I first met the Values Voters as a young man, encouraged by their belief that the character of public servants mattered. They believed, even until recently, that our elected officials should live good, if not exemplary lives. The Values Voter has sadly passed away, and I dedicate this column to our collective loss.
Back in the 1980s, when I was a boy, I lived in a conservative home, in a conservative town, in a conservative state. We were taught that the Republican Party and the conservative movement represented the best of our country’s moral strength. We were told by Reagan that America was to be a “Shining City upon a hill,” the symbol to the world of freedom, strength, and moral authority.
In his final address, Reagan talked about a sailor who came across a boat of refugees. When the so-called “boat people” saw the American ship, they exclaimed “Hello, American sailor — Hello, Freedom Man.” This was the America I was taught to believe in as a boy, and it was something special, something to which we all aspired. America was a place that many people admired, a place both powerful and compassionate. Many countries aspired to be like us, to break the fetters of communism and authoritarianism.
This was the America that birthed the Values Voters. They believed that America and its leaders were something unique, a people held to a high standard of personal and professional conduct. And I believed, too! It was a heady time: the Iron Curtain fell, and the Soviet Union crumbled. America was ascendant, and we believed we were in that position because we strived to be something exceptional.
Then came the Clinton years, a time filled with rapid economic and social changes. My first experiences living overseas were during this time, and I was always gratified to see how much people admired my country and my presidents. But as we know, Clinton had his moral failings, which became public and led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Even at that time, there was an aftertaste of hypocrisy (i.e. Newt Gingrich leading the charge against Clinton while also openly unfaithful to his wife), but much of the Values Voters movement claimed that the moral failings of Clinton should encourage us to seek a leader who lived a better personal life. George W. Bush squeaked into office, promising a restoration of dignity to the White House. And I may be engaging in hindsight bias, but he was a decent man. I disagreed with many of his policies, particularly foreign policies, but George W. Bush was a decent man. He was faithfully married and self-disciplined, and I believe he tried to do what was best.
As I have mentioned in previous column, even my friends overseas who deeply disagreed with our foreign policy still believed in the vision of America. They still believed that America was a “Shining City on a hill.” Their problems with President Bush were not reflective of a hatred of America, but a disappointment that his policies betrayed their vision of America as a just and fair power. And the Values Voters continued to believe that a strong moral character was the basis of good leadership.
Alas, for so many of us, conservative and liberal alike, these seem almost like the good old days. Despite all of his “Make America Great Again” rhetoric, we have a president with a deeply pessimistic vision of America. When Trump was challenged in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on his support for Putin and his violence toward his own citizens, Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”
And with Trump’s deep cynicism and dark rhetoric have gone the Values Voters. In a set of PPRI/Brookings surveys from 2011 and 2016 (just before Trump was elected), you see a massive shift among many of the white, evangelical Values Voters on whether personal character matters in political leaders: “In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that ‘an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties.’ Today, 72 percent do.” The Values Voter has been ailing for a while, but this was the diagnosis of a fatal disease. The Values Voter has abandoned his values.
This week we have President Trump actively campaigning for Senate candidate Roy Moore, a man accused of dating underage girls while he was in his 30s, including the molestation of a 14-year old girl. These accusations are credible enough that even other Republicans, like Mitch McConnell, have said, “I believe the women.” But the Republican National Committee and the Republican president have put their support behind him. Most other Republicans are staying silent.
Parts of the Values Voter movement seem to have left me behind some time ago, but I mourn the loss of these idealistic, morally-minded people. While there are a few lone conservative voices still speaking up, like Mitt Romney, Jeff Flake, and the senior Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, the deafening silence is simply the indication that the patient is dead. Listen to the long, sad tone of the heart monitor; the Values Voter has passed on.