If you watched the post-election coverage this year, you were told that G.W. Bush won again due, in large part, to a large turnout of conservative voters who proclaimed that "moral values" is the most important issue to them. If you are a conservative, perhaps you thought to yourself, "Yeah, moral values, that is why I voted for Bush. This country is headed in the wrong direction and we need a good church-going president to keep us on the right track." If you're a liberal, you wondered exactly which moral values Bush has that Kerry lacks: honesty? compassion? humility? tolerance?
Recent articles in the New Yorker (and the Washington Post have pounced on the "moral values" issue. In the Post's "The Anatomy of a Myth," Dick Meyer asserts, "It's a neat theory -- but wrong. How it came to be regarded as the real story of Bush's victory is a fascinating and sobering example of journalism's quest for freshness and surprise."
The moral values question came to the forefront in exit polling, which Louis Menand, in his New Yorker essay, "Permanent Fatal Errors," reminds us, were "a fiasco." Recall that they embarrassingly predicted Kerry as the winner in a landslide. Menand also suggests, "...polls that ask people why they voted for a particular candidate have usually been regarded with a heavy drip of saline solution--not because people do not tell the truth but because they often don't know the truth."
Twenty-two percent of people polled stated that moral values was the issue that mattered most in deciding how to vote for president. Bush pollster Jan Van Lohuizen, of Stanford, stated, "...if you give people a list of seven and you ask them what's their top concern and the highest number is twenty-two, that means there is no concensus. It means that there was no one issue that drove the election."
Still, according to a Pew report, "The survey findings parallel exit poll results showing that moral values is a top-tier issue for voters. But the relative importance of moral values depends greatly on how the question is framed. The post-election survey finds that, when moral values is pitted against issues like Iraq and terrorism, a plurality (27%) cites moral values as most important to their vote. But when a separate group of voters was asked to name in their own words the most important factor in their vote, significantly fewer (14%) mentioned moral values."
Also, "those who cite moral values as a major factor offer varying interpretations of the concept. More than four-in-ten (44%) of those who chose moral values as the most important factor in their vote from the list of issues say the term relates to specific concerns over social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage. However, others did not cite specific policy issues, and instead pointed to factors like the candidates' personal qualities or made general allusions to religion and values."
As I sat thinking about moral values last night, I Googled the phrase. Here are the results. The 20th hit is from Globalethics.org: a "Global Values Survey," conducted by the The Institute for Global Ethics at the State of the World Forum's annual meeting in San Francisco in 1996. Of 272 international participants surveyed, the 15 moral values listed were ranked in the following order of importance:
Reverence for Life
Preservation of Nature
Respect for Elders
This list is obviously not all-inclusive. But what "moral values" do abortion and gay marriage fall under? I see abortion falling under "reverence for life," if one believes that life begins at fertilization. But gay marriage? That's more a biblical value. If you're a fundamentalist Christian, your moral value is likely to mirror the biblical value, and so you vote for Bush; but if you're not, you moral value of "Tolerance" may guide you to vote Democrat.
The divide in this country is not between a party or a group that has moral values and a group that does not; it is more a divide between groups with differing moral values.
As it was, as it is, as it will be.
I think you'll find that the global list of values correspond to character traits. What a great wishlist for an American voter looking for a morally upright leader. Hang on to it for the next election. Maybe there will be a candidate whose character reflects the values you hold dear. More likely, you'll have to vote for the candidate that strays less from those values.