Values Politics

David Brooks, in his piece “Values, Values Everywhere” [RSS], notes that the V-word has been popping up a lot of late:

I know that John Kerry shares my values. I know that John Kerry shares your values. I know that John Kerry shares John Edwards’s values, who also, by the way, shares my values. I know they both share your accountant’s values, your butcher’s values, your mechanic’s values. If a Martian showed up from outer space, they’d share its values, too. . . . I know that because they say so. In speech, in rapid responses, in interviews, Kerry and Edwards remind us these days how darn tootin’ chock full of values they really are. They’ve got heartland values, middle-class values and even conservative values, according to themselves. They are to values what Donald Trump is to gilt: they’ve got it; you’re gonna see it. Of course, if Kerry really shared our values, he probably wouldn’t have to tell us so every minute, and once, just once, he might actually say what the values we share actually are.


When Kerry uses the word “values,” it’s meant to send a message: I am not who I am. I am not the blue-blooded prep-school kid who married two millionaires, dated a movie star and has a prenup and umpteen homes in tony locales; who has spent the past two decades as a moderately liberal senator from Massachusetts; and who likes to snowboard at Sun Valley and windsurf off Nantucket. I’m just your back-fence neighbor in Mayberry, out there in overalls, sidlin’ over to the fence to chat: “Howdy neighbor! Would you like to come visit for a spell and hear about my values of faith, hope and opportunity?”

This campaign’s version of middle-class values is like the Cracker Barrel restaurant version of a small town: a manufactured replica of a wholesome, down-home America that never existed. A realistic portrait of middle-class values would include tattoos, carb-counting and the purchase of voluminous amounts of lottery tickets by people who dream of escaping from the middle class.

But, of course, this campaign has to insult our intelligence while it condescends. Personally, I long for the day when rich people were free to be rich people, when Franklin Roosevelt could cruise around in that roadster with that big cigarette holder jutting from his mouth. I long for the day when rich people left morals to the middle class because they were too busy worrying about manners, which are more glamorous. Yet here we are on the cusp of one of the greatest episodes of spiritual slumming since Marie Antoinette built that fake village and played at being a shepherdess. Both John Forbes Kerry and George Walker Bush — who, let’s face it, ain’t exactly John-Boy Walton — are going to compete furiously over the next three months to see who is the most spiritually middle class. Because that’s what we apparently want in a president — a really rich guy who worships our middle-class pabulum.

I say if these upper-class types want our values, they can have them. Just so long as they give us their real estate.

Clearly, this is very much a bipartisan phenomenon. Every presidential campaign in my memory has had some variant on this theme, most notably the “Family Values” mantra that was long a hallmark of Republicans. It was never clear exactly what those values were or how they would be translated into public policy, but we know our guys had them and the other guys didn’t. In politics, vague is usually good, as it lets each voter fill in the blanks in a way that suits them.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. nepas says:

    cheap shot by the very partisan brooks. he could’ve written the exact same article about bush, who isn’t merely not of the middle class, he’s never done a thing for the middle class. when reagan used the word, we knew what he meant since he had fought his way up from poverty. not so with bush 1 and bush 2, and it remains to be seen with kerry, who at least served along side the poor and middle-class and doesn’t endorse a rich-only agenda. but as brooks lays it out, it’s a battle we can’t win. bush, cheney and the other extremists have thrown traditional american values in the shredder.

    but i guess today the extreme right likes the new york times since brooks is carrying rove’s water.

  2. Joseph Marshall says:

    I must say that I have found at least one politician who shares at least some of my values. I disagree heartily with his recent decisions on the world scene, but I can say with confidence that any man who steps up and says the following is part of my tribe:

    “For any mistakes, made, as the report finds, in good faith I of course take full responsibility, but I cannot honestly say I believe getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all. I accept full personal responsibility for the way the issue was presented and therefore for any errors made.”

    The politician, of course, is Tony Blair. And I have given up, long ago, expecting any successful American politician to say such things.

    The thing that strikes me most about John Kerry is how very like George W. Bush he is. The besetting sin of the well-heeled Yaleie (as they both are) is a laissier faire attitude toward responsibility and serious work.

    We all know the George W. packs it in promptly at 5:00 pm and has taken more vacation time than any President in recent history. And we also all know that John Kerry has simply flat out missed an extraordinary number of votes in his Senate career.

    I find this worrisome, honestly. The real failures of the last four years (as opposed to the seriously wrong decisions) have been failures of concentrated effort and of intellectual flabbiness in the face of facts.

    In my view, the invasion of Iraq was a seriously wrong decision, but it was not a failure. The failure was the six months of dallying while our enemies there built a major insurgency, merely because someone had arbitrarily decided, “Mission Accomplished!”

    When I look at John Kerry, I ask myself, “Is he capable of making the same sort of boneheaded mistake?” I think he very well might be. I also ask myself, “If he did, would he take responsibility for it?” Probably not.

    I strongly suspect John Kerry shares my ideology, so I will vote for him in preference to a proven lazy bonehead who most emphaticly shares neither my ideology nor my values. But I doubt Kerry really shares many of my values either.

    Then again, my candidate of choice was Howard Dean, because I was pretty certain he really did share my values. And he, at least, has publicly taken full responsibility for the failure of his candidacy.

  3. Joseph Marshall says:

    “It was never clear exactly what those values were or how they would be translated into public policy.”

    I really must take issue with you here James. What “Family Values” meant was perfectly clear, it was merely absurd. It meant life as lived in televison sit-coms about the American family from “December Bride” up to the debut of “All In the Family”, the first show to explicitly mock the whole idea. And even life as lived after “All In the Family” in “family-oriented” sit-coms.

    It meant a life where you never saw a black face and never heard a hispanic name, except for Ricky Ricardo (and Dezilu Productions had to fight tooth and nail for that one).

    It meant a life without any funny foriegn religions or serious religous thinking, with Sunday church attendence assumed to be on auto-pilot.

    It meant a life without marital infidelity, pre-marital sex, unwanted pregnancy (or, indeed, any pregnacy at all), and without even the concept that certain of us might be “gay” or “lesbian”. Not only were all such people in the closet, the closet wasn’t even there.

    It meant a life where any serious foreign policy crisis or domestic political conflict was merely, at most, dramatic headlines in the newspaper on sale at the Malt Shop. (After all, every real man had been to war in Dubbya Dubbya Two or Korea and those were serious political times, so the crises couldn’t just not exist or it would have been too absurd).

    In other words, it meant a whites-only Garden of Eden where nothing serious ever happened, and true conflict or tragedy never intruded. It’s archetype was Mayberry, North Carolina.

    And as to translating it into public policy, well, we elected Sheriff Andy for two terms as President, starting in 1980. And after a decade when we all thoughtlessly abandoned those family values, Deputy Barney finally found his bullet again and took office in 2000.