The coming election season is likely to bring another round of chatter about “values.” This is a tricky undertaking for anyone, especially candidates for office who go on about their values, and Kansas values, and American values. Behold “values,” that elusive pea in the shell games of tribal politics.
What people appreciate or hold dear comes from a grab bag of personal persuasion, intimate taste, religious faith and social conviction. Values also spring from a big dose of upbringing. A person’s convictions are built along a yardstick that is years if not generations in the making. We are about to hear a lot from politicians about their values, or at least their belief in them. As more candidates emerge, it will become clear that some of them have values and the others do not, or at least have mislaid them somewhere with the car keys.
In better days the campaign hallmark was honesty. The effective candidates were in favor of everything that everyone else was in favor of. They would support anything and everything – temperance and liquor, new roads in every township and taxes in none, compassion for the rich and comfort for the poor.
And there will be opinion polls, which recently have begun to collapse of their own weight. The so-called science of poll-taking runs through cycles of embarrassment with striking regularity because people are unpredictable. (In Republican Kansas, Democrats have won ten of the last 16 elections for governor.) The voters’ pulse will be taken, but with no assurance that they haven’t just jogged the entire Välkommen Trail or paddled the Smoky Hill upstream through Marquette.
People are apt to cloud the crystal ball, telling one thing to a pollster and another thing to a voting machine. Their values are their own, a thing that politicians since Caesar have claimed to share, but have never really explained.
As the season unfolds, many candidates will take the hard line. It’s the old movement to get tough on nearly everything – taxes, voters, protesters, abortion, schools, covid masks, China and you name it. Tough is the word.
People who in one breath declare that voting laws must be pinched and in the next breath embrace the blessings of liberty come across as silly. The courts, when dragged into a get-tough dispute, haven’t used the term “silly,” but it’s apt. And look out. Politicians are more touchy about being called silly or asinine than unjust or cruel.
The silly manifesto of Republicans, especially southern Republicans, embraces a doctrine of “separate but equal” when it comes to voting or school bathrooms. Loose gun laws (or no gun laws), and telling schools what to teach (or not) are platforms that they base on “common sense.” But the sense that is common to one generation may not be common to the next. Slaves seemed commonsensical for the owners who sold them and the plantation owners who bought them. This is hardly in the circle of common sense today.
The only sense common today is the sense of change. The instinct for many people, especially some legislators, is to avoid change, to stop time. The longer we look the other way, the more we resist change, the more it costs in the long run.
A favorite target for politicians is the bureaucracy – a slippery, important institution with historic roots. Successful societies in the past usually moved from accomplishment to the complex management of success. They’ve always needed a bureaucracy to manage their affairs. The Pharos, the Caesars, Napoleons, Kings, Czars, the great church-states, all required the bureaucracies of management.
In modern Western History the revolt against the authoritarian closed state was lead by Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Tom Jefferson, all known as classic liberals. It’s almost impossible now for conservatives to recognize these liberals as their philosophical parents of a golden idea. This idea, that the state is best served by letting individuals express themselves in opinions as in business, is alien to them.
Not one of the politicians who worship their authoritarian now ruling from Florida even tries to understand the conservatism they claim to taut and defend. They rally legions only by dramatizing their enemy – immigrants, people of color, gays, Asians, covid masks, anything or anyone different. They shoot wildly, randomly and cruelly at anything outside their own narrow ranks, anyone who differs with their Leader.
American politics suffers an affliction that has cut one party from intellectual dialogue. It has penetrated that party with great temptations of the cheap win by the low blow. It threatens the very union they claim to cherish.