Oh, those vague South Dakota 'values'

If there is any popular term in American discourse that I truly detest it is this one -- "values." Talk about a meaningless buzz word! This is a term that is constantly abused by hollow folks on the left as well as on the right, usually when they are trying to stick it to an opponent without needing to take any stands on controversial issues -- religious, cultural and moral issues, most of the time -- that might upset a few voters or (let's face it) journalists.

Thus, we have "values" voters. Thus, we have Democrats who can sail into blue-collar, Catholic neighborhoods and talk about their "values" without having to answer real questions (see John Edwards). Thus we have Republicans who can visit religious congregations and ominously say that Democrats do not have "values," while also managing to avoid taking stands on the same issues ( see Rudy Giuliani).

Meanwhile, there are journalists who throw the term around, as well, often when trying to avoid covering any messy social or cultural issues.

What in the heckfire does the word "values" mean, anyway?

To see a classic example of this syndrome, check out this A1 story from The Washington Post, focusing on a high-profile congressional race out in the wilds of America's high, high plains. The fun starts in the flashy headline: "In South Dakota, Democrats' own 'mama grizzly' vs. 'the next Sarah Palin.' "

Let's start right at the vague, mushy top:

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- As South Dakota's lone House member, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) wants each of her votes to reflect the wholesome, conservative values of this rural rectangle of a state. So she has artfully tailored her record: no on the health-care overhaul; no on the Wall Street bailouts; no on the cap-and-trade energy bill. She's a proud Democrat, she says, but a prouder South Dakotan.

Still, there is that one vote Herseth Sandlin cast, the aye for California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker, that her opponent has hammered her on.

"I believe the U.S. House of Representatives is the people's house. It is not Nancy Pelosi's house," Herseth Sandlin's Republican challenger, state Rep. Kristi Noem, told an applauding crowd at the fairgrounds recently during their first debate of the campaign.

A big Republican wave may be coming in November. And despite distancing herself from her party's policies, despite touting her independence and moderation, Herseth Sandlin could be washed away by the simple fact that she has a "D" after her name. Throughout the Midwest and South, dozens of her fellow centrists are also imperiled by the backlash of voters threatening to take out their disdain for President Obama and the direction he has taken the country on anyone who is a Democrat.

So what we have here is a "mama grizzly" Democrat from the heartland who is up against a talented young female who the Post calls "authentic, tall and lean, soft-spoken but tough, an unabashed conservative who rarely strays off script. She's a made-for-Fox News star in her own right."

Sandlin "grew up on a farm," readers are told, while Noem "runs a ranch. She rides horses, herds cattle, hunts elk (with a bow), shoots prairie dogs (with a rifle) and skins pheasants." Naturally, some have already labeled Noem the "next Sarah Palin."

Despite that barrage, this race is apparently all about the economy, not the headline-making social issues that tend to come wrapped in religious questions. It's a race about "values," but we are given no information whatsoever about the hot-button issues that, in the past, have most divided the "values voters."

This race is all economics, all the time. Maybe.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the photo package that accompanies this piece includes a huge image (see image No. 9 in this collection) of Noem leading a small circle of her family members in prayer. Republicans do that, it seems.

What about Democrats? There is one photo (online only, No. 23) of Sandlin at home in which a cross is hanging in the background. Is this relevant? Could be, since the Post, more than anything else, wants its readers to know that she has the "values" thing down and is a centrist or right-wing Democrat. So why is Noem viewed as an alternative?

A quick glance at Sandlin's profile at The Daily Kos provides lots of information about her Blue Dog streak. However, a story about the race in Politics Daily provides a slightly different view of the subject. The sarcastic first quote is from the Republican's campaign manager.

... Noem is aggressively contesting the incumbent's claim to conservatism. Noem's counter talking point? That when voters realize how Herseth Sandlin votes, they won't like it. "The fact that Herseth Sandlin's voting record -- 95 percent of the time with [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi -- is something that really resonates with South Dakotans," Josh Shields said sarcastically. ...

Abortion and other social issues may also play a role in the race. Noem is supported by such conservative groups as Concerned Women PAC, the Susan B. Anthony List, and FRC Action PAC, while Herseth Sandlin has previously been backed by the liberal, EMILY's List. Another wild card is that South Dakota's Republican Sen. John Thune is running unopposed this year. Thune has plenty of money anyway, and seems happy to share his bounty with Noem.

Thune, of course, is a superstar among conservative voters.

So where do the two candidates fit into this "values" scene, in terms of the tricky political issues that come wrapped in language about faith, morality and culture? In other words, is it relevant which pews these two women occupy, when they choose to occupy a pew? Might that information offer a clue or two about this side of the campaign?

To tell you the truth, I could not find out where Noem goes to church. I would predict that she attends an evangelical megachurch of some kind, if such things exist in the Dakotas, based on the nasty comments about her faith and lack of intellect on liberal weblogs.

Sandlin, on the other hand, is clearly identified with the First Lutheran Church, Brookings, S.D., which is part of the progressive -- some would simply say liberal -- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

So here is the bottom line, for me: "Values" talk is almost always worthless. Actual information about a range of "values issues" -- from economic justice to education, from abortion to the death penalty -- is much, much better.

"Religious left" vs. "religious right" in a values showdown? That could be an interesting and important story. That story would also require some specific questions in order to produce some hard facts.

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