Op-Ed, 561 words

The Values Divide

The showdown in Washington isn't just about political posturing.


There’s a lot of talk about how polarized the country is today. Sometimes that polarization is more than about partisan politics — it’s about real differences in values.

Take the House Republicans’ recent votes to deny food and health care to millions of Americans. Those were statements of values.

The first vote was to cut 3.8 million Americans off of the SNAP program — food stamps — because they can’t find jobs. The Republican argument is that adults who don’t have children to take care of must be responsible for themselves. The fact that there are three people looking for work for every job available was beside the point to the 217 members of Congress who voted for the cut in food assistance.



The other big vote was to defund the Affordable Care Act, which would deny 25 million Americans health coverage. Unlike the SNAP cuts, blocking President Barack Obama’s landmark health care reform would halt expanding health coverage to millions of working people whose jobs do not come with health coverage. It would also cut off people with pre-existing health conditions and Americans who are out of work and don’t qualify for Medicaid.

But the core Republican argument is the same, as expressed by the Missouri State Senator who has led the effort to stop the Affordable Care Act’s implementation in his state. “We can’t afford everything we do now, let alone provide free medical care to able-bodied adults,” said Missouri State Senator Rob Schaaf.

While it’s easy to point out all the ways Schaaf’s statement is false — the Affordable Care Act won’t be providing free health care to most beneficiaries, it will be made available to children and people with chronic disabilities as well as “able-bodied adults,” and it’s fully paid-for with taxes — those arguments miss the lawmaker’s basic point. He’s making a values statement here, the same one underlying the attempt by House lawmakers to cut off food assistance.

The values argument is about different notions of responsibility and freedom between Republican conservatives and progressive Democrats. The conservative value of responsibility is that people are on their own to take care of themselves. If they can’t do that, it’s not the collective responsibility of society through government to help them, leaving voluntary charitable efforts to take care of any humane concerns.

The conservative value of freedom is that it’s an infringement on a person’s freedom to be taxed to take care of someone else.

Progressives have contrasting views of the same values. Progressive Democrats believe that while we are each responsible for ourselves we also have a shared responsibility, through our government, to care for each other. Accordingly, if we have not created an economy with enough jobs for people to support themselves, we are responsible for being sure that people have the support they need, including food.

Freedom for Democrats isn’t just the freedom to express oneself — it’s also the “freedom from want,” in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words. An example here is being free to get health insurance even if you have a preexisting medical condition.

There’s certainly a boatload of political posturing in Washington. We know that one reason Republicans keep voting to defund the Affordable Care Act, knowing that they won’t prevail, is to appeal to conservative voters and funders. But behind the posturing is a clear set of values.

Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States. He’s also a senior adviser to USAction. USAction.org
Distributed via OtherWords. OtherWords.org

  • cezanne

    Your explanation of the values of the Reps and Dems is
    interesting, but it doesn’t mention why the conservative movement has spawned
    an extremist wing. They certainly share a lot of values with conservatives, but
    they also are caught up in a conspiracy bubble that validates not only their
    conservative values but the world-wide opposition to them. Due to their values decline in popularity
    with the majority of Americans, the some conservatives have bought into a very
    comforting view of the world: it’s all a conspiracy. Once inside the conspiracy bubble, all events
    can be explained. This leads to another characteristic
    of an extremist group: it is impervious to any contradicting arguments or evidence. Once in this phase of extremism, the group
    need not accept defeat. Even losing an
    election is seen, not as evidence of the unpopularity of their views, but as
    confirmation of the conspiracy theory. Since the conspiracy they posit is all
    encompassing, normal democratic methods are seen as useless. This phase however leads to the lessening of the group’s power as the group escalates to more extreme stances and
    actions. Then some members will be leave
    because of the lack of success in advancing their views in the larger
    society. Since their vision of the world
    is correct, the group explains these defeats by lack of ideological purity,
    leading to a further schisms and purges.
    By then whatever influence the group had is dispersed. (But conspiracy ideas never die. At the next era of social change, they will
    pop up like mushrooms after the rain.)

    So even though the extremist Reps share the same values as the moderates, their response to continual defeat in the American political scene is to devastate the values of bipartisan democracy.

    • Progressive Republican

      Very nicely put. Well done.