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Think Tank Specials — Values Matter Most

Book Summary of Values Matter Most
(1995-The Free Press)

In 1970, Richard Scammon and I argued in The Real Majority that a new tidal political issue had reached shore in America, washing across the most important spot on the political spectrum: the center. We called that tide “the social issues,” a coinage that has since come into general usage. We believed that the social issue had become coequal with an earlier tidal concern, the economic issue.

A long political generation has gone by. By most measures, our economic well-being and changing social demographics are doing quite well. However, the social issues, now often called “values” or sometimes “cultural issues” have deteriorated. New social maladies have emerged. At best the situation is unhappy; at worst, perhaps combustible. I have come to the conclusion that the values issues are no longer merely coequal with economic concerns. The values issues are now the most important.

I believe that the values situation in America has worsened. I believe that government has played a big role in allowing values to erode. I believe that in the governmental arena, most of the blame for what has happened goes to liberal guilt peddlers whose remedies almost invariably involved what has been called “something for nothing.” This erosion is not irreversible. I believe that what government has caused, government can cure. I believe that what liberalism has caused, conservatism can cure. I believe that liberalism, which has contributed so much to America, might still change, and help lead.

The values situation is bad stuff, striking at the heart of a decent life, for blacks and whites, males and females, in every area of the country. We are talking about mothers without husbands and children without fathers at home, about people hurting financially, often fearing violence, often creating violence, often causing violence, learning too little, worried about morality, too often hustling to gain group victim points, and a situation that could possible cleave what is still a remarkably successful and patriotic society. It’s worse by far than any plausible bad-news economic scenarios. Moreover; eroding values creates bad economic news, much of it, for example, keyed to the low income of the growing number of female headed households.

Social Issues vs. Cultural Issues
The overarching term “values” is used to describe everything from prayer, to crime, to homosexuality, to welfare to music, aspects of which are seen by some or by many voters to violate “the worthy social principles, goals, or standards held by an individual, class, society act” And we shall subdivide values into two seperate categories: social issues and cultural issues.

There is wide agreement about the social issues. They are very serious and at least partly remediable in law and public policy. Such remedies can be put into place fairly quickly, although beneficial results will surely take a while. I deal here mostly with four big ones: crime, welfare, education, and preference. There are others.

There are the cultural issues, which can be political firecrackers, usually dealing with concerns about liberty (as typically described by liberals) or about liscense (as typically described by conservatives). These may be quite important concerns, but they are probably less than apocalyptic. In any event, in part because Americans often disagree about these issues, they are very difficult to remedy in law or public policy.

1992: Democrats Get the Message, Republicans Lose It
In The Real Majority, Scammon and I said that unless the Democrats paid serious attention to that socially turbulent center and their growing concern over these social issues, they would likely keep on losing in the national arena. They didn’t and they did.

In the past generation, these sociocultural values issues have been: abortion, amnesty, bra burning, busing, capital punishment, condoms in the classroom, crime, draft dodging, drugs, flag burning, gays in the military, gun control, homelessness, multiculturalism, patriotism, pornography, prayer in school, quotas, school discipline, sex education and welfare.

Using these values issues, sometimes demogogically, usually not, Republicans managed to win five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988 — most of them by solid margins, some by landslides.

Until the election of 1992. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, a Democrat, had run his campaign as a dynamic moderate who preached “No More Something for Nothing” a slogan that resonated in my political soul. If uttered by a conservative, this brilliant slogan would have been regarded as an attack on 60 years of the social welfare state. Coming from a Democrat it marked Bill Clinton as a moderate and challenged the public perception of Democrats as soft on values enabling Clinton to win.

Clinton’s victory in 1992, and how he won, opened a once-in-a-lifetime window of political opportunity for the Democrats.

Clinton was saying what I had been waiting to hear from a Democratic presidential candidate from many years: “No More Something for Nothing.”

It’s Not the Economy
The case has been made in recent decades, and sharpened in recent years, that our main problems are economic. Not only was the plenary case made, but it was brought forth, whole hog, particularly in the high-profile political arena. The famous sign in the Clinton campaign’s famous Little Rock war room of 1992 said it all: “It's the Economy, Stupid.” Of course, the economy has not been all roses. There has been some change toward greater inequality in a time series that is normally quite stable, particularly for the wealthiest and poorest cohorts. Income has gone down for the lowest quintile due mostly to the explosion in out-of-wedlock births over the last two decades, not conservative fiscal policies.

