Do you remember the 1980 Republican convention? Think back for a minute and you’ll recall that there was a five-word mantra that recurred over and over—it was printed on the platform, repeated by speaker after speaker, even hoisted on banners. The five words were family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom; they were cojoined by a little-known speechwriter named William Gavin, whose obsession with bringing Republicanism out of the country clubs and into the neighborhoods is suggested by the title of his autobiography, Street-Corner Conservative. Here’s how Ronald Reagan worked the magic words into the silver-tongued windup to his acceptance speech:

“It is impossible to capture in words the splendor of this vast continent which God has granted as His portion of creation. There are no words to express the extraordinary strength and character of this breed of people we call Americans. Everywhere we’ve met thousands of Democrats, independents, and Republicans from all economic conditions [and] walks of life, bound together in that community of shared values of family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom…. They are the kind of men and women Tom Paine had in mind when he wrote, during the darkest days of the American revolution, ‘we have it in our power to begin the world over again.'”

Granted, that is nothing but rhetoric, albeit skillful. But with an election coming up, it becomes clearer that rhetoric has the power to change the world in politics and ought not be ignored. With that in mind, look at what Jimmy Carter said in the windup to his acceptance speech in 1980:

“I want teachers eager to explain what a civilization really is… I want women free to pursue without limit the full rights of what they want for themselves… I want our farmers… secure in the knowledge that the family farm will thrive and with a fair return on the good work they do for all of us… I want workers to see meaning in the labor they perform… I want the people in business free to pursue with boldness and freedom new ideas… and I want minority citizens fully to join the mainstream of American life.”

You can accuse Reagan of using high-flown phrases in a cynical and manipulative way, but you certainly can’t claim any higher moral ground for that litany of gently phrased assurances to interest groups by Carter. In practical terms, isn’t it obvious that one reason Reagan, and not Carter, is president today is that Reagan was willing to talk about politics in terms of personal values and Carter was not? And isn’t this all the more poignant because the Carter of 1976—the victorious one—talked about values incessantly? The same man who in 1980 told the teachers and the farmers and the women’s groups that he wouldn’t cut their programs, four years earlier said almost exactly the opposite in his acceptance speech: “Business, labor, agriculture, education, science, and government should not struggle in isolation from one another, but should strive to mutual goals and shared opportunities.”

The unwillingness of Democrats to talk about values is one of the great hidden factors in American politics today, and it is a recent enough development (look at Carter’s complete change in four years) to be reversible. The unwillingness does not pertain to government policy: liberals are still comfortable talking about human rights and compassion as guiding principles for the state, while conservatives aren’t. Where liberals stop is at the point when the question becomes personal values. God, the main point of reference throughout Carter’s 1976 campaign, was not once mentioned in his 1980 acceptance speech, whereas Reagan ended his speech with a corny moment of silent prayer that brought down the house. When Carter spoke to the nation in 1979 about narcissism, his poll ratings immediately shot up, but in opinion-leader circles, he was a big loser, with the established figures of his own party leading the catcalls against him. His well-intentioned conference on the family turned into a festival of relativism under whose guidelines even a fraternity house officially qualified as a family.

There are some good reasons for Democrats’ discomfort with subjects like families, religion, and patriotism. Under those banners has paraded a lot of arrogance and exclusion over the years—those who didn’t fit the program were often simply written off. Probably a majority of registered Democrats are people who at one time or another found themselves left out under the current definition of American values. And it is not just snippy to point out, as Saul Friedman of the Knight-Ridder newspapers recently did, that Democrats like Carter, Walter Mondale, and John Glenn may not talk about values but have close families, while the less-bashful Reagan has two grandchildren, one of whom he has laid eyes on once, the other never.

Nonetheless, voters do demonstrably care about personal values and want to hear politicians talk about them, and they’re right to do so. There are two levels on which one can connect to national politics. One is what’s in it for me, and the other is what’s best for the country. Politicians operating on the first level must make practical assurances to their constituents—I’m not going to take your goodies away—and they must avoid speaking in broad terms because it might threaten somebody. Say “families” and you may anger gays; say “work” and you might look antiwelfare. So the political compact becomes a purely utilitarian one, in which politicians are not trying to establish a connection to what voters feel is best in themselves. That’s why talk of values is so effective. It implies a larger cause, it has the ring of belief, and, when used uncynically, it sets the stage for a government that can call on its constituents to sacrifice individually for the sake of a clear, greater good. A rhetoric of self-interest, even if it produces victory, horribly ties a politician’s hands later on.

But to be able to talk about a core of values that override self-interest and have people believe you, you have to speak with the persuasive power that comes from real conviction and commitment. Here we come to the less noble reason liberals don’t like to talk about values: in recent years there has begun to appear a gulf, or more precisely a nonrelationship, between their political beliefs and their personal values.

