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America Searches for Content in Heroes in Values : Values: The debate over social issues is a rehashing of battles from the '60s--battles already decided. But it is easier than trying to solve today's difficult social problems.

July 08, 1990|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political reporter for The Times

AUSTIN, TEX. — In Texas, the school system is in financial turmoil, the prisons are more crowded than the office buildings and the state may soon face a budget deficit deep enough to rattle the teeth of whichever party has its hands on the wheel when it hits.

Yet the most spirited exchange in the past few weeks between the state's gubernatorial contenders came when Republican Clayton Williams accused Democrat Ann Richards of lacking sufficient vigilance against flag burning.

Meanwhile, the county attorney in this exuberant university and capital town--ostensibly among the most liberal in the state--recently joined colleagues in San Antonio and Florida in warning record stores that they could be prosecuted for selling the records of the rap group 2 Live Crew to minors.

For the past few weeks, U.S. politics has been fixated on such questions--from the debate over a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, to the struggle over National Endowment for the Arts funding for artists deemed by some obscene.

This is a sour agenda, even for a nation in a surprisingly sour mood on its birthday. After a brief upsurge during the 1988 campaign, Americans are once again telling pollsters they consider the country to be fundamentally on the wrong track.

Exactly why so many Americans remain pessimistic about the country's direction is difficult to isolate. When the Wirthlin Group, a GOP polling firm, explored that question in a recent survey, it found a welter of concerns--crime and drugs, the economy, social apathy, government paralysis--but no unifying note.

In this unfocused atmosphere, each side of the political spectrum continues to develop its own analysis of the uneasiness--and to construct its political appeal on that base. By and large, liberals see the anxiety as concern about long-term economic trends. "The public's confidence that America will always be a strong place for economic opportunity is diminished," insists Democratic pollster Richard Maullin. "That's what is eating them."

Many conservatives, meanwhile, portray the unhappiness as the product of a widespread sense that America has lost its moral bearings even as its economic system appears to be triumphing internationally. "With the end of the Cold War," conservative columnist Joseph Sobran observed recently, "it's time for a critical introspection we may have felt we could hardly afford earlier."

That introspection may be overdue. But neither conservatives nor liberals have developed a vocabulary that positions them to lead it. Both are looking backward--attempting to fit a complex new situation into tired rhetorical frameworks.

The conservatives' continuing cultural offensive on the flag and obscenity illustrates the dynamic. It's not difficult to draw a list of social problems that may be exacerbated by fraying moral standards--poor educational performance and widespread drug use, to name two.

It is more difficult to list the ways that government can effectively reverse such fundamental social breakdowns. As GOP pollster William McInturff said, drugs are a difficult issue to bring home convincing progress reports on. Few politicians want to base their claim to moral leadership on a war that appears stalemated--especially since so few have ideas about how to break out of the trenches.

And so, to demonstrate their commitment to traditional values, conservatives have reached back to the sort of symbolic issues that worked for Richard M. Nixon in 1968. President Bush and the cultural conservatives in Congress are behaving like graying devotees of classic-rock radio stations: After all these years, they still can't let go of the 1960s.

As a result, we are reduced to conflict without content. The debate over the flag-burning amendment or 2 Live Crew has the same relationship to a real contest of values as war games have to war: All the tactics and maneuvers of the real thing, with nothing, in fact, at stake.

All this made more sense 20 years ago. Then, in the crucible of Vietnam, the civil-rights movement and the sexual revolution, real bullets were being fired on the cultural front.

To the extent anti-war demonstrators defaced the flag, it was because they felt the country had desecrated the values it represented. And when middle America recoiled from those protests, it was because they understood that, along with the Stars and Stripes, the young protesters were rejecting many of the verities of their own lives.

Similarly, the battles over increasing sexuality in the arts during the 1960s was largely a proxy for the overall social upheaval over the explosive shift in sexual mores that many found frightening and immoral. At issue was not just sex, but the value of traditional rules of order.

Is such a debate occuring today? Does any significant segment of U.S. society consider America a malevolent force in the world; or even feel crimped by the middle-class values that define our nation--veneration of work and family?

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