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Enough with "Family Values"
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Allow me to vent an old complaint. It’s something that I can’t get off my chest, although I have written about it many times. Every time I hear a politician utter the word “values,” I throw my shoe at the TV. I throw both shoes at the screen when I hear the term “family values.” It’s not that I personally am without moral beliefs. In fact the ones I hold would suggest that I’m a social reactionary. What I object to is empty rhetoric.

All politicians favor “values,” and when those on the social Left claim to stand for “family values,” as Obama has been doing, they have as much right to that term as anyone else. Indeed I can respect people I disagree with on just about everything, because they act on the basis of their beliefs.

Some of my Republican friends, who make fun of my attitude, ask me whether I really admire Obama as a person of principle. I respond by explaining that to whatever extent he acts on the basis of conviction, Obama deserves my respect. I wish I could say the same about Mitt Romney or other GOP presidential candidates who waffle every time they encounter liberal journalists or think that a hostile reporter may be eaves-dropping. Although I disagree with Ron Paul’s judgments about Iran, I have to recognize that Paul stands up for his constitutional principles. I find the same integrity in John Bolton, whom I have known for many years. Although I would not trust the war-happy Bolton anywhere near Foggy Bottom, let alone as Secretary of State, I’m sure he would never betray his conscience. For me that does count for something.

The users of the value-word are mostly hack Republicans, trying to avoid mine fields. Value-talk typically consists of phrases intended to reassure one’s base while revealing nothing that could get hurt the speaker. In the current presidential primaries several Republicans have departed from this script by telling us what they would do to oppose gay marriage and restrict abortions. I applaud this honesty, which for me is far less distasteful than hearing someone announce that he or she is the candidate of values. The only “value” that I find in such politicians is the priority of getting elected.


But standing for principle may not be enough. I also wish to hear from the advocates of traditional social positions how they intend to implement them. It seems that even those with whom I agree in principle have sometimes held questionable views about constitutional matters. It is state legislatures, not courts or federal bureaucrats, which should be dealing with abortion and gay marriage. Congresswoman Bachmann and former Senator Santorum both misstated this procedural matter during primary debates, although Santorum later corrected his mistake. All attempts at end-runs around state governments in order to have the feds decide social issues is not only constitutionally wrong but also dumb. Do social traditionalists honestly believe that the federal government is more likely to ride to their rescue than the state legislatures of our more conservative states? It is mostly the federal administration that has steered the country leftward throughout my life. I see no reason to believe this will change in the foreseeable future.

The beginning of the GOP’s value-noises coincided with two developments. One, after the resounding defeat of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, it became clear that any politician who suggested that he would substantially cut back the welfare state was destined to lose. This became particularly evident after Lyndon Johnson introduced extensive entitlement programs after his victory against Goldwater. Thereafter the GOP decided to run as the party that would protect a steadily expanding bundle of entitlements.

Two, the country veered politically and socially to the left with the civil rights and feminist revolutions. But some Americans thought these developments went too far and resented the role of unelected judges in bringing them about. The reaction against abortion rights and other consequences of a revolutionary epoch allowed the GOP to find a new lease on life. The GOP would be for “values” and in an even fuzzier way for “getting government off our backs.” But electoral interests trump these sound bites. Although presidential candidates are rhetorically for “trimming government waste,” Republican presidents fill the federal administration with their hangers-on—and even create new ones for the overload.

The same presidents have appointed federal judges who are less radical than their Democratic counterparts, but this has hardly changed the scope of judicial governance. Except for recent proposals by Newt Gingrich for Congress to oversee federal judges, Republican presidential contenders have called for nothing that would weaken the federal judiciary or limit its ability to shape social policy. Blasting activist courts in campaigning may be more profitable than trying to make the problem go away for social conservatives.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Republicans 
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  1. Tom S says:

    Good article. I would suggest that Republicans are trying to fight fire with fire in terms of judicial activism. Strict–yet sometimes mysteriously inconsistent–constructionalism is every bit as radical–and as activist–as what came before it.

  2. Burrhus says: • Website

    Gottried: “I disagree with Ron Paul’s judgments about Iran”

    Mr. Gottfried, would you please explain what it is that you disagree with Ron Paul about and why?

  3. Two things:

    First, I agree that Newt is being disingenuous (at best!) when he talks about congress overseeing Federal Judges without talking about setting up an explicit framework for overturning their decisions. Whenever anyone talks about changing the person rather than the process, I know that they’re merely trying to look busy.