There was a broad liberal agenda in place by the 1940s, which by, say, 1975 had been substantially achieved. During the forties, fifties, and early sixties, the rhetoric of liberalism was full of references to personal sacrifice, to putting yourself on the line. It was common to ask, as, most famously, John E Kennedy did at his inauguration, what you were going to do in service of what you believed; the implication was that Republicans never thought about such things. That such questions were seriously asked and seriously answered gave liberalism a moral force. It gave liberals an ability in their best moments to speak with the conviction and authority that people have when they have decided not only what they think, but also how they are prepared to live as a result. It made people listen to them and take them seriously.

Over the years, as the great battles of Medicare and civil rights and food stamps and aid to higher education were won, as liberal judges came to dominate the federal courts and as liberals got effective control of both houses of Congress, what had started as causes became institutions. As a result, the culture of liberalism changed radically. The need for an ethos of personal sacrifice and commitment—join the Peace Corps, go down for Freedom Summer—lessened because now one could combine devotion to liberal goals with a prosperous career. Or, since the agenda had been achieved, one could pursue a career that was value-free without having to worry about the state of liberal goals—they were safe now.

This new liberal culture was a fat target for the right, which during the 1970s with great glee painted an extremely vivid and popular portrait of liberals as affluent, unpatriotic Washington provincials. Liberals, meanwhile, were put in the position of being the defenders of the status quo, and this gave rise to several bad habits. They came to trust courts and regulatory agencies more than they trusted electoral politics. Knowing that their power was built in part on an intricate series of deals, they became reluctant to engage in hard thought about the standard liberal set of positions—if some of them were wrong, there was no passion to find out about it, because now there was so much to lose. They lost their eagerness for first-hand experience in the areas of poverty and prejudice that were at the heart of their concerns. So it became more and more difficult for liberals to speak at the level of deep conviction and hone truth. They didn’t want to live the lie that would have made that possible. And because they were unwilling, they couldn’t very well ask the voters to sacrifice, either—even if they did ask, it would have a hollow ring. They had to approach politics fundamentally on the level of personal self-interest.

Day carelessness

A good example is liberals’ attitude toward day care, one of a hundred specific issues whose political treatment is really a product of the broad values of the society. There really are two reasons for day-care centers. The first is that many poor children need a place to go during the day. In most really poor families there is no father, and mothers need day care so that they can earn the household’s keep.

The second reason is one of personal fulfillment: the old convention that women must stay home with their children produced many lives of boredom, frustration, bitterness, and wasted talent. Day-care centers let women lead more interesting lives. In upper-middle-class households, day care also effectively brings in a second income that makes a nice difference—it makes possible a larger home, or a foreign vacation, or regular meals out.

For both reasons, day care seems like a great good cause, so much so that back in the mid-seventies, before liberals worried about the federal deficit, Walter Mondale proposed a vast federal program to fund day-care centers that some estimated would cost $20 billion. It didn’t pass, but during the seventies day-care centers proliferated, serving a mostly working-class and middle-class constituency. Many of these centers are pretty grim places. They pay their employees the minimum wage and therefore are usually staffed by uneducated women who drift quickly from job to job. Even assuming good standards of cleanliness, which are far from universal, most day-care centers are crowded holding pens for kids. There is little teaching, activity, or loving care, and many kids are naturally miserable. In other words, we need day-care centers, but they ought to be better than they are.

One reason they aren’t better is that liberals, the friends of day care, don’t want word to get out of how bad they are, so it’s generally assumed that they are wonderful places and that there’s no reason for reform. Perhaps you’ve noticed that articles about day care, in practice as opposed to in theory, are not a staple of newspapers and magazines. Those few that are published usually draw swift and strong attack. Last year, Texas Monthly ran an account of life in a day-care center, based on weeks of firsthand observation; soon the editor of Working Woman magazine had embarked on a nationwide publicity tour to denounce the article for saying, in her words, “women, stay home!,” which it didn’t say. But her tour drew adoring notices.

You’d think liberals would be desperate to have bad conditions in day-care centers for the poor exposed—why don’t they want the word to get out? Here the connection between personal commitment and political stance stands out sharply. Liberal opinion-makers, whose kids are usually either at home with a full-time maid or at that classy day-care center staffed by grad students at the university, don’t want to face what is for them the really uncomfortable truth about day care, which is that what’s good for the parents isn’t necessarily good for the children. For those for whom day care isn’t a necessity, often the right thing is for parents to temporarily sacrifice some money and prestige in order to give their children a great deal of one-on-one attention during infancy. Why? Because constant, loving attention is balm for kids, and day care almost never provides it.

To look hard at what goes wrong at day-care centers is, inevitably, to raise that uncomfortable issue. Liberals would rather not have it raised, and so would rather not have day-care centers looked at hard. And kids from the lower end of the economic spectrum who are in bad day-care centers suffer.

Liberals ought to be talking about day care and a host of other uncomfortable issues on which they are largely silent: the coming bankruptcy of the Social Security system, the huge rise in female-headed families, and on and on. The first step toward being able to do that is a willingness to walk the harder path in your own life. Live by your values, and it doesn’t seem so silly to inject values back into political talk.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.