What do we want from leaders? To be, or to do? American culture likes doing. The American dream, in its purest form, rewards effort with happiness. Whatever you look like, or wherever you came from, all that matters is what you do once you get here.
Citizenship itself is more doing than being—if you say you are an American, then you are, regardless of where you came from or who you used to be. New citizens must promise to do: “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
Of course, there is a darker side to America, where being matters. The American dream wasn’t available to blacks, women, Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, or to a variety of other groups, because our “values” elevated being to destiny. “They” aren’t like “us,” don’t you know.
The distinction between being and doing is always sharpest in election years, because citizens are torn between the two concepts of the good. We pay attention to what candidates promise to do after the election. But we also want candidates to share our values, to “be” like us. And those who are unlike us? They are evil. They must be stopped. Vote for me, because I share your values and my opponent worships Satan..
This is not so new, of course. A rabid focus on values characterized U.S. elections for decades after the founding. In 1800, the Hartford Courant famously predicted that, if Jefferson won the 1800 election, “...murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” None of these came true, until the Clinton Administration, however.
In 1994, the Republicans seized both houses of Congress. They did it by highlighting values, and taking polarizing stands. The Democrats were caught by surprise, though the strength of the economy and the weakness of the Republican ticket in 1996 allowed Clinton to hold the White House. But then Clinton’s sexual pecadilloes forced Gore to run on values, a “being” theme poorly suited for Gore’s talent as a doer. The election was a tie, but the Bush camp claimed vindication: Bush’s core values are American, so that the policies implied by those values are unassailable. Consequently, anyone who opposes Republican policies on the war or the economy is evil.
The backlash from the left is perhaps understandable, but it is disturbing. Mel Gibson’s loose adaption of the gospels “The Passion” galvanized believers on the right. Michael Moore’s loose adaptation of history, “Fahrenheit 9/11” has found equally rapturous audiences among anti-Bush partisans. Moore really does score some hits on “W”, but the movie mostly just implies that George Bush is evil. Consequently, according to Moore and his growing tribe of fury, George Bush’s policies must be evil.
It is tempting to think a values battle will benefit the Republicans, who “own” that issue. Many of the Republican faithful approve of George Bush because he can say “Jesus” (not just God, but Jesus) without blushing. If Kerry ever tried to mention Jesus in a speech, his head might explode. Even with John Edwards, for whom religion is a comfortable subject, the Democrats appear to be handicapped on values.
But the Republicans may be seen to have tried to hijack the church. Inferring “correct” policies from religious doctrine may make even the faithful recoil. Before 9/11, I heard smug references to the Republicans’ “Taliban wing.” That analogy has become less acceptable, but more accurate, over the past three years.
The result is that the time and treasure of both parties will be expended on the “issue” of same-sex marriage. Sure, we will talk about the war on terror, ending the occupation of Iraq, and problems of free trade and the economy. But only after we spend weeks arguing over whether a definition of “marriage” should appear in the U.S. Constitution. No one will have their mind changed, and no one will be informed.
In this sort of non-debate, the issues themselves become unimportant. They are strategically chosen platforms for advancing a narrow conception of morality, either from the perspective of religious certainty or secular conviction. Suggesting that gay men and women deserve the rights of contract and free association brings scorn from the right. Raising legitimate questions about whether the tradition of marriage is in fact a sacred union of man and woman brings eye-popping rage from the left. You can’t talk about it. Yet we will speak of little else in the coming months.
We have lost our way, because we cannot explore the political landscape using only a moral compass. With so many tough questions about what to do, the 2004 election is on the verge of being transformed, by both sides, into a competition over loyalty oaths. If we are going to solve the domestic and international policy problems that beset us, we are going to have to be able to talk to each other without spitting.
Frank Sinatra had it right. You've probably seen his Solomonic synthesis, on the "do vs. be" debate, on a bathroom wall somewhere. The whole thing is apocryphal, of course (it was actually made up by Kurt Vonnegut), but it sums up why ol' Blue Eyes is a quintessential American.
"To be is to do"--Socrates.
"To do is to be"--Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do"--Frank Sinatra.