Rant: "Values" and the Democrats

Will the moral grandstanding never end?


Six months after Election Day, campaign '04 feels a bit like that bourbon-fueled night you made out with the clerk in the next cubicle, or the summer you joined that self-improvement group that turned out to be a cult, or the year in junior high when you wore parachute pants everywhere and insisted against all evidence that you could breakdance. Mistakes were made. In retrospect, everyone involved looked a little foolish. The tactful thing to do is to pretend it never happened.

But if you haven't forgotten it completely, I'd like you to think back to that last week before the ballot, when many Democrats honestly believed that the polls were undercounting the "youth vote" and that this invisible demographic was going to put them over the top. Pretend, just as an exercise, that this fantasy really happened, and that a bunch of cell-phone-wielding kids elected John Kerry last November. Imagine that for the last six months the Republicans have been searching their souls and spinning their wheels, trying to find out how they can get those fledgling voters for themselves.

One faction would claim the best way to appeal to the young is to muzzle every prominent Republican with a track record of appealing to the old. Another group would argue that the GOP needs to change itself more deeply: that it has to adopt youthful concerns as its own, just as soon as it figures out what those youthful concerns might be. Yet another group would insist the Republicans are already young and hip, and that the trick is to frame their message so the kids will understand this. They'd propose ads announcing that Karl Rove sends text messages, that Dick Cheney knows some real live lesbians, and that W. may be versed in the use of powders, wink wink; that running huge deficits is risky, just like snowboarding, and that Bush's favorite judges are totally extreme.

But instead of a GOP desperately trying to be hip, Democrats are desperately trying to be square. Half a year after the election, they're still looking for the magic bullet that will win those "values voters" who purportedly cost them the presidency.

Mother Jones ran a cover story in March–March!–declaring that what's "worse than conservatives' pretense of moral superiority is liberals' pretense of superiority to morals." The New York Times Magazine published an essay in April–April!–on how "any meaningful re-evaluation of their approach to moral values…will require more intellectual rigor." Hillary Clinton is reframing herself as Joe Lieberman; Joe Lieberman is reframing himself as Jeremiah. The results are as embarrassing as the most tone-deaf teen-courting commercials: If there's anything more painful than watching a politician or pundit pretending to be 17, it's watching him pretend he believes in a force greater than himself.

That's not to say the project is doomed. There are two ways I can imagine the Democrats reaching the values demographic without an overdose of condescension: the way I'd like them to do it, and the way they've always done it in the past and show every indication of doing again.

The first option is to embrace the ethic of live and let live, in either libertarian or federalist form, and to take the populist side each time a neighborhood church runs into trouble with the zoning board or a homeschooler faces ridiculously restrictive regulations. The second option is pious lecturing of the sort that doesn't address people's faith so much as it addresses their anxieties.

Conservatives are only just learning to mau-mau the media and government with tactics and language on loan from the P.C. left. Liberals, by contrast, have a century's experience of acting as moral scolds. Progressive Era reformers drew heavily on the pietist Protestant tradition, and their successors have merely continued the secularization of self-righteousness.

Clinton and Lieberman have proven that they can speak that cloying language, and as 2008 approaches they'll speak it more loudly than ever. The one good thing about the permanent floating values debate is that it makes the pols' pandering that much more obvious.