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“Moral Values”– the poorly worded poll question that just won’t go away

June 2, 2009, 1:20 pm | Posted by Beth Dahlman

E.J. Dionne and Dan Gilgoff have both noted a recent Pew poll showing the steep decline of “moral values” as a priority for voters.

It’s rather disappointing to see Pew (and prominent pundits) re-insert that troubled wording into our public discourse. When “moral values” first reared its ugly head in the 2004 exit polls, it caused a media sensation. The conventional wisdom went something like this: Opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage are the only “values” issues and the only “moral” party was the GOP. The poll question was thoroughly debunked soon after the election but it was too late– the misleading narrative had already been set.

Since then, several organizations (including this one) have cropped up to (among other things) help undo the damage of that question, lifting up example after example of a broader “moral agenda” and showing that no party “owns” voters of faith. It’s an uphill battle. During the 2008 presidential primaries, the exit polls consistently asked more comprehensive religion questions of Republicans than Democrats, reinforcing the narrative that Republicans “own” religion. Even after the 2008 election, when Democrats increased their share of the religious vote substantially and people of faith demonstrated greater political independence, issue analysis is still haunted by the ghost of that ridiculous question.

Dionne’s and Gilgoff’s pieces use the poll data in different ways, but both operate under the assumption that “moral values” appear to have taken a back seat in the midst of economic turmoil, when voters are focused on issues like jobs and health care.

And therein lies the biggest flaw with the “moral values” question. It assumes that certain (unnamed but clearly implied) issues are not just shaped by values, but are values and all others are amoral.

As Jesse Lava notes, there are deep moral dimensions to issues like the economy. To pit the economy, health care, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against “moral values” simply doesn’t make sense.

(To test this, try making the case for health care reform– or against the use of torture– without using any moral or values language. It’s possible, but difficult, and it certainly doesn’t resemble how real people actually talk about these issues.)

So here we are, more than four years later, still dealing with the fallout of one bad question. Back in 2004, ABC News polling Director Gary Langer said the moral values question had the potential to “misinform the political discourse for years to come.” Let’s hope these two pieces by Dionne and Gilgoff are outliers, and not the realization of this gloomy prediction.

UPDATE: See Mark Silk’s take on “moral values” (that the term actually did have some meaning in terms of demographics and vote patters) and our clarification (that “moral values” may have been significant, but is still flawed) in the comments over at Spiritual Politics.

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