American moral decline has been discussed for as long as there has been an America. Conservatives have long noted how certain cultural shifts throughout our nation’s history have redefined social norms, transforming or even damaging traditional American values. They’re often right, as concepts like the sanctity of life, the institution of marriage and the importance of faith have all been under assault for decades.
But have we been too narrow in defining our traditional values? What, exactly, are American values? How are they unique to this country?
If socialism has defined much of Europe and the world for the last century, a healthy respect for the separation of the public and private sectors has long been a distinctly American value. But not according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB has tried to prevent the Boeing corporation from opening a new plant in right-to-work South Carolina, contending that the company’s decision to not to expand an existing unionized plant in Washington for the same purpose amounted to an illegal retaliation against union workers. The NLRB’s board members are appointed by President Obama.
Last week, Senator Jim DeMint blasted the Boeing hold-up by the NLRB as “anti-American and anti-Democratic.” South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley agrees with DeMint: “This is an issue that may have started in South Carolina, but we want to make sure it never touches another state… This goes against everything we know our American economy to be.”
The very notion that a government-backed agency can decide which states private corporations are allowed to do business in is not only absurd—it is indeed un-American. The Economist notes the unprecedented nature of this situation: “The 1935 National Labour Relations Act has never been construed so broadly. Boeing is not actually reducing the amount of work it does in Washington… It is not closing the factories where the strikes occurred, nor is it sacking the strikers. It is merely choosing to add capacity in a state where labour relations are more cordial.”
If the NLRB decision is allowed to stand it will set a new unprecedented low in how private businesses are allowed to operate in the US—and it will become yet another troublesome mile marker in America’s moral decline.
If respect for the free market is one of our most cherished traditions so is our reputation as one of the most civilized nations in human history—and it has long been a standard American value that this country does not use torture. John McCain might be wrong about many things but as a former prisoner of war who was tortured by the Viet Cong, the Senator has always been right on this issue. Said McCain in 2008: “Water boarding is torture… Under President Reagan we passed anti-torture acts… The Israelis do not use torture… and if we use torture then we cannot differentiate ourselves from the enemy.”
McCain cites Reagan as taking the moral high ground on this issue and indeed one of the last times we prosecuted anyone for waterboarding was through Reagan’s Department of Justice—which insisted that the practice was indeed torture.
The Bush administration turned Reagan’s definition on its head when it began describing waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation tactic,” an Orwellian term if there ever was one. Last week, potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum not only heartily endorsed “enhanced interrogation” but claimed that McCain “doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works.”
The truth is that social conservatives of Santorum’s stripe apparently have no clue how American values work, as they now have typically become the most enthusiastic champions of torture, cheering its use and condemning anyone who deplores it.
When Osama Bin Laden was killed it was suggested that waterboarding may have had something to do with the intelligence gathered to complete this mission. We’ve since learned that any such intelligence gathered using waterboarding is questionable at best, but the immediate impulse to defend torture—while insisting it isn’t torture—is indicative of a Republican Party that it has lost its moral scruples.
Of course, Republican defenders of torture love to pull out the doomsday scenario: If you had the chance to save thousands of lives by waterboarding a detainee, would you do it? Well, yes, in fact, and there’s very few tactics most patriotic Americans wouldn’t endorse to save the lives of their fellow countrymen including torture or worse.
But the question never really has been about whether or not interrogators should be given extra leeway in some highly improbable hypothetical situation—but whether allowing the use of torture should now be the official policy of the United States. A majority of Americans in both political parties, starting with George Washington and at least through Reagan, have always said “no.” But in 2011, a significant portion if not a majority of Republican voters say, enthusiastically, “yes.”
Neither Democrats or Republicans have the exclusive rights to morality, American or otherwise. But both parties continue to do grave damage to some of the most cherished values that have always made this country great.