In reading Obama’s latest quote, I couldn’t help but be struck by his declaration that 2012 will be a contest of values. Aside from the general disagreements I have with any election being values based (which I’ll get into), I’m incredibly skeptical towards the idea that 2012 will be any more values oriented than any other election.
I’m sure a lot of readers here recall 2004, which was undoubtedly cast in a “values” light. Gay marriage in particular was the hot button issue, with most of the Bush campaign’s dirtiest tactics centered around painting Kerry as a guy who’d sweep in and instantly legalize gay marriage, including fake “pro-Kerry” robo calls. One election previously, Gore’s connection to the Clinton administration was just one of the many parts of the campaign against him. Clinton in 1996? Don’t even act like Willy’s willy wasn’t significantly featured.
The joke is that abortion and gay marriage are things that only rear their heads during election cycles. They’re convenient bludgeons and wedges with which to create artificial divisions and torpedo candidates. In between elections, it hardly matters what someone things about Roe v Wade since it’s not going to be on the chopping block. The repeal of DADT was an aberration to this, admittedly, has given us a convenient reason to focus on the issue, but the fact remains that these “values” are a frequent litmus test for candidates throwing their hats into the circle going all the way back to when everyone was afraid that ol’ Catholic JFK wasn’t fit to be president.
But even ignoring all of that, ignoring whether elections frequently are “contests of values” or not, the problem is that they shouldn’t be. To paint 2012 as an election in which values are a prime focal point means that we’re going to spend time arguing about issues which are more about feelings and opinions than facts on the ground. A contest of values comes down to which candidate can come across as sharing the same value set as the most Americans, not who has the greatest qualifications for improving the country. It’s like going to a doctor based on his favorite books because you think what he reads is an indication of what kind of doctor he’ll be.
Worse still, elections with “values” as the prime directive are elections of pandering. Values don’t change, they’re fairly deep seated. It’s incredibly difficult to convince someone, via charts and statistics, to change their opinion on something that they feel in their “heart”. Thus, to make the campaign about values, we’re going to be treated to Obama and whoever he’s up against doing his damndest to prove that they’re the ones who share our gut feelings and preconceived notions better than the other guy. Values translates to “I won’t be working to change minds, but prove that I line up with what they already think.”
I like to think that Obama’s statement was one of reluctant admission than a declaration of intent, that he simply realized that values would become the forefront rather than deciding to make it so. Either way, it’s a damn shame that, still in the grips of a crippling recession that may or may not be considered a depression yet, we’re looking at an election that’s going to be more about discovering who likes the gays and what everyone thinks about abortion.