State of the Union January/February 2006

The Values Racket

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Since the 2004 presidential election differences in American values and cultural attitudes have been continually picked at like a scab in Congress and the media. From the hand-wringing over the "values vote" to the shouting about Terri Schiavo, the nuclear option, intelligent design, and Samuel Alito, the culture war has apparently resumed, after a brief post-9/11 armistice. Beneath the clamor the national consciousness seems broadly, if quietly, uneasy. Much of the news in the past year or so—political scandal, corporate malfeasance, prisoner torture—has prompted questions about American ideals.

For this, The Atlantic's fourth annual State of the Union special section, we asked prominent writers and thinkers to consider the state of American values: how they clash, how they're changing, and how they interact with our politics, business, and everyday life. The resulting essays describe the social and moral health of the nation as decidedly mixed.

The most reassuring theme that emerges is a surprising unity of belief among most Americans on most cultural issues. As E. J. Dionne, Steven Waldman, and John C. Green argue, the spectacle of culture war masks widespread agreement on even supposedly polarizing issues such as abortion and gay rights. Waldman and Green show that regarding religion, values, and politics, America divides not into two mutually antagonistic nations but into twelve "tribes" with overlapping values and cultural attitudes. Few of these tribes have much appetite for the culture war.

Indeed, Dionne argues that the real war in America is between those who want a culture war—a vocal minority demanding political attention—and those who don't. Most Americans are happy with the legal status quo on most issues relating to moral values and individual freedoms. This consensus is likely to strictly limit any enduring changes to the status quo—no matter which party holds office.

But if values are not really pulling us apart, we may be drifting (together) in an unsettling direction. As Paul Starobin argues, the United States has become isolated by its values. Many of the cultural attributes that have made America attractive to outsiders—boisterous democracy, economic opportunity, respect for human rights—have proliferated abroad. Some have been tarnished at home. At the same time, many of the values that remain uniquely American do not endear us to most other societies. No other country is both as devout and as libertarian as America, and this unusual mixture has of late exacerbated mistrust of the United States. Whether out of disdain for America's moral certitude, fear of its evangelical impulses, or discomfort with its social permissiveness, nearly all the world's countries find something alien about American culture that—when combined with American power and assertiveness—leads to misgivings about American ends.

The culture war tends to fixate on sexual, reproductive, and religious issues. But Dionne argues that the more widespread sources of moral and cultural tension in the United States today are the loss of community, alteration of the rhythms of family life, and growth in self-centered individualism that have been wrought by rapid changes in our economy. Americans are responding to these changes, seeking (and often finding) new forms of community and new ways to uphold old virtues. But the struggle between individualism and communitarianism, between old values and a new economy, has left many people uneasy and conflicted, regardless of their political ideology.

One area in which economic change has caused values to deteriorate is business, Clive Crook argues. Corporate scandals and outlandish executive pay increases have continued well past the end of the stock-market boom. The reason is not that the captains of American industry are any less virtuous than they used to be but that our economy has evolved in a way that makes oversight of CEOs considerably more difficult; and absent oversight, the worst sorts of human behavior tend to flourish. Crook argues that unseemly executive behavior may well be a price worth paying for America's continued economic dynamism; in any event, it should not be expected to diminish anytime soon.

Indeed, whatever one thinks of American values now, we may well be stuck with them for a while: today's teens appear unlikely to foment a values revolution, as P. J. O'Rourke argues in his own inimitable way. Unlike Boomers when they were young, or even Generation X, these kids largely hew to the moral, social, and spiritual beliefs of their presumably proud parents. They are politically moderate, respectful of traditional institutions, and somewhat sexually cautious—at least if you believe what they tell you. There is more than a whiff of blithe hypocrisy to teen cultural attitudes today;the young say one thing, do another, and perhaps think a third. On balance, that should prepare them well for adult life in America.—The Editors

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