Americans ultimately vote their values.
In an election that started out as a debate about war, and ended up being about the economy, voters were also treated to a very clear discussion about the social values of both major parties, the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and very clear ballot initiatives. Social issues may not have been front burner in every race or region, but they were made clear from start to stop.
President-elect Barack Obama and Vice-President-elect Joe Biden articulated a platform of pro-education, pro-prevention and pro-choice values that was championed by both pro-life and pro-choice Democrats. They clearly spoke out for equal rights for all citizens and against government intrusion into the most intimate personal decisions individuals and families make. American voters have overwhelmingly embraced them and by extension their values; a very clear majority choosing to respect individual rights and promote individual responsibility — while appreciating that people have differing values within our diverse nation.
Throughout his two year campaign, President-elect Obama clearly called on Americans to respect our differences on controversial issues like abortion and gay rights, but to also work together on common sense policies. Obama envisions a society that allows Americans to move past the division that has defined a generation of the most bitter politics, division that brought our government to a stalemate.
Sen. John McCain selected Gov. Sarah Palin in large part because of her pro-life views and appeal to the social conservative base of the GOP; they attacked Obama on comprehensive sexuality education, engaged a conversation of teen-pregnancy and abstinence-only programs, and used abortion issues in speeches, debates and every form of political media. Their efforts were supported by numerous well-funded independent expenditures and political action committees from the far-right.
The Supreme Court was a talking point never far from the lips of partisans right and left. The consequences of this election’s impact on the judiciary not lost on any voter.
From the promotion of social conservative "values voters" and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Forum, the first joint appearance by Obama and McCain in the general election campaign, voters were very clear on the values of each candidate.
In many ways, as President-elect Obama spoke to hundreds of thousands of people in Grant Park in Chicago, the site of the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, divisions that defined the ’60′s struggles of civil rights for blacks, women, and gays came full circle. A generation of battles about these most personal issues, marked by political division rooted in misunderstanding, is giving way to a discussion of sexual and reproductive health, individual rights and personal responsibility that promotes education and prevention.
As importantly, this historic election saw many pro-life conservatives separating themselves from the more extreme parts of their movement, and many pro-choice conservatives call for a change in the debate away from banning abortion, to focus on policies improving sex ed and prevention; policies progressives have long advocated.
Colorado overwhelmingly rejected an effort to give eggs human rights, South Dakota soundly rejected a ban on abortions for the second time, and California defeated onerous parental notification laws for the third time. In addition, Washington becomes the second state in the nation to extend rights to terminally ill individuals by passing Death with Dignity modeled on Oregon’s successful law, and Michigan funded embryonic stem cell research to give science the best chance at discovering new life-saving cures. Some on the far-right will bemoan these results, but all each measure does is extend respect to the individual and remove government from life’s most intimate and personal decisions.
Social conservatives have a simple choice to make. They can recognize that America is a pluralistic nation with diverse beliefs and work with people they disagree with to construct common sense laws based on medical facts, or they can continue to marginalize themselves and move further outside the mainstream. This election in no way suggests that social conservatives must change their beliefs, give up their values, or do anything differently other than rethink their approach to the political process. It does suggest that they will need to demonstrate respect for the values of their fellow Americans, something many on the far-right have been unwilling to do.
Liberals similarly must re-evaluate how we approach people with whom we disagree. We should celebrate victories, work to promote policies based on medical facts and proven public health strategies, and reach out a collaborative hand — including to pro-life people who can work with us on evidence-based policies. We must promote individual and personal responsibility and give people the tools to make the best decisions for their lives.
Neither side need give up their beliefs or values, but both sides must find ways to put the divisive Culture Wars behind us once and for all.
It will not be easy, and large segments of the far-right may choose instead to recalibrate and insist that a more strident approach to their issues could prevail. That is their choice. Demography does not appear to be on their side based on the overwhelming results in this election.
Some on the far-left may be tempted to over-reach, and history does not suggest that is wise.
America has made her choice in margins larger than we have seen since before these Culture War divisions took root, and for the first time in history we have a moment to see each other and the personal life decisions we make differently. The choice is not a rejection of anyone or any issue as much as it is an embrace of the possibliity that in America, we can hold more than one idea at a time and live and work together, respectfully.