressives are engaged in various kinds of discussions in the political sphere about diagnoses of problems, and various kinds of policy prescriptions. But they've had a difficult time providing compelling reasons for why someone who is otherwise disinclined - or even simply confused - should adopt their positions. As such, they fall back into the same style of discourse that their opponents use - particulars posing as universals. This is a big mistake, especially in cultural politics, but also in any discussion of what values are more generally in the social and political sphere.

The entire political discourse suffers as a result and allows otherwise unreasonable views to flourish. Thus, we're now discussing the merits of torture, woman's preferred place in the home, racism as non-existent, etc. Progressives are uncomfortably placed in the position of becoming reactionaries to a preset discourse by "values voters" and this execrable administration.


MT said...

Is your product different than what Lakoff has been selling?

helmut said...

I don't know. I haven't read Lakoff. But from what I've seen, his notion of "framing" - if that's what you're getting at - is hardly original.

MT said...

I haven't read a whole book's worth of him either. But when he talks about the frames conservatives use and distinguishes them from the ones progressives use when they're not being reactionary he explains them as expression of two paradigms of parenting and the family--which I thought might be instances or assemblages of the values you're talking about.

MT said...

i.e. Tough love vs. nurture

helmut said...

That's probably true to some degree, but becomes rather cliched if you take it much further. It's like when the French call Bush a "cowboy" - they mean basically the same thing, but it redescribbes the image he wants to portray. The more important question is why the violent ruffian rugged individualist plays so well when it has always been historically qualified by more intelligent presidents, policies, and activists.