Page 1 of 3

Public Opinion Watch: More Values than Voters

Values to the Left of Me, Values to the Right of Me and Nary a Strategy in Sight.

| Thu Jan. 26, 2006 3:00 AM EST

Article created by the Center for American Progress.

Sometimes I think there are more values than voters out there. At least, one might be forgiven this thought, given all the head-scratching about values taking place in progressive circles and the many, many nominees for the values progressives should be stressing – right now! – in their efforts to build a majority coalition.

I’ve always felt quite ambivalent about this values obsession. On the one hand, I can only applaud the general concept that values should be taken seriously as the prism through which voters view policies and politics. Just thinking about issues and how well different issues poll is certainly an inadequate way to formulate political strategy.

Advertise on

On the other hand, discussions about values tend to become awfully squishy awfully fast. Instead of the suspect assertion that simply talking about the right issue(s) will take progressives from Hell to hallelujah, values-talk tends toward the equally suspect assumption that simply talking about the right value(s) – linkage to actual, feasible politics unspecified – will lead progressives to the promised land. Well, I don’t believe that and neither should you.

Let me illustrate my concerns by discussing one recent offering in this ongoing values discussion, Garance Franke-Ruta’s article, “Remapping the Culture Debate,” in the latest issue of The American Prospect. Franke-Ruta’s article starts by discussing the values work of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, well-known in progressive circles for their essay, “The Death of Environmentalism.” Nordhaus and Shellenberger, now principals in American Environics, the American branch of the Canadian market research firm, Environics Research, have been pushing a values scheme based entirely on their analysis of an Environics in-home consumer survey that has been conducted since 1992.

Their presentations of their work to various progressive organizations and politicians have met with a generally favorable reception and Franke-Ruta’s views on their work are no exception. She portrays their analysis as path-breaking empirical work that will (or at least should) completely recast the way progressives look at politics.

I am not so sure. Begin with the fact that their data are drawn from only one survey series – their own – and no attempt has been made so far to compare their findings to those from other series. This does not inspire confidence. Take, for example, two of the few actual data points that are mentioned in Franke-Ruta’s article:

“Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that ‘the father of the family must be the master in his own house’ increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that ‘men are naturally superior to women’ increased from 30 percent to 40 percent.”

Could be, but check out this finding from the premier American academic political science survey, the National Election Study (NES). The NES asked respondents to place themselves on a 7 point scale relative to the following statements: “Some people feel that women should have an equal role with men in running business, industry and government. Others feel that women's place is in the home,” where 1 is the strongest support for the women’s equal role and 7 is the strongest support for women’s place being in the home. In 1992, 51 percent selected 1, the strongest support for women’s equal role; in 2004, 57 percent selected 1. So support for women’s equal role appears to be strengthening in the NES. Indeed, in the 2004 survey, a total of 78 percent of respondents picked 1, 2 or 3 on the 7 point scale, indicating they felt closer to the equal role statement that to the women’s place in the home statement.

Page 1 of 3