In September of 2006, Family Research Council Action hosted the first “Values Voter Summit.” In 2007, it had 2500 attendees and launched Mike Huckabee’s campaign into the national spotlight. It was influential enough to momentarily quell talk of the declining influence of social conservatives.
Since then, “values voters” has become the designator of choice for social conservatives. A quick Lexis-Nexis search lists some 415 references to the phrase since July of 2006, with only 319 references the entire six years prior. That the phrase has penetrated our political vocabulary so deeply is a tribute to the influence of the Family Research Council.
My concern is that the cooption of “values” by social conservatives indicates a lack of a coherent, clearly articulated philosophical framework for the movement’s political discourse and behavior.
The shift in our ethical language from virtues to values is commonly cited as one instance of the death of modernity. David Wells writes:
“The first major shift in this period was the replacement of Virtue by values. It was the practice of the virtues, those aspects of the Good that were the same for all people in all places and were what endured, that gave life its structure and meaning. The belief in Virtue, however, was slowly replaced in the wider culture by that in values, and values could be nothing more than personal preferences which are not normative for all people.”
Before him, Allan Bloom had written:
“Values are not discovered by reason, and it is fruitless to seek them or to find the truth or the good life. The quest begun by Odysseus and continued over three millennia has come to an end with the observation that there is nothing to seek. This alleged fact was announced by Nietzsche just over a century ago when he said, “God is dead.” Good and evil now for the first time appeared as values, of which there have been a thousand and one, none rationally or objectively preferable to any other.”
If Wells and Bloom (among others) are right, then the irony of “values voters” is that they have co-opted the language of the very ideology that has lead to the cultural situation they so detest. Not only that, but “values voters” have ceded the very principles upon which their civic engagement ought to depend. By exchanging social mores for “values,” we have internalized and subjectivized the principles upon which a healthy functioning society depends, and in so doing lost the authority to speak clearly and persuasively on moral issues.
This, of course, is a strawman. There are numerous social conservatives who embrace the clarity of “right and wrong.” My concern is that the appellation filled a void by giving social conservatives a sense of identity within the broader Republican Party, but in so doing betrayed the principles upon which social conservatism depends.