We interviewed Michelle on Earth Day when she was cleaning up Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. She's a lawyer and was very careful about the definition and meaning of the words; values, progressive, liberal, conservative, etc. She sees complexity in these words and doesn't like to generalize. However, she did see equality, fairness and social justice as core liberal values. Michelle also talked about how she finds it insulting the way conservatives talk about values and imply only they have them.
Michelle: I think everybody talks about values. The idea that values are this very short list of maybe ten things that people talk about – we all talk about values, whether you are on the right or left, you opinions are routed in your ideas of right and wrong, and what you think the world should look like. And those are people’s values.
I think to divide the list of politicians or people with values or non-values, is kind of insulting.
Joan: You said you were not feeling comfortable discussing values.
Answer: I think it’s a term that is maybe overused, and so because it’s used so much, it’s gotten to a point where its meaning is kind of muddy. So it’s not clear exactly what that means. And so it’s not that I’m not comfortable with it, but that I’m not sure exactly what – if you come to me and say “I’m a person with progressive values”, I’m not sure what that means. I’d have to talk to you and find out where you’re coming from. I think in that sense I don’t now – it might have lost some of its use just because it’s not as precise as it should be.
Joan: What would you call values of say, the Democrats versus the Republicans.
Answer: The Democrats, I think it’s both a strength and weakness of them, it’s that there are lots of different subgroupings of values within the Democratic Party. I don’t know if there is any one phrase I could use about what Democratic values are.
I mean obviously, there are things that bind us together as Democrats. There are interests in equality, fairness, social justice. In terms of details and specifics, those obviously range from left to right, with those same goals in mind, but how to get there, you don’t always agree.
Joan: It sounds like you feel that there are things that bind us. Do you think there’s an important value to you, whatever you do politically or in your life?
Answer: I think just the idea that people should get a fair shake, and that’s been sort of distorted to sound like what we’re talking about is not having to take responsibility for ourselves. I think what we’re saying is that nobody gets there on their own, and we want people to have the support that they need to get where they need to be. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t take responsibility to do it.
If you have a system in place that doesn’t give them the resources that others have, those are the things that we’re concerned about.
Joan: So that would be your number one personal value, and it’s not a progressive value? Do you have any label? How do you like the term ‘liberal’?
Answer: I like the term ‘liberal’. I think liberals have down some pretty amazing things in the last century. I have no problem with the term liberal. But again, it’s a term that has a range of meanings, so if you tell me you’re a liberal, I don’t necessarily know what you mean by that either. And maybe that’s a function of labels – that they don’t really capture an entire viewpoint as well as we think they do. That they pretend to do.
Joan: Does conservative conjure up a vision? Of values?
Answer: I think conservative is another one – there are social conservatives and economic conservatives. It seems to me they come from completely different worlds. George Bush and Pat Robertson are people with completely different ideas about the world, I think, and they both get labeled conservative.