the values divide

Too often our politics (both in the past and today) is not about what we all hold together but what splits us apart. But lost in all of this is the fact that the same American electorate chose both Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Each man won because each addressed the dominant values of that year.

. . . Values are not fleeting, they are sacrosanct. At times, many voters cannot express them and look to the candidates and parties to articulate them by proxy in a given campaign and specific context. These values are simple–they are the Bill of Rights. We are the people of rights. This is what defines us. Unlike any other nation or people we are defined by the rights we have, not by geography, by the arts and letters, not by our cuisine or sensibilities, not religion or civilization, not by war. Our rights are our history, why the first European settlers came here and why millions more have come here since. it is what we all aspire to. It is what we are about.

. . . There have been xenophobic moments as well. Chinese were excluded from immigration to the United States from the 1880s through the 1940s. Japanese were prevented after 1905. After World War II, severe limits were placed on immigration from southern and eastern Europe and the Middle East. California has moved to limit rights and services to illegal immigrants. Arabs and Arab Americans are profiled at airports.

But, importantly, no one looks at any of these events as proud chapters in our history. We are the people of rights and see such actions as historical aberrations in times of crisis. They were, at best, awful means to a better end–the protection of our freedom and our rights.

Throughout our history we have disagreed about the meaning of these rights and how far they should be extended. But at the same time we have all internalized these rights as our own. Does a woman have a right to choose on matters of abortion? Is the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment? Are special measures such as racial profiling and obtaining secret evidence necessary measures in a time of high national security risk? Should same-sex unions have the same rights and privileges as those accorded to traditional marriages? Should embryonic stem cells be cloned to prevent or cure disease?

These are some of the core debates of our time. Both left and right dig in and debate these hot-button topics as if everyone were on the same page. Both sides speak the loudest, have the greatest intensity, and thus dominate the thoughts and strategies of the two major parties. But what is so fascinating about this “values divide” is that both sides claim to speak for America, its core values, and a silent majority of Americans. Oddly, both sides are right. When we cut through the rhetoric of “choice” versus “life,” the death penalty versus life without parole, the rights of the accused versus national security, or gay rights versus the traditional family, both sides claim correctly to be representing the Constitution and its first ten amendments. Regardless of the rhetoric and the ugly partisanship that has dominated our politics of late, the two sides are equally American. Sometimes the loudest voices forget that.

– Foreword of The Values Divide by John Zogby, written by John Kenneth White

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