    Second, John Bolton must have a remarkably winning personality. Whenever I read an account of him written by a conservative, it contains nothing but glowing praise for the man personally. Clarence Thomas and Paul Gottfried both speak well of him, as do some others whose names I have forgotten. Is he just really polite? Must be; I’m noticing a pattern that’s too interesting to be the result of normal signal noise.

  4. JonF says:

    At the very least I wish they would retire the phrase “family values”. It’s not as if single people are hopelessly depraved. why not bring back the old fashioned word “morality” or at least “ethics”?

  5. Prof. Gottfried asked: “Do social traditionalists honestly believe that the federal government is more likely to ride to their rescue than the state legislatures of our more conservative states?”

    Unfortunately, ever since the Civil War whoever has a firm grip on the Federal government can do exactly that. If social traditionalists took over the federal government they could impose their values with all the suffocating comprehensiveness that liberals have. There is no significant difference between a neocon and a liberal on that score.

  6. Of course, a person’s values are … whatever he values. And you might value stuff that I don’t. Your values might not be my values, but what’s true is true for both of us.

    It’s fundamental truths that are important, especially the truths that long preceded the Founding: Natural Law, the Ten Commandments, and so on.Like it or not, those truths, and not “values,” are the foundation of our civilization, or what’s left of it.

    With regard to Paul’s question regarding the courts, I think that Dr. Paul’s desire to reinvigorate the Constitutional powers of Congress would include restoring the power to limit the jurisdiction of the courts in Article III, Section 2. It’s used all the time in cases like veterans affairs and social security. Why not important issues like life and death?

  7. The idea of the GOP doing anything to get government off our backs is absurd, what with neocons screaming for more foreign intervention, more surveillance of citizens, more power for police, even a return to the draft. And more bailouts for their Wall Street buddies, if needed. In short more laws, more government intrusion, more taxes. Thanks, GOP!!

  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Well said. My respect for you haas just rocketed.

  9. For those who haven’t read my earlier essays on this subject, let me restate my position that I don’t think Congressman Paul has much of a foreign policy, as opposed to a mostly justified gripe. I do not share the Congressman’s view that we should not be concerned about the present Iranian government’s development of nuclear weapons, given the inflammatory statements about nuking other countries coming from Iran’s leaders. I would not mind seeing the Israelis wipe out Iran’s base for generating nuclear weapons, since the Israelisare the declared target of the intended aggression. On the other hand, I would strongly oppose the kinds of military actions being proposed by the neocon-controled GOP presidential candidates. Least of all would I favor further neocon-proclaimed jihads to impose democracy, gay-rights or whatever else the Weekly Standard intends to inflict on other societies, at the cost of American blood and treasure and what remains of our Constitution.

  10. Professor Gottfried wrote: “I don’t think Congressman Paul has much of a foreign policy”.

    That’s the whole idea. The less foreign policy the better, in fact.

    In the foreign policy realm the US suffers from the “not invented here” syndrome that has hastened the demise of many high tech companies. We seem incapable of grasping that others have more at stake in Iran than we do and are perfectly capable of attending to it. And we don’t have to give them a dime in aid, materiel, political backing or intel support.

    These others include Israel, obviously, but also Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and several others. If we refrain from launching yet another (quite likely botched) attack and invasion,we will discover to our shock that the world has something resembling an auto-immune system, and doesn’t need any more radical surgery by Uncle Sam.

  11. jb says:

    Indeed I can respect people I disagree with on just about everything, because they act on the basis of their beliefs.

    I don’t have a huge problem with the term “family values,” because I feel I do know what it is intended to mean, but I absolutely agree with the sentence above! I am just dismayed by how often ideologues on all sides conflate disagreement with stupidity, or even wickedness. “Conservatives are mean-spirited!” “Liberals hate America!” And so on, and on, and on.

    Do they really believe this, or is it just cynical demagogging? Understanding the workings of the human world is really, really hard — if it weren’t then smart people would all end up agreeing on at least the basics, as they do in easier endeavors like math and physics.

    If you are going to be intellectually honest, you have to acknowledge a couple of things: that most people genuinely believe that things they say they believe; that most people who disagree with you are as well intentioned as you are; that some of those people are as smart as you are, or even smarter; and that, since you are not infallible, you are probably wrong about at least a few of the things you believe, and your opponents right.

    When you dismiss your political opponents as fools or villains you are basically blinding yourself. What you need to do is take them seriously, and make a serious effort to see the world as they see it. The benefit is that you might learn how to make them understand that they are wrong. The risk is that you might sometimes end up persuaded that they are right! I consider the willingness to take that risk to be almost the definition of an intellectually serious person.

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