But our middle class seems to be better off. According to the Current Population Survey and the decennial census — family income and household income — showed an upward trend during the 1980s: mildly for medians, solidly for averages. Per capita income and and per capita GDP jumped up. (And these measures do not include noncash income such as health care, employer pension deposits, or noncash bebefits for the poor.)

There is another way to look at our economic situation. Let us ask this question: What do we have? There has been an explosion in the consumption of goods and services-that is, an explosion in what our money is buying. We live in more space, with more television sets, traveling more, with more cars, with a wide array of new electronic marvels. The rate of home ownership has stayed about the same, at a very high historic level, but we spend a somewhat smaller fraction of our incomes for our larger homes. And: In the 1980s, that putative decade of greed, charitable giving soared. There is also the matter of international comparisons. We have the highest standard of living, by far, as measured by Purchasing Power Parities, which is the U.N.’s best index.

Serious economists, however, still argue. The rich got a tax ripoff in the eighties. No, they didn’t. We’re overtaxed. No, we’re undertaxed. Poverty is understated. No, it’s overstated. A strong dollar is good. No, a weak dollar is good. Trade creates jobs. No, trade costs jobs. Lower defecits will lower long-term interest rates. No, they won’t. Infrastructure stimulates the economy. No, it doesn’t. The trade defecit hurts us. No,it doesn’t. And, of course: Income has gone down, income has stayed flat, income has gone up.

Voodoo anyone? It's not the social issues that are phoney-baloney. The economy is the snake oil issue, the smoke and mirrors issue.

On the other hand, in the realm of social issues, the issues are for sure real, and some consensus lives. Almost everyone knows crime is too high, that it is a cancer on this society, and that we ought to be tougher on it. Almost everyone, including welfare mothers, knows that our welfare situation is a tragedy and we ought to change it drastically. Almost everyone knows we have dumbed down our schools and have to undumb them. Not everyone, but almost everyone, knows that preferential treatment is a threat and we ought to stop it. It is important to understand in greater depth just why these social issues are even more important now than in the recent past.

Why These Values Matter Most
Crime. Crime is probably the worst of the worst. The FBI’s violent crime rate has increased sixfold from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. Every integer represents a human being who was murdered, raped, robbed, mugged, or subjected to an aggravated assault. These are numbers drenched in blood; they represent traumas forever imprinted in the minds of the surviving victims and their loved ones.

These numbers have skyrocketed as “expected punishment,” or the number of days in prison one can expect for committing a crime, have sunk like a kryptonite anchor. When it became plausible for a potential predator to believe that crime does pay, or even that crime might pay, crime went up.

By the late 1970s society began to toughen up. The number of prisoners increased 61%. By 1990 the decade-to-decade increase was 134%. As the number of prisoners went up, the rate of violent crime continued to climb but was increasing at a decreasing rate. This data is the root of the Republican /conservative/hard-line philosphy of how to deal with crime: incapaciatation yields prevention or a thug in prison can’t shoot your sister. Clinton ran against the standard liberal idea of crime and punishment. It was central to his his stategy of showing himself as a moderate.

Welfare. Policy is pedogogy. We are teaching young girls and women that if they have a child, don’t have a husband, don’t have savings, and don’t have a job, the friendly government will step in and provide cash, medical care, food, help on the rent, and possibly day care, job training, and education, altogether worth at least $16,000 to $18,000 per year. That can look appealling to a teenager living in the inner city.

Nationally, the rate of out-of-wedlock births climbed from 5 percent of all births in 1960 to 30 percent in 1992 and is still rising. Among blacks the rate has reached almost 70 percent.

Often purposeful -and with terrible consequences. The available data shows clear correlations: Illegitimate children are much more likely to die in infancy, drop out of school, be poor, use drugs, commit suicide, go on welfare, have emotional problems, experience abuse or neglect, become violent criminals, and, tragically, as the circle goes around again, bear out-of-wedlock children. Failed social welfare policies have created a culture of dependency that is demoralizing for individuals, devestating for families and dangerous for society.

