Women, the Values Debate, and a New Liberal Politics

Women, the Values Debate, and a New Liberal Politics

November 2004: The election is over. The red states have prevailed. And a “values debate” has begun, as has a debate about the debate. Were values really a crucial factor in the Bush majority? And if so, what was at the heart of the red and blue divide? Whose values were most powerfully in play-evangelical Christians? conservative Christians? conservatives more generally? Was the dividing line a matter of moral values, questions of sexual morality, or more general, fuzzy cultural values? Or did the election actually turn on very specific social issues such as gay marriage and abortion?

And finally, what do the answers to these questions mean for Democrats, for liberals, for progressives who want to win elections and move a strong socioeconomic agenda into the center of the country’s politics? Do we have to cast our ideas and programs in a vocabulary of moral values? Can we? Should we?

My answer: yes, yes, and yes-but not just as a strategic response to the 2004 Republican victories. A framework of values should become part of the Democratic vocabulary because it adds a missing piece to the American liberal vision. And the conservative challenge, with all of its misunderstandings and exaggerations, identifies the place where we need to look.

Conservatives condemn a valueless world of individual choice with its promiscuity, homosexuality, crass entertainment, serial divorce, abortion, and licentiousness of every kind-and the dumping of its costs on the good people who lead straight lives. But at the heart of what they condemn and call immoral is a world in which the linchpin of security and comfort has been shaken loose-and that linchpin is the role of women as the organizers of a predictable social and personal order. Liberal elites in the blue states have championed change in the old rules defining correct behavior for women, legitimizing personal and sexual freedom and thereby changing everything: the meaning of femininity and masculinity, the relations of women and men, the rules of marriage, and the solidity of the family. The social order seems broken.

This is the deep ground of the values debate that liberals are losing. To win, we need to create a space in American politics to debate the radical changes now taking place in the role of women in society, in the economy, in the national psyche, in the family, as caregivers, and as carriers of individual and social values. We need to add the issues of sex to the liberal political agenda.

This is a confusing proposition for liberals, because in the historical lexicon of liberal values, there are no sexes or, better, no differentiation of people by sex. There are only individuals. The right-wing charge that liberals are the upholders of individual choice-including the choices that lead to gay rights, abortion, and single parenthood-is absolutely true. It is to the great credit of liberals that we have firmly maintained prote...