Isn't there something puzzling about our current political debate? With a popular Democrat having served two terms in the White House, the nation has seen sustained economic growth with low unemployment and low inflation. A well-qualified vice president is positioned to carry Democratic policies forward. If he were to gain Democratic majorities in Congress, he might be able to confront nagging problems such as inequality in the midst of prosperity.
After all, the public puts more trust in the Democrats on almost everything that matters: securing Social Security's stability, reforming health care, raising education standards, and protecting the environment. Polls show that the public has more confidence in the Democrats to handle the economy and the budget. There is somewhat more trust in the Republicans to handle taxes and crime, but less markedly so than before the Clinton administration. The public turns to the Republicans on few other issues. Yet this seeming mandate for Democrats to take charge of government has so far not altered the balance of forces on the ground. Instead of a cakewalk for Democrats, a competitive election is shaping up--one that might just give Republicans control of the three branches of government. How do we account for this state of affairs?
It goes beyond economics: It has to do with values. This is the one place Republicans hold a decisive advantage. People respect the Democrats for their openness to new ideas, their commitment to community, and their defense of tolerance and individual rights. But at this moment, with families under great pressure, voters are more impressed with the Republicans' insistence on personal responsibility, discipline, and teaching children about right and wrong. Voters want young people to learn norms and limits. And Democrats are more commonly seen to be permissive about such things.
During the 1990s, Democrats changed their standing on these concerns, but the two-year struggle over Clinton's impeachment undermined their progress. At a time when the electorate is increasingly open to the Democrats as a party of sensible investment, the party has lost ground in the battle over values.
This is territory that need not be conceded. For progressives to rediscover America's values, they don't have to embrace the right's version of "family values." The right resents women's changing roles, not to mention abortion rights and sexual freedom. But while the American people are upset with moral decline, they are uncomfortable with solutions that see the family narrowly or that impose a unitary vision of religious belief.
The public discomfort with the right gives progressives an opportunity to re-enter the values debate. Voters want political leaders who put the family at the center of political discussion and who devote themselves to a policy agenda that will help families meet the myriad challenges they face. They are drawn to Democrats who respect the public's religious faith and belief in personal responsibility and who understand the range of economic and social forces undermining parents.
A family-centered progressive discourse on values would free voters to respond to Democrats on the social and economic issues on which Democrats now have a presumptive advantage. Such a discourse could alter the balance of power in the country.
The Emergence of Democratic Values
The historic battles of the 1960s and 1970s broadened rights for blacks, women, and gays, but they also left a scar: the seeming indifference of the left to the decline of personal responsibility. Those who did the right thing--who worked hard and supported their families--had no special virtues in the Democratic world of values. And for more than three decades, conservatives have warred against the values of the 1960s. A majority of Americans by the 1980s accepted the conservative critique, even if they were reluctant to roll back the gains made by women and minorities. For the right and much of the country, Ronald Reagan personified the nostalgia for the neglected virtues.
The Clinton campaign of 1992 and the Democratic Leadership Council focused on this question of neglected virtues; they wanted Democrats to champion responsibility as well as opportunity. While Clinton offered an ambitious invest-ment agenda, he also proposed welfare reform, supported the death penalty, and promised middle class tax cuts as well as a significant effort to reduce federal deficit spending. He insisted that Democrats would offer opportunity and demand responsibility in return--at all levels, from corporate CEOs to mothers on welfare.
Democrats were becoming part of this family-centered values debate when Monica Lewinsky and a coterie of anti-Clinton right-wing groups took center stage. For two years, the country was forced to come to terms with the president's private sexual behavior and his public defense. Democrats saved Clinton's presidency and even made gains in the 1998 midterm elections, but at a price. The Democrats again were identified with 1960s-style irresponsibility.
You can see the damage by looking at recent public opinion polls on values questions, such as one conducted earlier this year by the Democracy Corps, an independent organization founded to do strategic research for Democrats in the postimpeachment period. In broadest terms, the key question posed was, which party shares your values? Democrats trail Republicans by four points (36 percent to 40 percent) in the electorate as a whole, by 15 points among white voters, and by an alarming 25 points among married white voters. The Democratic values problem deepens when we get to specifics. Democrats trail Republicans by 18 points on knowing right from wrong, by 24 points on personal responsibility, and by 33 points on discipline. Democrats are seen as less interested in teaching people that certain kinds of antisocial actions are not permissible. The Republicans, on the other hand, are seen as championing a kind of individualism that requires learned norms, personal responsibility, and self-restraint.
