Conflicting Values Explain Political DifferencesRoundup
tags: politics, democracy
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here.
Look beneath the U. S. political polarization and what do you see? Or the Ukrainian differences between Presidents Putin and Biden? Or how seriously to regard climate change? Beneath the surface skin of all these issues lies the beating heart of values. In his The Audacity of Hope (2006), Barack Obama (then still a senator) wrote that the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.”
Moreover, the question of what values to prioritize extends far beyond the U. S. Consider the words of U.S. neuropsychologist and Nobel laureate Roger Sperry, “Human value priorities…stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.”
But with rare exceptions thoughtful debates about competing values, which ones to prioritize and why, seldom occur among politicians or even in various media’s political commentary. Until the twentieth century, virtues were stressed more than values. And in her The De-Moralization of Society (1994), conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb laments the transition that occurred. But it need not delay us here. Instead, the decline of serious political consideration of either “v” word will be our focus.
U.S. historian Woody Holton has written, “Virtue carried important meaning in the culture of 18th-century America…To Washington and his contemporaries, it was a quality accorded great men.” Another historian, Clinton Rossiter, wrote (more than a half-century ago) “on no point in the whole range of political theory were Americans more thoroughly in accord” than that free government necessitated “a virtuous people.” He quoted various Founding Fathers like Samuel Adams, who stated, “We may look up to Armies for our Defence, but Virtue is our best Security. It is not possible that any State should long remain free, where Virtue is not supremely honored.” A few decades later, another historian, James Kloppenberg, quoted another Founding Father, James Madison, “I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.”
Gradually, however, the “fathers” emphasis on virtue began to ebb. In succeeding decades, however, one still sees bursts of it, for example with Abraham Lincoln and even a little later with President Ulysses Grant. In a 2017 review of Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, the reviewer wrote, “Grant belonged to an American Culture of Character that shaped its ideas of moral education around the study of Plutarch and Cicero, and the writings of Benjamin Franklin and the example of George Washington, and that focused upon such virtues as integrity, humility, honesty, courage, fidelity, justice, patience, industry, modesty, and adherence to the Golden Rule.”
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