From what I’ve seen, everything Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have produced consists of one part genuine insight, one part confusion, and one part banality, presented with a breathless air of revolution, an undertone of smug satisfaction, and a generous dollop of self-promotion.

Garance Franke-Ruta’s long, dense piece in this month’s American Prospect more or less confirms that assessment. It’s not about the Death stuff, but a broader project to map the current values of the American public and help progressives figure out how to appeal to them. The reapers are opening an American branch of the Canadian consumer-research firm Environics — bringing the extremely sophisticated research tools used by the private sector to the public sector (where conventional polling is woefully inexact).

The basic picture is this: For the past couple of decades, "values" have come to eclipse, and in many ways serve as a proxy for, issues of economic self-interest. This has left the Democrats out in the cold. So what are those values?

Here’s the nut:

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Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. …

Lumping specific survey statements like these together into related groups, Nordhaus and Shellenberger arrived at what they call “social values trends,” such as “sexism,” “patriotism,” or “acceptance of flexible families.” But the real meaning of those trends was revealed only by plugging them into the “values matrix” — a four-quadrant plot with plenty of curving arrows to show direction, which is then overlaid onto voting data. …

Over the past dozen years, the arrows have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on “every man for himself.” Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.

This is all, I think, apparent to any close observer of American life.

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The questions are twofold. First, how can Democrats appeal to an electorate wherein values have become a kind of proxy for all issues?

The big answer? (Warning: banality ahead.) Frame issues in terms of values. Franke-Ruta says this toward the beginning of the piece:

Rather than focusing on reframing the Democratic message, as Berkeley linguistics and cognitive science professor George Lakoff has recommended … the American Environics team argued that the way to move voters on progressive issues is to sometimes set aside policies in favor of values.

But framing policies in terms of values is exactly what Lakoff recommends. To the extent there’s anything prescriptive in the project at all, it’s just Lakoffian framing with a better understanding of the values of the folks you’re trying to appeal to.

The second question is more significant: How can American values be changed? On this, as far as I can tell, the reapers are silent. And of course it’s the $6 million question. I’ll have more to say about it in a subsequent post.

Just to tie all this back into the purported subject of this blog: The drift of public values toward atomization, nihilism, and authoritarianism is obviously not good news for the environment, particularly when the signal problems of our time are global and collective.

Anyway, more later.

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