Clinton has described teenage pregnancy as “our most serious social problem” and ran his campaign as tough on welfare, promising to “end welfare as we know it.”

Education. More money. More computers. More teachers. So many of the things that nice people once wanted to happen in our schools have happened. But schooling isn't the purpose of school. Learning is. Learning has apparently diminished or, at best, gained no ground. SAT scores have fallen over the last 30 years and the United States scores near the bottom on international science and math tests. We are producing ill-equipped students who learn, later in lfe than deserved, what many schools have tried to hide: there is no free lunch.

The problem in our schools concerns changed values. Everyone knows it. While the true origin of the changed values may be the subject of lengthy argument, we can pinpoint one medium by which the changed values came to the schools: changed public policy: Grade inflation, social promotion, lack of discipline and consequences, something for nothing. Clinton promised to change it.

Affirmative Action. What’s wrong with proportionlalism or affirmative action-as-now-practiced? Ask this: What would a white racist want? Surely to set race against race. Surely to convince young black college students to self-segregate themselves; surely to rob successful blacks of their dignity, always wondering if the deserve success; surely to set the idea that blacks are inferior. We have have made racists happy. Proportionalism as now practiced is the ultimate something for nothing program.

Based on facts that are less and less relevant, affirmative action has been perpetuated far beyond its orginal design of outreach and advertising, infuriating most Americans and harming some of them.

Clinton and the Democrats won in 1992 by claiming a new political moderation — albeit an activist one. How Clinton and the others have governed is debatable, but the public perception is fairly clear: It was a reversion to liberlaism. Public opinion polls tell the story: during the campaign of 1992, 19% of the public identified themselves as liberal and 33% thought Clinton was liberal. By election day 1994, the same percentage thought of themselves as liberal but 51% of the public viewed Clinton as a liberal.

What happened? Clinton was not moderate on the values issues.

He virtually ignored “ending welfare as we know it” until halfway through his administration and then presented a bill that applied to only one-fifth of the welfare caseload, guaranteed government jobs for recipients and cost an additional $9.3 billion over five years. Both Republicans and conservative Democrats called the plan “billions more for welfare as we know it.” Despite running as tough on crime, Clinton’s crime package mostly ignored the idea that incapacitation yields prevention as well as punishment. Costly prevention programs and a watered down “truth in sentencing” provision caused most Republicans to announce their opposition and characterize Clinton’s bill as a vast social welfare scheme masquerading as a crime bill. More spending, more welfare, more something for nothing. Clinton made clear during his presidential campaign that state educational systems must stress outputs, not inputs. However, the watered down bill that Clinton signed into law included a provision that stipulated state assessment tests could not be used with consequences. After Clinton’s tough rhetoric a student could still go through school, socially promoted, grade inflated, socially warehoused and undisciplined.

Candidate Clinton adhered to the first princple of the DLC's New Orleans Declaration,“we believe the promise of America is equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.” President Clinton imposed a remarkably rigid demographic quota system to fill jobs in his new administration. Under the rubric of picking an administration that would “look like America“ blacks, Latinos, and women were hired for preordained slots, even when apparently betterqualified white males sought appointment. It got tough, and nasty. Within the administration, jobs were described as earmarked for a “skirt.” There was infighting among the quotees. “Non-hispanic white females” complained they were losing out to “twofers” that is, black or Latino women. Appointees were chosen because they looked like America, but they did not think like America.

When Democrats of my stripe think of the Clinton presidency, a single word comes to mind: “betrayal.” If Clinton is on the ballot in 1996, which is probable, the central issue as framed by Republicans will likely be reducible to one word: betrayal. Clinton is perceived as a liberal and Republicans will drive that point home.

Because the Clinton administration dropped the ball on the values issues, the Democrats were decimated in 1994. It seemed that the magic grail of values had passed back to the GOP, there to rest for a long time. We will learn more about that in the presidential election of 1996.

I suggest here that whichever political party, whichever political candidate (including perhaps a new party or two, with a third or fourth presidential candidate), is seen as best understanding and dealing with that values issue will be honored. Honored at the polls in 1996 and, I bet, for a long time after that. Honored at the polls in a way that will likely realign, and refashion the existing American political landscape.

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