The trouble with “values voters”

The Iowa results reveal the hypocrisy behind their proclamations of morality

Topics: 2012 Elections, Rick Santorum, ,

The trouble with "values voters"Will the prayers of Iowa voters be answered? (Credit: Reuters/Daniel Acker)

Having previously taught for some years in Cedar Falls, Iowa, we can claim up-close knowledge of a culture that the media has inspected, prodded, polled and broken bread with, day after day, for many months.  The Iowa caucus has revealed a widespread affinity for “family values” – who would’ve thunk it?  Or maybe it’s as predictable as the pledge of allegiance.

Rick Santorum’s fireside sweater vests won in Iowa.  Santorum’s family man uniform vied successfully with Mitt Romney’s mechanical corporate image, Ron Paul’s icy charm, and Michele Bachmann’s 6,000 foster children.  Portentously (and meaninglessly) defining his campaign as the “cause of liberty,” Santorum ended his valedictory speech after midnight the same way he began it: talking about his wife and kids and “the dignity of the womb.”

The current model of conservative campaigning shows that there are two Americas.  We’re not so much talking about the haves and have nots, although many minds have been so twisted as to imagine that the 2012 contest is between capitalism and socialism.  Rather, it’s Apple vs. Apple Pie, and open-minded, 21st-century creativity vs. a more repressive, small town “Happy Days” routine, where “Leave It to Beaver” families flourish.  If you want to reexperience the 1950s, there’s still a taste of it in Iowa.  They’re not all stay-at-home moms, but the celebration of “true conservative” breeding has yet to contend honestly with its bastard brother: blindness to the dysfunctional family writ large that is America.

So many of the Iowans interviewed on TV amid the Santorum surge focused on the “values” he ostensibly lives by.  He who has bred the most children is the best candidate, and American values win.  It seems to be that simple for the values voters.  You choose a president not because he is best equipped or qualified for the job, but because his “family-oriented” positions make him the most qualified. As the nation’s chief executive, Santorum would keep Jesus in Christmas, and everything else good will flow from there.

The real problem facing “values voters” is that what they believe in is a humongous lie.  The yearning for a “forever ’50s” churchgoing America overlooks a moral hypocrisy, no less profound than that of Romney supporters who are convinced that 1 percenter greed is no more than a blip on the radar, and business will save America from socialism.  The Republicans’ Iowa advertising assault revealed a cynical depravity of unprecedented proportions – at least since the monopoly-led Gilded Age.  And all of this as we were going through the “season of giving,” with its hopeful Christmas message of love and harmony.

What better proves that America has lost its moral compass than the campaigning in Iowa?

Santorum gained ground in Iowa as Gingrich’s past caught up with him.  But are Rick’s ideas of family values healthier than, say, your garden-variety loving gay parents, whom he rails at for their immorality? Rick Perry was so desperate for votes that he fell in lockstep with conservative darling Mike Huckabee by declaring that he now believes that abortion should not be allowed in cases of incest. Not that Perry is known for his sharp thinking, but, really, is this the moral high ground?  Who are the victims of incest?  Children – young girls manipulated and raped by their fathers.  Given the ongoing Penn State controversy, in which a football coach is on trial for raping young boys, it is deeply disturbing that children are being used as political pawns. Is it less heinous for a father to rape his daughter than for a coach to rape a boy?  Is forcing a young girl to give birth really a principled stand based on family values? 

So, what qualities are “values voters” really looking for?  Americans’ ideal man of presidential character has always been the first president, George Washington.  Never mind that the real Washington was a hungry speculator in land, an aloof man with a hot temper, who made sure his aides saw to it that no other general upstaged him.  He was, in fact, universally admired for his detachment, civility and sacrifice.

Washington was fortunate in not having to run against anyone when he stood for the highest office in the land.  About as fast on his feet as Rick Perry after a long night, he did not know the first thing about engaging in clever repartee.  He studiously worked at concealing his volatile temper, and learned, step by step, that governance required moderation rather than angry words.  Washington became, in death, what Ronald Reagan has become to the Republican Party: a kindly, fatherly protector, distant head of the national family.  But Washington himself would probably be heckled off the stage at a Republican presidential debate.

Do we need more proof our values are disappearing?  Thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, we are less and less of a democracy.  Flag pin-bearing Republicans constantly proclaim us the “freest people in the world,” when, in fact, the power of the franchise actually means less than it has in ages.  The absurd districts created by gerrymandering limit change in Congress.  Corporate giants write arbitration clauses into contracts that make it impossible for their ugliest abuses to get an airing in court.  CEOs and their political allies are enriched, and decent people are crushed under the weight of greed’s power.  Blindly proclaiming ourselves “the freest people in the world” has become as much of a fairy tale as young George Washington’s cherry tree chopping.

In “A Christmas Carol,” the lessons Dickens provides are timely and enduring.  Moral worth is measured, as Scrooge came to learn, through the joy of giving, whether in providing charity for the poor, insuring a fair living wage for Bob Cratchit and others of his caste, or paying for medical care for Tiny Tim and the daily multiplying millions. Lest we forget Tiny Tim, Santorum closed his victory speech Tuesday night by celebrating his own special needs toddler, supplying the “God bless” himself.  But a few weeks earlier, would the Tea Party crowd have cheered if Ron Paul were asked whether Tiny Tim should wither and die because he lacked health insurance?

Genuine moral values do not have to be broadcast.  And have we not yet learned that adherence to a particular religious creed or membership in a church does not insure moral action?  As Thomas Jefferson contended, believing in 20 gods or no god “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  Morality can only be measured by a good life, he insisted.  For that observation, the social conservatives of his day branded him a Bible-burning atheist.

Those Christmas tales Americans watched last month are simple but not banal.  In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey is saved because his friends and neighbors recognized his years of selfless devotion to their small town.  In the political atmosphere of today, however, as rewritten for the Iowa caucuses, cranky old Mr. Potter – not the popular, generous-spirited George Bailey – would be running for the nomination, and, at least for a week or two, garnering 30 percent of the vote for having vigorously protested “government handouts” while excoriating the deadbeats he had to throw out of their rental units in Pottersville.

As Mr. Potter — or the departed Ms. Bachmann — would tell you, go help yourself instead of protesting against the bankers who tanked the economy.  And stop looking to government, which is uniformly wasteful and inefficient, and won’t do you any good by injecting itself into your life and depriving you of your freedom.  It’s corporate America that works for you.  Even if it doesn’t respect you.

So, if these are conservative Republican pro-family moral values, what exactly does “pro-family” mean?  And are these “values”?

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of History at Louisiana State University. Burstein is the author of Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud and coauthor of Madison and Jefferson. Follow him @andyandnancy.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>