Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Values And Elitism

Although one might think it has already been hammered to death, Dan Schnur, the Washington Post's resident McCain backer now adds to the stack of editorials on Obama's use of the words "bitter" and "cling". His take, although mostly trite, is a bit different than most in that it addresses something frequently forgotten in this discussion - that everybody has values.
Both Senator Obama and Mr. Frank seem to be saying that economic policy should be more important to voters than social and cultural questions.

For many people, that’s certainly true. But there are plenty of other voters who don’t necessarily base their votes solely on jobs and taxes, and many of them are quite financially successful. They have determined their political affiliations largely as a result of the same continuing battles over abortion, guns and same-sex marriage that have drawn so many working-class voters to Republican candidates over the years. The only difference is the side of the fight they’ve chosen. It’s hard to argue that a wealthy pro-choice Democrat is any less of a values voter than a pro-life construction worker who votes Republican.
But here's the thing. The term "values voters" didn't emerge from a void. It was a carefully chosen phrase, used by people like Schnur to direct Republican messages at a specific demographic - a group he describes as "one of the most sought-after prizes in national elections". Yes, values voters, Republican elites like Schnur view you as "prizes" to be "won" - how condescending is that?

As used by somebody like Schnur, the term "values voters" can be interpreted in one of two ways. The more flattering is that the group has values superior to those of other Americans - but Schnur disavows that interpretation, arguing that even elites have values. The less flattering is that the group can be manipulated into voting on values issues, even though their values are no better than anybody else's. That, of course, is what Schnur, et al, see as the implicit meaning of Obama's comment and as the grounds for criticism of Obama.

Isn't there a third way, you ask? That "values voters" place such import on their values that they will vote against their economic self-interest to protect those values? That, of course, is what people like Schnur pretend to be arguing - even though this again doesn't differentiate "values voters" from the "wealthy pro-choice Democrat" Schnur describes.

I might be more charitable to Schnur if the Republicans were sincere in their entreaties to values voters. But surely you haven't missed the disenchantment of the religious right with George W. Bush. Many "values voters" accurately perceive how their concerns have been exploited by the Republican Party in order to get votes and power, but how little actual progress has been made on the values issues they hold dear. Schnur sees these reflected in "issues like gun ownership, abortion and same-sex marriage". Beyond that, why does Schnur's list of values omit, for example, peace, justice, or the environment - values cherished by many "blue collar Americans"? Why is it that the only values he articulates as belonging to that group are Republican wedge issues? Because that's all he sees? Or is it that values that don't work in favor of the Republican Party aren't worthy of notice?

Other than a set of "Chicken Little" ballot initiatives about how gay marriage would sweep the nation without state constitutional amendments, what progress have "values voters" seen on these issues under G.W. Bush? Essentially nothing. What did they "lose" on these issues under Bill Clinton? Essentially nothing. So it becomes necessary to reinvent the issue, not as "We're the party that will give lip service to your moral values but not lift a finger when it comes to acting on them," but as, "At least we don't look down on you for your moral values."
An environmentally conscious, pro-stem cell bond trader who votes Democratic is lauded for selflessness and open-mindedness. A gun-owning, church-going factory worker who supports Republican candidates, on the other hand, must be the victim of partisan deception. This double standard is at the heart of the Democratic challenge in national elections: rather than diminish these cultural beliefs as a byproduct of economic discomfort, a more experienced and open-minded candidate would recognize and respect the foundations on which these values are based.
So it's still a one night stand, but Schnur is willing to promise, "If you vote for us, we'll still respect you in the morning." (Just don't expect a phone call.)

If that's not enough condescension for you, exactly when did the term "values voter" become synonymous with "blue-collar Americans"? Schnur conflates the groups as a matter of convenience - it allows him to suggest that Obama looks down on all working class Americans, while escaping the task of differentiating blue collar workers who are "values voters" from those who are not. Saying "We're all values voters" is not sufficient; Schnur is describing a particular demographic. If Schnur truly believes that all "blue collar Americans" are a monolith, thinking as he believes they do, we've again entered the realm of extraordinary condescension.

This whole idea of elitism is rather funny, not just because by the definitions applied in this debate our Founding Fathers were elitist, but because the elites of both parties constitute a de facto ruling class. They represents the best and the worst of the aristocracies Jefferson described - the "natural aristocracy" of people who have risen on their merits, combined with the "artificial aristocracy" of people who get their power by virtue of "wealth and birth". If your issue does not matter to those elites, it will take nothing short of a political earthquake to move Congress to act on your behalf. Hence the sleepy tokenism the Republican Party offers to "values voters" - an offering of table scraps to retain their votes, but no seat at the big table.

Let's consider how John McCain stacks up on this front, starting with his new tax proposal: Working Americans get a "gas tax holiday", a gradual increase in the exemption for dependents, and a massive increase in... let's call it the birth tax - each person's share of the exploding federal deficit. The upper middle class and wealthy get gradual relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax. The wealthy get immediate and permanent relief from income and estate taxes. Corporations get their taxes slashed by 40%. The cost of this to working Americans? Less money to fix roads and improve infrastructure, an even larger federal deficit, and if we do anything to try to balance the budget, massive reductions in Medicare and Social Security benefits (with no corresponding reduction in Medicare or Social Security taxes).

But McCain's a "man of the people". He's perfectly at home cooking at his back yard BBQ. So much so that he bought the neighboring house so he would have more room for his parties. He'll refer to voters as "my friends", but sorry, we're the type of friends who don't get asked over for a hamburger. He won't release his tax returns, probably because his deductions would appall the average working American. (Does he really want people to know how much he spends on his annual BBQ for the press? And yes, I do suspect he takes a deduction for that event.)

We can go further. McCain goes to a Baptist Church, yet has never been baptized and has a long history of antipathy toward the leadership of the Religious Right - until it because convenient to embrace John Hagee and Rod Parsley. He has a long history of championing free trade agreements, but to put it mildly he's not emphasizing that fact. A champion of campaign finance reform, he backed out of his commitment to use public financing for his primary campaign. A champion of balanced budgets, he has embraced the anti-tax agenda of the "Club for Growth" despite the consequences to the budget - a retreat from his past positions similar to his embrace of the religious right. (The Club For Growth loves McCain's budget proposals, save of course for those elements directed at working Americans.) Until recently McCain was a champion of immigration reform, but seems to have flip-flopped on that issue as well.

So yes, as Schnur says,
[L]ike the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. controversy that preceded it, Senator Obama’s tendency to erect cultural barriers between himself and this critical block of swing voters will become more of an obstacle in a general election campaign.
Because people like Schnur will keep feeding that line to the swing voters to distract them from how little McCain actually has to offer, or to perpetuate the myth that the Republicans are somehow less "elitist" than Democrats.

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