The 2004 elections sparked a lot of discussion about the so-called “values voter,” someone who voted for conservative candidates based on their positions on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. Progressives responded to all the talk about values by rejecting this narrow definition. They argued that the stances Americans hold on poverty, war, and the environment reflect their values too.
The discussions about moral values on both sides, however, have missed something.
Conservatives and progressives have talked about their values in individualistic ways, assuming that Americans value self-interest—their own individual economic opportunity, freedom, and rights—above all else. But the 2008 election season showed that many Americans want to transcend the dynamics of individualism. In a New York Times op-ed the day after the election, Thomas Friedman quoted Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel’s observation:
The biggest applause line in [Obama’s] stump speech was the one that said every American will have the chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service—in the military, in the Peace Corps, or in the community. Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.
In Sandel’s view, this response to Obama’s words and campaign indicated that Americans are calling for a “new politics of the common good.”
Progressive Women and Values
This approach to politics and public life is not exactly new. For the past several years, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has interviewed over 100 progressive women leaders and activists working as community organizers who are, in many ways, living out a vision for politics and public life that resonates with the one Friedman and Sandel believe Americans are calling for.
These women serve their families, communities, and the nation in many ways. They strive to secure nontraditional job training for women, build schools and houses, and reserve units in low-income housing for single mothers. They design leadership programs for immigrants, create multicultural community centers that support families, and keep landmark sites in African American history from being demolished. They provide services to abused women, reform provisions for juvenile justice, and revise city-planning goals on behalf of those with low incomes.
Over and over again, progressive women activists describe this work as inspired by a set of values that politicians have often overlooked—values such as mutuality, community, and a concern for others, especially the most marginalized members of our society.
At the same time, these women speak of traditional values such as freedom, individual rights, and equality. But they place these values in a larger context defined by mutual responsibility, compassion, family, and shared power. For example, they affirm the need for equality and freedom but suggest that acknowledging our mutual responsibility is essential to creating economic and political systems where people are truly equal and free. And they emphasize the importance of rights but insist that our rights are both individual and shared.
Taken as a whole, the values of progressive women activists form a distinctive moral vision.
It comes as no surprise that progressive women describe and embody this vision. The values on which it is based are integral to the traditional roles our society has ascribed to them as mothers, wives, and caretakers of families and communities. But what may surprise us is that the values and vision often described by progressive women activists—at least if the 2008 presidential election is any indication—strike a chord not just with progressive women, but with many women and men from very different walks of life.
In the 2008 presidential election, these women and men redefined what it means to be a values voter. They showed that “voting our values” does not mean lending support to conservative positions, but rather demonstrating a willingness to balance the pursuit of our individual self-interest with actions that serve a larger good.
To what extent can Obama continue to reawaken and sustain the communal spirit that so many Americans have rediscovered?
On the one hand, the timing could not be worse. As the economy continues its downward plunge, it may seem unlikely that many people will allow their concern for the common good to qualify their own self-interest. On the other hand, the 2008 election indicates that Americans need—and want—policies that will help to rebuild our communities at the grassroots level. Americans’ civic idealism, though perhaps dormant in many individuals in recent years, has begun to reemerge. Whether we choose the present as the time for its continued renewal remains to be seen.