We Are All Values Voters







We are all values voters. As George Lakoff has consistently argued, people vote their values first, not policy positions.  What, then brought the United States to the point when, according to recent polls, a significant majority of Americans think the country “is going in the wrong direction.”

Let’s start by discarding two self-defeating notions.

First, forget the idea that people vote against their self-interest. They do not. They vote for their values. Their values define what they–not others– think is in their self-interest. Self-interest is framed by selves.

Second, reject the media-driven narrative that because we are a right-left, white-black divided nation, politicians must play to the middle to make progress. Although Congress may be dysfunctionally divided, most Americans agree on fundamental values.

If as citizens we want different policies, we’d better demand that the people who run for office represent different values than the politicians who are now calling the shots.

So, let’s turn to values.

Most Americans want the same things for their families and others: Affordable, quality health care, good democratically governed pre- and K-12 public schools, access to post-secondary education, and assurance that we can lead a decent life when we get old.

Most Americans believe that: No one should have to worry about having enough to eat and a decent place to live; People should be paid enough when they work to pay their bills and take a vacation; We should not have to worry about random gun violence; and, bias has no place in our criminal justice system.

Most Americans want: To protect the environment for future generations and reverse the causes of global warming; access to birth control and abortion, fair wages, job security, and unions; The wealthy to pay a far larger share of taxes; good government that helps people, not a shrinking government or one that helps the privileged; And, of course, peace.

Most Americans do not: disparage or hate women, immigrants, the poor, or the disabled.

Most Americans: Want and believe all these things because social responsibility and democracy are our core values.

Let’s start our efforts to change the direction of our country with that assumption.

Let’s start with the sense of urgency that everything that most Americans cherish is at risk.

Let’s not be naïve. The change will only come with a long, hard struggle.

Republicans get paid to vote for policies that favor the values and interests of their wealthy donors not the vast majority of Americans. Republicans lie about what they stand for because if they know that if they were honest about it, hardly anyone would vote for them.  They would lose, bigly.

To win, Republicans appeal to a minority of Americans who identify with authoritarianism, sectarianism, racism, and a selfish strain of individualism.  For a little election insurance, they suppress voting rights, gerrymander voting districts, and even abide or engage in traitorous collusion with Russia to undermine fair elections. Most Americans oppose all that. But if people with these values are indeed a minority, how did Republicans come to control all three federal branches and the majority of state governments?

The answers are not simple.  But one thing is clear.  Democrats have not unambiguously stood for an alternative– America’s foundational, but historically ignored, values of the common good and democracy:  E Pluribus Unum; That we are all created equal and have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; That we are our brothers and sisters keepers.

To frame the alternative, Democrats must call out the ways in which racism has hurt some folks more than others while thwarting, through divisiveness,  America’s ability to live up to its principles for all of us. Contrary to the warnings of the conflict-averse go-slowers, calling out racism does not stir up divisiveness. Instead, it allows us to surface what has divided us so that we can unite around a compelling alternative.

Competing values pull Americans in different directions.

One values tension is between competitive, selfish individualism and community-oriented social responsibility:

  • The former can be summarized as: Be out for yourself, because life is a cutthroat competition for limited resources. Maybe, I can be a winner.
  • The latter as: We are all part of the same interdependent human community.I may not get rich, but we can all be a bit better off if we help each other.

Another values tension is between authoritarian and democratic orientations:

  • The short version of the former is: Most people cannot be trusted either individually or collectively to make good decisions.Therefore, they must be led by those who are in authority because they have greater strength, intelligence, and wisdom, or special insight into the word of God. 
  • The latter as: Most people can be trusted to make good collective decisions, when they are anchored by a commitment to the common good and to practice their inherent unencumbered right to vote.

However, notwithstanding the media’s two sides to everything punditry, most people are not on one side or the other of these values tensions.

These so-called divisions are better described as leaning continuums that people draw upon inconsistently and episodically.  People can be selfish and authoritarian with some people and on some issues and communitarian and democratic with other folks and issues.

Democrats lose in part because too often they neither articulate clear values nor how their policy positions they take relate to those values. They cede values-driven appeals to Republicans.

Many Democrats of the last half-century have adopted conservative rhetoric and have supported individualistic- or authoritarian-derived policies such as deregulation, school privatization, punitive prosecution, and restrictive welfare rules.  At least in the public sector arena, many Democrats have taken anti-union stances.

When Democrats adopt the individualistic authoritarian language of Republicans, they lose.  For example, in a speech at Knox College, President Obama declared:

Here in America, we’ve never guaranteed success — that’s not what we do. More than some other countries, we expect people to be self-reliant. Nobody is going to do something for you. We’ve tolerated a little more inequality for the sake of a more dynamic, more adaptable economy. That’s all for good. But that idea has always been combined with a commitment to equality of opportunity to upward mobility — the idea that no matter how poor you started, if you’re willing to work hard and discipline yourself and defer gratification, you can make it, too. That’s the American idea.

What people hear in this language use is that the reason people are poor is that they do not want to work hard, want instant gratification, and lack self-discipline. They hear that some inferred others just want an unearned hand out. They hear a Democrat leader arguing to make moving up and down the economic latter fairer, not that the distance between the top and bottom or structure of the latter is unfair and a violation of our core values.  Making matters worse, potential voters know that Democrats take vast amounts of campaign contributions from many of the same finance and pharmaceutical donors as the Republicans.  The result is a jaundiced view of Democrats, cynicism, and low voter turn out.

We are all values voters.  That is not a critique.  It is a description of how the structures of the human brain functions to interpret the world and discern right from wrong.  It is a fact that cannot be changed. Values encompass the frameworks we use, mostly unconsciously, to make sense of the myriad stimuli we encounter, without which everything would hopelessly random.  Our values are not inherited biologically. They are acquired through the long-established culture in which we grow up. That means they are not fixed, but malleable with a great deal of effort.

In the short run, the poles of America’s values will not change. But we can influence and choose which poles to favor.  Politicians and citizens need to activate our social responsibility and democratic values.

What politicians must do:

To safeguard and enhance the ways of living together that Americans cherish, Democrats (the only current alternative to Republican’s authoritarian out–for–me-ism) must get far more people to vote, especially working people, African-Americans, and Latinos. To do so, Democrats need to run explicitly and enthusiastically on common good and democratic values. They must break the addictive habit of playing to the middle of the values continuums– by repeating soft-peddled Republican talking points.

Democrats need to talk: less about what is terrible about Trump and his Republican enablers; more about what Democrats stand for.

Democrats need to argue that: government is a good thing when it helps people; we have everything to gain by uniting across the divisions that keep us apart.

What citizens must do:

Organize: Only a massive integrated movement will propel politicians to respond more to what most people want and not to the established power of the already empowered.

Tell current and would be politicians that: they must vote based on democratic common good values; if they accept any donations from the NRA, banks and hedge fund managers, the pharmaceutical, charter school, fossil fuel, or defense industries, and other corporate donors, not only will you not vote for them, but you will campaign against them.

We are all values votes.  Vote for the common good and democracy.



Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist.  He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.


Tags: , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply