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What are our shared national values?

August 3, 2017

I don’t write about politics very often but it seems like we maybe need to have a chat as a nation about politics. If you haven’t noticed, things are a pretty big mess in the USA right now. I think it might be time to have a national conversation about our national values.

Right now, our political climate seems to be all about “winning” but when people speak that word, I am not sure what they are meaning. Who is “winning”? What are they “winning” when they do “win”? Who “loses” in this situation (the term “winning” implies that there is also a losing side)? By what metrics can we objectively measure a “win” versus a “loss”? And what do we concentrate on when we are so focused on “winning”, potentially at the expense of other things we could/should be focusing on? Is our governance system a zero-sum game?

I would like to propose that we focus on our national values. “What are those?”, you might ask. Some might look to our past behavior as a clue to what our national values are. I would not recommend this as there are many things in our national past that are not too positive (slavery, the extermination and/or displacement of Native Americans as the US pushed westward, the lack of equal rights for women, incarcerating Japanese-Americans During WWII, etc. I could go on but you could also just go and read a history book.). Some might look to the foundational documents of our nation to search for national values. That is somewhat better than looking at behavior but these sources are also fraught with historical norms that I think most of us would be uncomfortable (treating black people as property, lack of voting and property rights for women, etc.) Once again, sit down with those documents and read them carefully. They hide the notion of slavery by not referring to it as such but masking it in other terms but it is in there (how else can you “import” an “other person”?). But you can look through the amendments to our Constitution to get an inkling of what our national values are as we recognized that the original documents perhaps did not reflect our national values as well as we wanted. And our culture changed as well which required updates. If we could have a conversation about what we all think our national values are, we would see where we agree and disagree on those values. Once that is known, we can begin discussing ways to live out our national values in our governance structures and we can begin the process of negotiating why we do differ on some of these fundamentals.

What are some of these national values? Going back to some of our founding documents gives us a starting place.

All people are equal under the law. – This is a big one. It has to do with the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This is ultimately what decided the same sex marriage issue. All people should have equal protection under the law (see 5th and 14th Amendments for two versions of legal protection). ALL people. Regardless of any visible or invisible difference we might note in them. This becomes uncomfortable for some people who are offended by the lives other lead and by who a person loves. I am also uncomfortable with white supremacists but I cannot, in good conscience, elect to infringe upon their right to peaceably assemble and spew their hatred. Just as they cannot suspend my right to protest their message. Lots of things make us uncomfortable and we just need to get over some of these things. If we can freely embrace this core principle, lots of other things come into focus. Everyone should have the right to marry. Everyone should have the right to vote (if they are citizens). Everyone should receive a quality public education. Everyone should have equal opportunities to attend college, get a job, achieve the American dream. You might say that they do already, but they don’t if some public schools are not doing an adequate job of preparing students for the future (which many are not) or if there is implicit bias in admissions and hiring practices.

But we don’t have to go to our founding documents for shared values. Here are some others.

It is better for people to be employed than to be unemployed. – I would add to this that people need to be employed at wages that allow them to support themselves and their families. I think we can all agree to this. IF a candidate gets up in front of an audience and says something to the contrary, chances are that person will not get elected. But we often have candidates who say they don’t think it is better for people to be employed but they say it in different words, which when examined carefully, reveal their true meaning. When our leaders draft and pass legislation that makes it more economical for people to outsource jobs to other nations, they are expressing a value statement that runs counter to the idea that it is better to be unemployed than employed (see my earlier post on externalizing costs). We should not pass laws that actively encourage companies to relocate oversees. And as individuals, we should make individual purchasing choices that recognize that something made in America is being made by people who earn a living wage, have health insurance, work in safe working environments, and live in environments that are less negatively affected by the pollution generated by local industries. It is not just about what government does; it is about what we as individuals do. If a product is made in a country without environmental and worker protections, and we all refuse to buy that product, the company will move production to a place that has environmental and worker protections. Money speaks volumes. Where are we collectively spending our money?

It is better for people to be safe. – This includes in the workplace, in our homes and on our streets. This is about OSHA, police forces, the EPA, the FDA, etc. If we leave our safety up to corporations, we will get the least costly solution to problems which will probably be more unsafe than more costly solutions. We will get more dangerous products rather than less dangerous products and those will be produced in cheaply run production facilities that are less safe simply because that increases the profit margins of companies. See above comments about the power of money.

It is better for us to leave our children and grandchildren a world that is better than the one we inherited, from the standpoint of peace, economics and the environment. – How many of us really want to screw the next generation? Hopefully none of us do. But we often say we do in our choices. In our choices of the products we buy and how those products are produced, in terms of our choices about the houses we live in and the cars we drive, in terms of our choices about how we treat others not like ourselves, and in our choices of who we vote for for public offices.

We seek justice for people who have been oppressed. – I hope I don’t have to belabor this point. I am against the death penalty because there are too many cases ( > 1) of people on death row being exonerated due to new evidence, DNA, etc. I want criminals off the street as much as anyone, but not if it means killing innocent people because our system of justice is imperfect. And it is imperfect because it is run by people and people are imperfect. And this is not the only form of injustice I am referring to. See the first two bolded paragraphs above (equal protection and employment) or think about current moves to alter immigration policy.

I could go on, but you can see where I am going with this. I think there are common values that we all share. And all of these areas are difficult in the hammering out of policies that address these things. But, if we can not agree on the core principles, then there is no point of departure for debating the specifics of how we get more people employed or how we hand off a world that is better to those who come after us. But, if one candidate thinks we should leave our grandchildren a better world and another who does not, then you have nothing to discuss and you have the topic of your first campaign advertisement.

You will notice that I did not put “We think decisions should be based in reality/fact”, because I do not think that is a shared national value at the moment. But perhaps it should be.

It seems to me that both of our major political parties are struggling to find a platform that speaks to the American people. I think this is a symptom of a larger problem. I think both parties are so tied to special interests that both of them have lost sight of our shared values. I think the political party that embraces our shared values and then contrasts themselves with the party that does not will begin to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. With a Congressional approval rating of 20%, I would argue that both parties are losing the hearts and minds of Americans. Perhaps a new platform that embraces our shared values is the answer for success in elections 15 months from now.

What do you think should be added to our shared national values? Do you think this is all pie in the sky optimism and naiveté? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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