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Our Values, Ourselves

Are "values voters" important?

7:20 PM, May 19, 2006 • By FRANK CANNON
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"WHO ISN'T A 'VALUES VOTER'"? asks George Will in his most recent Washington Post column. Will's debating point is a familiar one: all voters in some sense are "values voters." A similar argument could be deployed against the terms "liberal" and "conservative," which Will uses throughout his piece.

For instance, those in favor of abortions want to "liberalize" the rights of women while those opposed want to "liberalize" the circle of protection offered under the Constitution to include unborn babies. Similarly, those favoring abortion want to "conserve" personal autonomy for the woman, those opposed want to "conserve" the right to life of the unborn. What is critical is the underlying position, is the unborn fetus a person or not?

Will rejects the Federal Marriage Amendment as constitutional clutter, arguing instead for the "value" of cultural federalism. But in doing so he chooses to conserve one good over another, 200 years of federalism versus thousands of years of traditional marriage. Which is the conservative position?

What angers Will ultimately is not so much the term "values voter," which is after all an unexceptional bit of political shorthand. It is the underlying premise of that voter: Human rights come from a creator and operate through a natural order that allows for clear judgments on right and wrong.

These voters take "created equal" as a literal truth and are responding to a deep assault they feel from the cultural and political elites on their system of values. For "values voters," issues like abortion, homosexual marriage, and cloning go to core questions: who we are and where we come from. As a practical matter, these issues are the most contentious in politics precisely because they highlight a division not easily bridged by the usual tactic of political compromise.

To show how "attempts to assign values seriousness can get complicated" Will points to Ronald Reagan's signing of a liberal divorce law in California. He asks pointedly, "What do socially conservative values voters make of that?" Well, many would say that Reagan made his share of mistakes, and this turned out to be one of them. No-fault divorce has been a disaster for American families.

No matter how much Will wishes it otherwise, it was "values voters" who decided the 2004 election narrowly in favor of George Bush. If there is indeed an electoral debacle for Republicans this fall, it will in large part be because of the alienation of "values voters," and if that happens, what will conservatives like George Will make of that?

Frank Cannon is a political consultant in Washington.