Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Values again

A while back, some DailyKos regulars split off to create The Next Hurrah. Today, DHinMI writes on the recurring "values" debate, and comes to the same place I do, that we don't need to change what we think, we need to change how we present it. Or, in his words Screw the Culture War; Or, Shut Up About Values and Get Out and Talk With Voters. He also quotes a fascinating article from a 2001 issue of The Nation, which asks Who Lost the Working Class?:

First, Gore's positions on the major specific issues in the campaign--healthcare, education, tax policy and others--were substantially more popular with the voters than those of Bush. As Stanley Greenberg, Gore's pollster, noted in an analysis done for the Campaign for America's Future, "If the election were run on message alone, Al Gore would be President with a comfortable majority of the popular vote."

Second, the most important obstacles future progressive candidates will have to overcome relate to the moral and social "values" of American workers and to their distrust of Washington and "big government." While the 2000 election was influenced by other factors, such as the legacy of the Clinton Administration and Gore's performance as a candidate, the values of white workers and their distrust of government appear likely to have the greatest continuing influence on American politics.
Yep. So what does Levison suggest? He points to a body of sociological work from the 1980s, some of which found that

workers sensed both a profound snobbishness and a dishonesty among the middle-class people they encountered. They perceived middle-class people as "snotty," "snobby" and constantly ready to "look down at people." They were "two faced," "phonies," "show-offs" and willing to "screw people to get what they want."

Workers saw themselves, in contrast, as more authentic and sincere and aware of the important things in life. They placed friends and friendship above success and money; and, along with work, family and friends, they saw honesty and good character as fundamental values. They admired people who were "honest," "straightforward," "no BS," "stand-up guys," who would "be there" for someone else in times of adversity and "carry their weight" in the struggles of daily life. As a value, they saw strength of character as far more important than success.

This description of the core "values" of working Americans is startlingly different from the usual media portrayal.
Startlingly different indeed. This is about honesty, friendliness, not being work-obsessed. That's not far from GWB, especially in the preference for character over success. I'm not saying Bush II has a great character, but Gore and Kerry were both successes, and Bush is a character. Clinton was a character and a success. It works very well.

In a vein similar to what I wrote earlier, Levison notes that

Gore's heavy reliance on facts and figures, and his failure to engage Bush's aphorisms with equally clear statements of the "common sense" behind his proposals, was perceived by many blue-collar workers as reflecting an absence of solid underlying values. …

Because of their limited time and resources, blue-collar workers generally do not try to evaluate competing sets of facts and statistics presented by political candidates. Instead, they pay more attention to what they often call the candidates' "philosophy"--the candidates' views regarding the kinds of policies they consider right or wrong and the general rules or criteria they promise to use in making decisions about specific issues. In effect, workers tend to choose a candidate based on his or her overall approach to the major issues of the day and then rely on that person to make the appropriate decisions about the specifics. This makes certain personal characteristics of a candidate, such as his or her honesty and understanding of working-class life, especially important. Thus, the objections to Gore that Greenberg identified should not be dismissed as superficial or capricious. For blue-collar workers, the trustworthiness, values and honesty of a political candidate are not simply desirable personal characteristics but rather an inherent part of their approach in deciding between competing political views and programs.

There are many potential lessons for progressive politics that can be drawn from the in-depth studies of working-class political opinion. But the central conclusion they suggest is the absolutely critical importance of respecting the values of American workers and understanding the culture in which they live.
It's not that solid evidence is bad, but people want to know how a president will think about problems, rather than what they want to do.

The solution? First, acknowledge this simple fact:

although opinion polls demonstrate that workers' views on major issues actually span a wide range from left to right, many college-educated Americans still hold stereotypes of blue-collar workers as conservative "hard hats." The reason for the strength of that image is that the political debate between progress and reaction that goes on within working-class America, and the important cultural changes that have occurred over the years, are largely hidden from those outside. …

when workers are presented with a progressive message by campaign workers who come from an institution that is part of working-class life, and who share their culture and values, a substantial majority can be convinced to support progressive candidates and programs.

During the 1930s, union organizers were taught never to blame the workers if an organizing campaign failed. "It's not their fault for not understanding," the organizers were instructed. "It's your fault for not explaining it clearly enough." It is a motto today's liberals and progressives would do well to hang on the walls of the political campaign war rooms in the elections of the coming years.
DH also makes the important suggestion:
I don't think it's necessary for journalists, bloggers and political consultants to "go native" and start hanging out at Harley swaps or deer camps in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But you know what? It wouldn't hurt to try doing something like that once in a while.
I can't remember if I blogged it, but one thing I seriously think the DNC should do is move its operations out of DC. If their staff and officers had to read the Kansas City Star now and then, or listen to a little corporate radio in the Midwest, or chat with Midwesterners at the grocery store, they'd understand what's up with the values thing. It isn't that swing voters want evidence of particular values, they just need things explained in a different way.

Everyone has values. Gore and Kerry both had values. And Kerry wasn't too bad at explaining what those values were. He had an awful time explaining how his policy proposals were rooted in those values. Voters look at the policy proposals, but they aren't interested in the details. And there's a case to be made that the details don't matter to voters, since they will be compromised away in the end.

Kerry had a genius medical insurance program. It protected children, and reimbursed insurance companies for very expensive claims. That would make insurance markedly cheaper for various esoteric reasons. What he didn't do well was explain it like this:
Every American deserves health insurance. As president, I will demand effective coverage for everyone, starting with children. Kids get sick, they get scraped knees, chickenpox, measles, mumps, broken legs and food poisoning. They get hurt because they don't know better. And they need the best medical care so that a childhood illness doesn't hold them back later in life. I like the plan we Senators give ourselves, and I want to make that plan available to every child in America.

I believe that working Americans deserve to choose the health insurance that best fits them, and knowing that too many people simply can't afford any insurance hurts me. Rather than pushing everyone into cheap HMOs that don't help people, I want to help insurance companies offer cheaper plans. If the federal government would agree to compensate the insurance companies for their most expensive patients, working Americans would have no trouble affording the coverage they deserve.
That's really just a couple extra sentences, but it explains the how and the why. Not just the local why, but a broader, and somewhat personal why.