Thus, when it comes to understanding the demands of parenting and the need for children to learn respect, the public is more likely to look to Republicans: 42 percent of respondents think Republicans understand the need to strengthen families, compared to 28 percent who think Democrats understand this challenge, according to another recent poll.
For many people, internalized limits or norms of right and wrong are inspired by a religious world view. Americans are the most religiously observant people in the Western industrialized world, with two-fifths attending church or synagogue at least once a week and two-thirds belonging to a congregation. Two-thirds of poll respondents say they believe religion can answer all or most of today's problems.
But here, too, there is a partisan divide. By an almost two-to-one ratio, the public is more likely to associate Republicans with "faith in God" (40 percent to 22 percent). In the white electorate, the most secular-oriented voters support Democrats by more than two to one, but the more numerous regular churchgoers support Republicans by a like ratio.
Little wonder that voters on the eve of the 2000 elections hold back from the Democrats, even though Democrats seem to have the better approach to government.
The Values Problem
The right is ready to help America's embattled families. But how? By attacking permissiveness and untraditional gender roles, by focusing on character, and by promoting a particular vision of religious belief and religious institutions. And with the left pushed to the sidelines, conservatives have gained yardage.
But the American public does not really think about values in such narrow terms. People want to make a better life for their family without jettisoning the progress we've made on tolerance and civil rights. Alan Wolfe, head of the Middle Class Morality Project, notes that people worry that the changing family structure has not been good for children but that, at the same time, people are not anxious to abandon the gains in personal autonomy and in opportunities for women.
Parents do worry about the breakdown of rules and discipline. In a recent national survey, 45 percent said educating children about rules and respect is the biggest problem facing families today (39 percent said the quality of schools is foremost). And 77 percent expressed concern that children in America are no longer safe in their schools.
Much of this concern is tied to time and work pressures on parents; according to one national poll, 56 percent worry a great deal that "because of work and other pressures, parents don't have enough time to spend with their children." The vast majority of the public thinks that men's and women's changing roles have made it harder to raise children and maintain a successful marriage.
These are not artificial concerns created by the right. With more single-parent households and more households with both parents working, there are more "latchkey" children. People have real worries about family life, and they are looking for help--from other parents, the community, the church, schools, and even the government. Do progressives have anything to say to these families?
Many progressives do. There are three predominant schools of thought among progressives who think about values. The first two schools are fairly well-established. The third, more clearly centered on family concerns, reflects policies now supported by Democrats and progressives, but is not always articulated in terms of values. It is this third school that needs to be more prominent.
One established perspective emphasizes material values. It's a credible progressive approach, typified by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers in their recent book, America's Forgot-ten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. The authors argue, convincingly, that Democrats have lost their majority in the country because they have lost the support of the white working class, particularly men. Democrats have rushed to compete for "soccer moms" while forgetting white workers whose incomes have declined and who cope with the insecurity of the new economy.
These voters, Teixeira and Rogers maintain, bring important value judgments to their political choices. These judgments are "deeply held and broadly shared ones about opportunity, fair reward for effort, the centrality of hard work and individual achievement and social commitment." These values are closely intertwined with work and income. The focus on these "material values" will be an important part of any effort to build a Democratic majority. In fact, the public is more comfortable with this material focus than with one strictly on moral character and religion. According to one recent national survey, voters overwhelmingly pre-fer a Democratic candidate who emphasizes "families having enough income and affordable health care and education" over a Republican candidate who wants to protect the moral climate and "encourage religion to play a larger role in society."
But the material-values discourse is still separate from faith and family. And the partisan impasse remains. Since the Gingrich Congress, Democrats have been waging battle on health care, education, and the economy, and have made only a small comeback. The national political race remains deadlocked.
There is also a strong progressive tradition that emphasizes social-justice values. From this perspective, Democrats have fought heroic battles to expand rights, and no one need lecture the Democrats on values. Indeed, the battle for rights and equality is unfinished. Representative John Lewis, a battle-tested civil rights leader, personifies this view; it is well reflected also in the voices of the African-American clergy and many Democratic leaders. In his memoir Walking with the Wind, Lewis challenges progressives to continue the struggle to "humanize" a political system that still listens to the elites and wealthy but not the "poor, sick and disenfranchised." This country remains divided by race and class, even if this fact is obscured by the current economic prosperity: "a very few people visibly and luxuriantly living in excess while the rest of the nation lives in fear and anxiety ... two societies, moving farther apart."
