To what extent will progressive morality be a factor in the looming presidential election? Is it simply a nuisance? Will mainstream Democrats (yet again) cringe in its presence, disavow it, spout mostly Republican-lite platitudes about tough-guy patriotism -- and, positioning themselves, as ever, as the Lesser of Two Evils, count the progressive vote as theirs?
The election season, which ought to be more about promoting values than candidates, is barely about values at all, except as weaknesses to manipulate.
Ah, democracy! In post-modern America, the political establishment has quietly uncoupled the word from its definition even as it affects to promote democracy around the world. Campaigns celebrate and dismantle candidates’ personalities and stand for no more than variations of the status quo.
And this is why progressive morality is, indeed, a nuisance. It’s about the future: the world we haven’t built yet, a world beyond poverty, war and environmental exploitation. In a real democracy, such issues would be passionately addressed — if not all the time, then at least during election season — with the limited interests of the present moment temporarily suspended as we tried to figure out how to get beyond them.
George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, writing about the Democrats’ unsuccessful bid to recall Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, make some excellent points, beginning with the idea that the Dems “argued policy” while the Republicans argued their version of morality — which is pretty much what always happens. And a strong moral stand inevitably trumps a reasoned explication of policy because “morality is central to identity.”
When Republicans run for office, they effortlessly take a foursquare stand for God and country, no matter that such a stand may have the depth of a campaign poster, while Democrats usually manage to sound like nattering nabobs even when they’re speaking about substantive issues. And when they do reach for the big moral sound bite, what they extol is the same God-and-country, kill-thy-enemy morality as the Republicans, but with a desperate “me too” edge. Why is that?
Lakoff has been writing for years that the Democrats should speak unapologetically from a progressive moral position, framing the major campaign issues in this morality, which models itself on the nurturing family; emphasizes such values as equality, empathy and cooperation; and grounds itself in an empowered public sphere, which is dutifully maintained and protected by the government.
In contrast, “Conservative morality fits the family of the strict father, who is the ultimate authority, defines right and wrong, and rules through punishment,” Lakoff and Wehling write. “Self-discipline to follow rules and avoid punishment makes one moral, which makes it a matter of individual responsibility alone. You are responsible for yourself and not anyone else. . . .
“In conservative politics, democracy is seen as providing the maximal liberty to seek one’s self-interest without being responsible for the interests of others. The best people are those who are disciplined enough to be successful. Lack of success implies lack of discipline and character, which means you deserve your poverty.”
And politically, of course, the public sphere — a.k.a., government — is as much the enemy to conservatives as terrorists are, even though private success is impossible without it. There’s no insult more severe than calling someone a “socialist.” The insult is without rationality but is deeply moral in its (flawed) meaning.
So, once again, I ask, why is this? Why have the Democrats remained stalled between solid moral positions since their last major moral stand, which was to support the civil rights movement and dismantle the political infrastructure of Jim Crow? Wouldn’t it be easier to mobilize their base if they positioned themselves at its center rather than hemmed and hawed at the periphery, arguing policy instead of standing up for what’s right? Wouldn’t this reinvigorate not just the candidates and the party but our entire democracy?
The answer, I fear, is that we remain in a state of moral transition — and confusion. The Dems, after all, stood up not just for civil rights and a war on poverty but the geopolitical and moral disaster known as the Vietnam War. Subsequently unnerved by the political cost of their real moral stands (loss of the Old South and racists everywhere), they hedged their bets and tried to get along with the increasingly militant conservatives, bringing on what Robert Parry, in an excellent 2009 essay, called “battered wife syndrome.” As the Dems strove for an increasingly pointless bipartisan unity, their counterparts stole elections and fomented inane scandals to bring them down.
But the Democrats, for all their battered-spouse “cooperativeness,” are also co-conspirators in the corporate agenda of endless war. President Obama has not only extended the reach of drone warfare but managed to craft, with the help of official leaks, a tough-cookie, “assassin-in-chief” image that makes the world far less safe but enhances his authoritarian-father credibility among the other party’s base. His own base is relegated to the status of political orphans.