What’s Really Wrong
YOU DON’T NEED TO BE A BUSH VOTER OR AN EVANgelical Christian to be worried about the moral climate of America. You don’t need to be upset by abortion or gay marriage or sex ed teachers putting condoms on bananas. You don’t have to be up in arms about the influence of Charles Darwin in our schools or the absence of the Ten Commandments from our courthouses.
You may have none of these concerns—and yet still feel that something is deeply wrong with the values of America. Maybe you worry that most strangers can’t be trusted. Or that young Americans have lost any sense of purpose beyond getting rich and famous. Or that Hollywood and Madison Avenue influence children more than Mom and Dad. Or that millions lack health care in the world’s richest country. Or that having a strong marriage and family is ever less compatible with making a living. Maybe you gaped at the television images of people stranded in New Orleans and wondered, “How did we ever become so cold-hearted?” Maybe your specific concerns keep changing, but you can’t shake the feeling that American life is getting meaner and more degraded, and that everyone is out for themselves.
For me, it’s all this and also something else: a sense of constantly being tugged away from my real values. I never cared much about money and never saw myself as a covetous kind of person until I moved to New York City, where I had to walk past the townhouses of the rich every day and started reading magazines like New York and the real-estate section of the New York Times. With inequality now at levels that rival the Gilded Age, envy may be the most powerful emotional current in America today, and it’s hard not to get caught in its grip. We live in a time when so many of us look anxiously upward at what we might have or who we could be, as opposed to looking downward and being thankful for all that has come our way. I consider myself a compassionate person who cares about the misfortunes of others, but I’ve learned to tune out the beggars on the subway, even the women who tug their children along and tell horrific stories of lost housing or benefits that I know reflect reality. I’m committed to marriage and family—this is the foundation of true meaning and happiness, I understand—but much of the time I put career first, scrambling after an endless series of external rewards. I want to know my neighbors better and get involved in my community, but I’m busy and preoccupied. Maybe next year. It’s easy to feel that things are not only getting worse, they are also making you a worse person. I don’t have children yet, but I can imagine how parents might lack confidence about passing along their values in this environment.
You’re not alone if you share these feelings. While the complaints of the Christian right echo through our politics every day, the truth is that Americans of all political stripes worry about values, in one way or another. This has been obvious for some time. The 1990s were a decade of peace and prosperity—and of Columbine, Monica Lewinsky, and Ferrari-driving twenty-eight-year-old millionaires. Moral angst burned hot beneath the façade of good times, so much so that in 2000 a major poll found that only 12 percent of Americans were satisfied with the moral values of this country, the lowest level for any major issue. More recently, a 2005 poll—echoing other polls—found that a strong majority of Americans believe that people aren’t as honest or moral as they used to be, and an even higher percentage see young people as having a weaker sense of right and wrong than they did fifty years ago. Most Americans also feel that we are too tolerant of bad behavior.
It’s not that values matter more than other issues. They don’t. Scholars like Jeffrey Stonecash and Larry Bartels have documented the enduring—in fact, growing—role of class in politics. Poorer whites in particular are still more focused on economic issues than on social ones, contrary to what Thomas Frank argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas? But there is also no question that moral concerns have become bigger issues in recent decades and that public anxieties go well beyond the agenda of religious conservatives.
Yes, voters who named “moral values” as their top issue went overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004, and yes, abortion and same-sex marriage have reshaped the political landscape in certain parts of the country. But other issues matter, too. In a Zogby poll conducted after the 2004 election, 33 percent of voters said the nation’s biggest moral problem was “greed and materialism” and 31 percent cited “poverty and economic justice.” Another post-election survey—of Catholics voters—found that these Americans were more likely to emphasize issues of integrity or the “social compact” when they thought of moral values than to focus on abortion or gay marriage. Earlier polls found that a majority of Americans defined poor health care, as well as inequality between whites and minorities, as moral issues.
These anxieties help explain why values stay on the national agenda despite a steady stream of good news. Violent crime is now down to where it was in the late 1960s. Abortions declined sharply in the 1990s, reaching the lowest level since 1975. Teen pregnancy rates also plunged dramatically. Births to unwed mothers have stopped rising. Divorce rates have fallen since their high in the late 1970s, particularly among college-educated couples.
Usually when things get better, public debate moves on to other matters. Not this time. And that suggests that the new moral politics is fueled by more than the longstanding concerns of the Christian right. Something bigger is happening. If you talk across ideological divides—to Americans left, right, and center—a unifying theme of much moral anxiety is a feeling that selfishness is careening out of control. You see this feeling in conservative concerns about divorce—and in liberal anger about corporate crime. You see it in the anti-abortion activism on the right—and in the living wage movement on the left. Conservatives worry that kids todaygrow up wanting to be porn stars; liberals fear that they want to be investment bankers. A lot of Americans fear that the pursuit of self-interest is pushing aside other values in every aspect of life: family, sex, culture, business, education.
But if people of all stripes worry about selfishness, it is conservatives who have defined what kind of selfishness is wrong, who is to blame for it, and how we can find a better moral compass. The right blames selfishness on liberalism, blasting the hedonism and focus on personal rights that emerged in the 1960s. Their solution to our moral state is simple: America needs to return to religion and traditional values. You needn’t agree with the right on the specifics to find reassurance in such appeals. Whatever you may think about Christian conservatives, at least they offer a plan to get America on a different moral path.
At least they clearly say that something has gone very wrong with our moral life. So does the Republican Party that these activists have reshaped in recent decades. And it is no wonder that this party does so well with married voters and parents. Just the fact that conservatives believe it’s possible to change the culture may be enough to turn a great many people into GOP “values voters.”
The catch is that the moralists on the right don’t have a real solution to rising selfishness. Not only have they defined the problem far too narrowly—obsessing about sex especially—they refuse to confront the force that increasingly fans an extreme ethos of self-interest, namely our free-market economy.
Copyright © 2006 by David Callahan
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