The Politics of Values

The debate about the American elections has still not abated. How did President George W. Bush manage to get three million votes more than Senator John Kerry, and, in addition, to have a Republican majority elected in both houses of Congress? There is not much agreement on the answers, but two themes recur in many explanations.

One is personality. At a time of uncertainty and threat, people had more confidence in the president they knew than in the candidate who seemed unproven. The second theme is values. People voted for a set of values rather than for specific policies. Indeed, some (it is said) agreed with Kerry’s policies but nevertheless gave their vote to Bush, because they felt “at ease” with his general attitudes.

Clearly, the United States is now deeply divided in electoral terms. An arch of blue (Democratic) states in the East, North, and West spans a huge red (Republican) area in the middle and the South. More than that, the divisions are reproduced at the local level. Gerrymandering – the drawing of electoral boundaries to benefit a particular political party – is no longer necessary. People actually tend to move to areas in which a majority of others share their values, whether Republican or Democratic.

What exactly are these values? They have to do, or so we hear, with “god, guns, and gays.” Religion plays a part in them, including the literal truth of the bible when it comes to the story of the creation. The possession of a gun is the ultimate test of individualism, and using guns in wars is not abhorrent. Gays and other “modern” practices are rejected as self-indulgent. As the political scientist Andrew Hacker recently put it, “the Bush candidacy was framed to make a majority by giving some 60 million people a chance to feel good about themselves.”