Virtue, they say, is its own reward. But California politicians think differently. They see the "politics of virtue" as a ticket to victory in November. And if they are right, grumble professional cynics, the politics of virtue will play everywhere.
What are the politics of virtue? Virtue implies a certain moral excellence; it encompasses "good traits" of character--"honesty," "compassion," "courage" and "perseverance" are among those listed in William J. Bennett's best seller, "The Book of Virtues."
The cultivation of virtue makes for good individuals, exemplary parents, responsible citizens and trusted leaders. All are necessary for a society to function well. "And," as a recent Newsweek story explained, "without a virtuous society, individuals cannot realize either their own or the common good. That, in theory, is what the 'politics of virtue' is all about."
In practice, value politics is also about winning. Recent polls indicate an upsurge in voter concern over the breakdown of moral and family values. That's why California candidates across the political spectrum are hustling to position themselves as "Virtuecrats"--Newsweek's label for practitioners of value politics.
Republicans who have long railed against the excesses of Big Government now look to it to lead the virtue crusade through laws that set morals and standards. Assemblyman Mickey R. Conroy's (R-Orange) bill to mandate flogging as a punishment for graffiti is an example.
Democrats, once overflowing with social activism, are passing budgets that cut government programs dear to their traditional constituencies. And many have joined Republicans in embracing the "character-building" aspects of tough, anti-crime legislation.
Early in his tenure, Gov. Pete Wilson embraced the idea of "preventive government," which centered on pro-active social and educational programs. But the costs of prevention proved too high. Wilson has since promoted government programs that guarantee swift and certain punishment for defying society's rules and norms. They form the foundation of his reelection campaign.
Kathleen Brown embraced the politics of virtue when she made her family's legacy a campaign theme, and again when she sought to link her opposition to the death penalty to family and religious values. Recently, Brown added another virtue-politics campaign slogan: "Restore the promise for California families."
Rep. Mike Huffington has rooted his bid for the U.S. Senate in the politics of virtue. One of his first TV spots was a paean to Bennett's book, which Huffington extolled as "a great reminder that solving problems in our country depends on strong individuals and strong families, not on government."
Huffington has proposed legislation to expand tax deductions for charitable contributions and touts volunteerism as the way to "turn the country around" and "get rid of the welfare state." His pitch appears to be resonating with California voters. And Republicans elsewhere are sensing an effective line of attack against incumbent Democrats--tar them with failed, big-ticket social programs.
Aware that Huffington's "virtue" message is working, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has come on strong in favor of "values" issues like crime control and immigration reform. She has proposed legislation to mandate a year's expulsion for students caught with guns on school property.
As close to goodness as Virtuecrats would like to position themselves, there is a dark side to their politics. They have driven another wedge between the two Californias, one older, Anglo, conservative, anti-government, anti-tax and more likely to vote; the other younger, more likely minority, less likely to vote and more in need of government programs. Frequently, the latter California appears to be the target of the politics of virtue.
The hard-line stands many California politicians have taken on crime, immigration and welfare can be viewed as means toward an orderly and civil society. But they can also be viewed as shortsighted fear-mongering by candidates who pander to swing voters at the expense of the poor and minorities.
The Virtuecrats' call for volunteerism and private charities to assume the social-welfare tasks of government reeks of noblesse oblige. But it also promises an angry middle class that taxpayers can choose when, where and whether their money will be spent. Certainly, it is virtuous for the less fortunate to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but it's even more appealing to voters if taxpayers aren't stuck with the cost.
Too often, the politics of virtue comes down to touting values with a wink and a nod. In the 1992 California elections, GOP right-wing candidates lost marginal legislative and congressional districts to moderate, pro-business Democrats. By substituting the kinder, gentler language of family values and character education for the harsh rhetoric of the religious right, the politics of virtue allows Republicans to attract moderate voters without alienating their conservative base.
As for Democrats, they seek to use the spirituality of the politics of virtue in an attempt to inoculate themselves against GOP attacks on character issues. Calls for tough and sure punishment for society's criminals, tempered by support for preventive programs for disadvantaged youth, enable Democrats to undermine the GOP's domination of the crime issue without alienating their liberal base.
The politics of virtue, then, offers an easy way to avoid hard political choices. Money saved by axing high-priced social-welfare programs can be used to help offset the costs of crime control and building prisons. Voters might like that. But relying on the vagaries of volunteerism and private charity puts at risk the quality of life for all Californians.
If the politics of virtue sell this November, California might find itself becoming more and more like Charles Dickens' England and less like the Golden State it once aspired to be.*