Liberals Have Values, Too

Just not the ones that will help them win the culture war

On Tuesday, Iowans officially christened the 2012 primary season, handing Mitt Romney an oh-so-subtle early victory and, sadly, putting an end to the colorful and entertaining campaign of Michele Bachmann.

It’s nothing to get excited about. The Iowa Caucuses are notoriously unrepresentative. More than 90 percent of the state is white, and upwards of 70 percent of Iowans identify themselves as evangelical Christians (not exactly an ideal cross section of America, or even the GOP for that matter). Yet, as I watched the results roll across the television screen and read about them later in the paper, the ritual got me thinking about Republican voters—their hopes, fears and motivations—and, more generally, those of the roughly 50 percent of Americans of all stripes who will likely turn up at the polls next November.

What is it that makes them tick?

We think we know the answer: It’s the economy, stupid.  Only it’s not.

While economic issues are weighing heavily on people’s minds, not to mention their pocketbooks, at the macro level the nation’s fiscal predicament is largely abstract—an untouchable phantom comprised of nebulous terms like Keynesianism, quantitative easing and deficit reduction that hardly translate into the daily lives of everyday working people. Who among us can even conceptualize what a trillion dollars in spending looks like? For better or worse, macroeconomics are the domain of technocrats and policy wonks (and I think few of them really understand their workings)—not people like Joe the Plumber. We know when we are doing good, and we know when we’re doing bad, but few of us can say for sure why (beyond the very immediate problem of too much debt and too little income).

Trying to understand American partisanship in purely economic terms, therefore, is a mistake. And perhaps its greatest omission is a failure to address that age-old conundrum that keeps Democrats up at night: Why do working-class (mostly white) people vote against their economic interests to support Republican candidates?

There are some theories. Education plays a part; studies show that people with “some college” vote more liberal than those with only a high-school education. This isn’t too much of a surprise given conservative tendencies toward anti-intellectualism and the fact that higher education tends to foment open-mindedness, another characteristic found in progressives.

In his bestselling 2004 book What’s The Matter With Kansas? (published overseas as What’s The Matter With America?) journalist Thomas Frank suggests that the Republican Party has succeeded in supplanting economic concerns for manufactured cultural ones, which seems to suggest that if they were not manipulated, working-class whites would join their more educated middle-class brethren in supporting more liberal candidates.

I agree with Frank’s assessment that Republicans exploit the culture war to demonize those on the left, but I’m not so convinced that they’d vote any differently if left to their own devices.  Here’s why: Liberals simply pay little attention to the values of most middle Americans, or at best underestimate their importance.

To understand how and why lets start by dispensing with the term liberal altogether in favor of a more suitable moniker for people who consider themselves to be left-of-center politically. The term liberal in the Old French means “befitting free men, noble, generous” and it’s been used over the years to refer to political persuasions ranging from anarchism to imperialistic capitalism. As a political philosophy concerned above all with individual freedom, equality and the right to self-determination, both Republicans and Democrats draw from the liberal tradition, which makes it unsuitable for describing America’s current socio-political divisions. Instead I favor the term progressive, for reasons that will soon come to light.

Jonathan Haidt, a noted social psychologist from the University of Virginia, has conducted a sweeping study of the culture wars by identifying five enduring values that have been a part, in some way, shape or form, of dozens of traditional civilizations and societies across the world. They are:

  • Harm/care—which involves charity and helping those less fortunate than you
  • Fairness/reciprocity—which values the idea of equality of opportunity
  • In-group loyalty—which is concerned with favoring your family, tribe or nation
  • Authority/respect—which deals with respecting elders and those in positions of authority
  • Purity/sanctity—which finds virtue in self-control and discipline (sex/drugs/etc.)

Haidt polled people in America, the Middle East, Europe and Asia about how highly they value each of these five characteristics and in each case he found the exact same thing. Progressives consistently rank the first two on the list higher than conservatives do, but rank the rest significantly lower. Self-described conservatives, by contrast, value all five to some extent but place higher emphasis on the last three ideals. According to Haidt, this would explain why progressives support something like gay marriage (fairness/reciprocity) while conservatives don’t (in-group loyalty, purity/sanctity).

If this seems like an overly simplistic way of looking at a complex issue, that’s probably because it is. Haidt (who incidentally describes himself as socially liberal) concludes from his study that progressives are aloof to three of the five values needed to hold society together and as such, are pretty much destined to be on the losing side of the culture war.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that these five values are not only enduring but unchanging as well. Like everything else, societies evolve, and evolution involves dropping some things that were once important and picking up others that have since become so (if you don’t think so, refer to the Tiktaalik). The past 50 years have witnessed unprecedented change unlike anything the world has ever seen. Why wouldn’t society follow course?

I would argue that social values are relative and only viable as long as they serve a societal purpose. For instance, in-group loyalty, which was once of paramount importance to a civilization’s survival, may actually be an impediment to the health of our modern global information society. Other values, like purity/sanctity, for instance, may not go away, but instead get modified into a different form of expression (isn’t the Green movement an expression of the value of sanctity?)

The term conservative implies a desire to maintain, to protect and above all (as the name suggests) to conserve these values by resisting, in most cases, the natural progression of society’s evolution. The term progressive, by contrast, seeks to propel change, setting it in stark relief to the status quo, and placing it by default on the fringe. Progressives are losing the culture war because they are helping to push our culture toward inevitable transitions that to many seem uncomfortable at best, downright heretical at worst. Progressives are losing the culture war because they are the vanguards of social evolution, and that’s a dangerous place to be. They are ahead of the socio-evolutionary curve and therefore will always be looked at with distrust.

That doesn’t mean they always get it right. Change is scary, and when it seems to be happening too quickly it provokes a reaction. Which is why it’s important is to find a balance and recognize that some traditions and values are worth holding on to, at least for now. You can’t force evolution but you can’t fight it either. Our society is progressing despite the rejection of the far right. Americans (both Republicans and Democrats) are more tolerant of marijuana use, homosexuality and even abortion than they’ve ever been, which is proof that over time, we are all really progressives. Change is inevitable. History is unstoppable.