Drawing explicitly upon the lessons of the civil rights struggle, Lewis reminds us of the need to promote social justice and equality today. The answer, as he sees it, is both material and spiritual investment in our young people, sparked by efforts from the ground up to force government to respond. Lewis calls for "a revolution of values. A revolution of attitude."
The march for fairness and equality, community and social responsibility, tolerance and change, and individual freedom and privacy has helped solidify Democratic gains with minority voters and with professionals and well-educated women. The affirmation of those values continues to put Republican religious conservatism on the defensive in a wide range of areas.
But affirming those values will not speak directly to the contemporary concerns of families. It will not create any new electoral equation that alters the current balance of electoral forces. For that, one needs a new element.
More progressives have begun to understand that the future progressive agenda must focus not just on people's work lives but on their family lives. Theda Skocpol in her new book, The Missing Middle, offers the clearest formulation yet. She proposes a new politics centered on "the struggles of working mothers and fathers, especially those with modest means." The main policy challenge of that struggle is to "better support parents" in a society that seems to undermine and devalue families. Skocpol argues that "most Americans worry about both the material circumstances and the moral climate for family life today." They are receptive to progressive policies that can become a progressive mission for parents: expanded and intergenerational use of Social Security, ensured child support, affordable child care, a steadily expanding Medicare, and universal access to paid family leave.
Her social goal is to strengthen parents so they can do better both in supporting their children and in giving them moral guidance. Her political goal is to provide social supports for parents who carry so much responsibility for society. In this perspective, the challenges facing families stir progressive passions and shape our discourse. How do parents handle the increasing work pressure and work hours without undermining their responsibilities? How do families find good and safe communities and schools? How do children learn their lessons, but also how do they learn personal responsibility and respect for others? How do people ensure a secure retirement but also keep a family together so it can handle the intergenerational tasks associated with aging?
For a start, Democrats need to honor the religious tradi-tions within their party. Some of their longest-standing supporters--African Americans, Catholics, and Latinos-- put religious faith and practice at the center of their family lives. From the Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal churches in Chicago to evangelical churches in Los Angeles to Catholic churches in Detroit and Milwaukee, these Americans practice the lessons of personal responsibility and obligation to others, especially to the disadvantaged. Democrats should feel comfortable with these practices. The progressive left has a proud tradition rooted in the social gospel and the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Moreover, while Americans are religious, it is not in the way the right thinks. The moderate middle does not want to politicize values or religious belief. It wants faith to serve as a source of values, and it wants public officials to embrace such faith. But it does not want to impinge on freedom of religious practice; it does not want to impose values on others.
Progressives also need to rediscover the family. For some three decades, the left neglected to affirm the centrality of the family, especially of two-parent households. The left must give itself permission to recognize the benefit of two-parent families to children. Democrats need to affirm the value of such family structure, even as they redouble their efforts on behalf of single-parent families, whose battles are tougher.
Voters are most attracted to a candidate's values when he or she speaks out on issues explicitly linked to family needs--particularly on health care, education, safety, and retirement. As the Democracy Corps national survey shows, Americans are drawn to candidates who champion affordable health care (64 percent), the education system (61 percent), safe communities (58 percent), and retirement for their parents (57 percent). The least attractive candidates on values, according to the study, are those who forcefully advocate a larger role for religion in society, for example, starting "with the re-introduction of prayer in the public schools" (only 41 percent approval). People are uncomfortable with politicians who rush through this values debate merely by trumpeting the need for greater religiosity.
One more example: When people are asked which candidate they prefer on values--a Republican who sets a moral example and wants religion to play a bigger role in society, or a Democrat who says "young people aren't learning respect for rules, which is why we need to create smaller and safer classrooms where there is more discipline and higher standards"--the Democrat wins by 54 percent to 31 percent.
As it turns out, the best way to win on values is not by pushing religion into public spaces but by creating settings that help parents in their work and by improving places where values can be learned. The classroom is one such place where the Democrats currently have more credibility than the Republicans do.
Democrats can find their voice on values, even in a period when many voters are looking for a return to moral values, a strengthened family, and norms of individual responsibility. To be heard, Democrats must honor religious traditions that teach right and wrong, discipline, responsibility, and respect. Democrats must rediscover the family, where children are nurtured and learn their lessons and values. And finally, Democrats must make clear their motivation in the public realm: to promote policies that help people realize their hopes and dreams for their own families. ¤