An aggressively annoying new phrase in America's political lexicon is "values voters." It is used proudly by social conservatives, and carelessly by the media to denote such conservatives.
This phrase diminishes our understanding of politics. It also is arrogant on the part of social conservatives and insulting to everyone else because it implies that only social conservatives vote to advance their values and everyone else votes to . . . well, it is unclear what they supposedly think they are doing with their ballots.
On Sunday a Los Angeles Times article on the possibility of a presidential run by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush reported: "The Family Research Council, an influential evangelical activist group, has invited Gov. Bush to appear at a fall conference of 'values voters.' " On Monday the Wall Street Journal quoted a pastor who is president of a Texas-based organization, Vision America, that mobilizes conservative pastors: "Values voters see their vote as a sacred trust." The phrase "values voters," which has become ubiquitous, subtracts from social comity by suggesting that one group has cornered the market on moral seriousness.
Last Saturday, when John McCain delivered the commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, he was said to be reaching out to values voters. Hillary Clinton, speaking recently at the annual U.S. Chamber of Commerce convention, scolded "kids," by which she evidently meant young adults, for thinking "work is a four-letter word." She was said to be courting values voters. If so, those voters must value slapdash rhetorical nonsense as well as work.
It is odd that some conservatives are eager to promote the semantic vanity of the phrase "values voters." And it is odder still that the media are cooperating with those conservatives.
Conservatives should be wary of the idea that when they talk about, say, tax cuts and limited government -- about things other than abortion, gay marriage, religion in the public square and similar issues -- they are engaging in values-free discourse. And by ratifying the social conservatives' monopoly of the label "values voters," the media are furthering the fiction that these voters are somehow more morally awake than others.
Today's liberal agenda includes preservation, even expansion, of the welfare state in its current configuration in order to strengthen an egalitarian ethic of common provision. Liberals favor taxes and other measures to produce a more equal distribution of income. They may value equality indiscriminately, but they vote their values.
Among the various flavors of conservatism, there is libertarianism that is wary of government attempts to nurture morality and there is social conservatism that says unless government nurtures morality, liberty will perish. Both kinds of conservatives use their votes to advance what they value.
Only one Republican senator -- let us now praise New Hampshire's John Sununu -- voted for the measure to take the money for Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" and spend it for Hurricane Katrina relief, and also voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment (which would clutter the Constitution with the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman). The former vote affirmed the value of common sense; the latter, by opposing federal usurpation of the traditional state responsibility for marriage law, affirmed the value of cultural federalism. Is Sununu a values voter?
McCain, who also opposes the marriage amendment (but supports an Arizona initiative to define marriage there as between a man and a woman), says he would have voted for the bridge-for-Katrina money swap, had he not been away from the Senate that day. Perhaps he was out wooing values voters. Is he one?
Attempts to assign values-seriousness can get complicated: Freedom and happiness are valuable. Arguably, governmental actions that did much to increase freedom and happiness in the past half-century were state laws liberalizing divorce. These made important contributions to the emancipation of men and especially women from mistaken marriages. Perhaps the most important of these laws -- it was among the most liberal and was in the most populous state -- was signed by a divorced governor, Ronald Reagan. What do socially conservative values voters make of that ?
The two front-runners for the 2008 presidential nominations are studies in contrasts, yet they have two things in common. First, both stand to gain from a Republican debacle this November: The weaker that Republicans look on Wednesday morning, Nov. 8, the easier it will be for Clinton to dampen Democrats' anxieties about her electability, and the larger she looms, the more the Republicans will focus on the electability of their competing candidates, which will favor McCain. Second, both are and will remain busy courting only values voters, because there is no other kind.