Digging Deeper in the Values Debate

DIGGING DEEPER IN THE VALUES DEBATE….My professional background is marketing, and although my career was spent in smallish tech companies without access to the high-powered tools used by huge consumer-oriented firms, I have a lot of respect for those tools. They won’t tell you everything, but companies spend billions of dollars a year based on what those tools do tell them, and they do it because they work.

In the American Prospect this month, Garance Franke-Ruta has a fascinating piece about Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, a pair of activists who made a name for themselves a couple of years ago with an essay called “The Death of Environmentalism” and who have now taken on a new task: using the tools of consumer marketing to try to get a better fix on the American psyche. Their goal: figuring out how to fix liberalism so that it appeals to more voters.

The Prospect article summarizes their findings and makes a couple of points that are longtime hot buttons of mine:

  • Liberals need to abandon the fantasy that “opinion polls show that voters agree with us!” Only the shallowest analysis of opinion polls supports this notion, and when you dig even an inch below the surface it turns out that in many cases “our issues” have a lot less salience than we think.

  • Although it’s true that median incomes have largely stagnated over the past few decades, Americans are still pretty rich. This is why economic arguments simply don’t resonate the way we think they ought to.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s analysis suggests that the answer is to pay more attention to values ? but in a subtly different way than pollsters did after the 2004 election:

They found economic changes driving changes in social values, and those, in turn, driving political preferences. Using data from Environics? in-home consumer survey in the United States, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were able to tease apart changes in the thinking of voters since 1992 on 117 different ?social values trends.? These values, such as ?time stress,? ?joy of consumption,? and ?acceptance of violence,? are not what people normally think of as ?values? ? abortion, gay marriage, or other hot-button social issues.

….Nordhaus and Shellenberger arrived at what they call ?social values trends,? such as ?sexism,? ?patriotism,? or ?acceptance of flexible families.? But the real meaning of those trends was revealed only by plugging them into the ?values matrix? ? a four-quadrant plot with plenty of curving arrows to show direction, which is then overlaid onto voting data….Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.

The article is too dense to excerpt it fairly, but this passage should at least pique your interest to read the rest. Roughly speaking, N&S are suggesting that although progressive policies are (mostly) fine, they need to be explained not as policies per se but as natural outgrowths of core values that resonate with working and middle class voters. That’s what Peter Brodnitz found out when he started talking to focus groups in Virginia about Tim Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty:

Brodnitz found that once Kaine started talking about his religious background and explaining that his opposition to the death penalty grew out of his Catholic faith, not only did charges that he was weak on crime fail to stick, but he became inoculated against a host of related charges that typically plague and undermine the campaigns of Democratic candidates. ?Once people understood the values system that the position grew out of, they understood that?s he?s not a liberal,? says Brodnitz. ?We couldn?t even convince them he was a liberal once we?d done that.?

There’s a lot to agree and disagree with here, and it’s a provocative piece. It’s well worth reading the whole thing.