Take Back Values: Democrats Need to Offer a Compelling Vision of a Morally Based Social Contract

By Callahan, David | The Nation, February 9, 2004 | Go to article overview

Take Back Values: Democrats Need to Offer a Compelling Vision of a Morally Based Social Contract


Callahan, David, The Nation


There is much talk about "values" on this year's presidential campaign trail. Senator John Edwards rages that "George Bush's values are not America's values." Senator Joe Lieberman barely utters a sentence that doesn't mention values. Representative Dick Gephardt complains that people have "lost a sense of right and wrong." Top Democrats apparently have internalized the lesson taught by Bill Clinton--that the party must overcome its crippling lag on values issues. A 2000 poll by the Democracy Corps, a liberal polling group, showed that voters had vastly more trust in Republicans than Democrats on such moral basics as personal responsibility, discipline and knowing right from wrong. A more recent poll, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, shows a Democratic candidate getting slaughtered in the 2004 election among voters who regularly attend religious services.

The problem is that few Democrats--on the campaign trail or off--have done well at moving beyond the Clinton strategy of playing defense on values. Democrats tend to operate in a debate defined by the right. They are good at mentioning their long marriages or their belief in personal responsibility. They slip in references to God and the Bible. And more Democrats now frame issues such as healthcare through a "family" lens, reflecting advice from pollster Stanley Greenberg and others.

Some Democrats, notably John Edwards, have attempted to move the values debate onto home turf by couching the liberal ideals of fairness and opportunity in strong moral language. These efforts are laudable, but lack the bite of the values discourse pioneered by the right. Some thirty years ago, conservatives moved aggressively to establish a moral monopoly amid what Francis Fukuyama has called "the Great Disruption," namely the breakdown of the traditional family and rise of feminism and individualism. The Great Disruption played out in very personal ways for Americans, and was experienced by many--especially white men--as a full-blown social crisis. Conservatives were brilliant at leveraging the crisis to entomb liberalism. They separated working-class voters with traditional values from a Democratic Party that, in Spiro Agnew's words, favored "acid, amnesty and abortion." And, in a broader assault, they convinced large swaths of the public that just about any government program was apt to spawn social pathology. The harsh discipline of the free market was offered by conservatives as more than just a path toward greater prosperity. It was presented as a savior of America's moral character.

Today, progressives have a chance to emulate the conservative success on values by highlighting a new moral crisis. This crisis infects nearly every part of American society, from education to sports to business to a myriad of professions. It often plays out in intensely personal ways and it deeply troubles Americans. The crisis is the rise of a "cheating culture" in the United States.

Cheating is up. Cheating is everywhere. By cheating I mean breaking the rules to get ahead academically, professionally or financially. Some of this cheating involves violating the law, some does not. Either way, most of it is by people who, on the whole, view themselves as upstanding members of society.

Cheating is intended to go undetected, and trends in unethical behavior can be hard to document. Still, what evidence is available suggests that cheating increased in the 1980s and '90s, at least in comparison to the middle decades of the twentieth century. Many studies confirm that cheating by high school and college students has increased substantially. In a 2002 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a Los Angeles-based group, three-quarters of high school students admitted they had cheated in the previous year. The IRS reports that tax evasion has soared since the early 1980s. It now costs the Treasury at least $250 billion annually, and probably much more. …

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