Moralizing Liberals

A few days after 2004 American elections, I am tired of the commentary coming from the propaganists and leaders of both of the dominant factions. Republicans, barely restraining their glee at winning, talk insincerely about reaching out to liberals and healing. Liberals talk about how illiterate and stupid fundamentalists were tricked by propaganda, funded by corporate interests, into electing a hollow and stupid person to the most powerful position in the world. Some liberal leaders and propagandists are trying to distance themselves and the Democrats from the Sorry Everybody (Sorry, slow link) project and other distasteful expressions of the disappointment of Senator Kerry’s supporters, although they share the sentiment.

Some leading American liberals have been saying that the Democrats failed in the federal campaigns because the Republicans appealed to “moralism”. This discourse has a couple of variations. There is a pragmatic assessment of the factors that swayed voters, and there is a more theoretical attempt to explain that Republican voters are attracted to moralism, because they are influenced by the views prevalent in their communities – meaning rural and suburban communities, and faith communities. Some liberals imply that it was unfair for the Republicans to appeal to those values and that is wrong for voters to decide political questions on religious and moral grounds. Some liberals are concerned that their attacks on the religious right are reinforcing the claim of the religious right that the Republicans have received a clear mandate for a socially conservative agenda.

It is confused, messy discourse. There is confusion between electoral strategy and the principles – if we can talk about firm principles – of political ideology. Liberal ideologists would like to see the Democratic party, as the instrument of their ideology, succeed without becoming too conservative. They are involved in a project of making liberalism more appealing to the voters, without giving up on the principles they espouse. They are also engaged in the great liberal sport of trying to understand why the masses don’t embrace liberal values and liberal politicians, which usually leads to criticism of the masses, and criticism of the role or religion and religious leaders in forming public opinion.

I heard Robert B. Reich (liberal Democrat, economist, lawyer and writer, politician – Secretary of Labour in President Clinton’s first cabinet) answering a call from one of the hosts of the CBC Radio One program “As it Happens” within a couple of days after the election. His main points were much the same as those posted in the online version of The American Prospect. His online article (published November 4, 2004) The Moral Agenda contends that President Bush and the Republicans campaigned with more moral conviction, which made Mr. Bush a more convincing candidate. He argues that the Democratic party should be committed to liberal values and passionate about those values. He is resigned to the fact that the Democrats won’t find their majority by appealing to the religious right, and I suspect that Professor Reich would be appalled at having to engage with them. The institutional Christian churches in America, including the unaffliated and independentl churches, are socially conservative. Liberal radical Christians devoted to the social justice message in the Bible are an embattled minority. The liberal cause will not get the support of the majority of chuched-up Americans in the foreseeable future. The churches are a relatively cohesive and organized demographic entity. Their members influence and reinforce their own community values. The Democrats can’t connect to those communities. I don’t foresee the organization of liberal churches – that’s an oxymoron in modern America – or any similiarly committed and coherent communities on the liberal side. It isn’t that hard to find good theological reasons for Christians to support liberal policies on social justice issues, but those arguments simply don’t have any traction with social conservatives. Social conservatives join their churches to be respectable and maintain their status. The expect and demand to to hear a message that supports their life choices. If they aren’t comfortable, they move to a church that respects their values. Their pastors aren’t dumb, and their churches have evolved into the institutional churches of the American right.

Professor Reich is a committed philosophical liberal wants to move to the left instead of to the center. After leaving Clinton’s Cabinet, criticized Clinton and “Third Way” politics (see also Margaret Weir’s paper “The Collapse of Bill Clinton’s Third Way” – warning this link goes to a .pdf document). He has said harsh things about the Republican party’s relationship to the social conservative movement – a movement dominated by Christian fundamentalists (which now includes both Protestant evangelicals and ultramontane Catholics). In articles like “The Religious Wars” (December 2003) and “Forget the Sweet Talk” he argued that the Republican leadership has been promoting division on social and moral issues and effectively driving the culture wars to divert attention from their economic agenda, their collective personal corruption and their intellectual failures.

The Republican focus on those issues was good politics, but it was not a phony issue. There was a fundamental difference in the way the major political parties addressed the politics of personal freedom and personal identity. The Republican message was that Americans are free to enjoy the good life, and free to support their churches, but should also be engaged in supporting their country and in promoting the good of the community. Their message was principled, ethical, communitarian, charitable, with a sense of duty to the nation and a sense of mission. It was patriotic. It was noble. Reich was right to point out that those general messages are packaged with an agenda that is free market, libertarian, devoid of any sense of conscience or social responsibility. The Republicans talk a strong game on morality, but their policies tend to release the wealthy and the powerful from moral and legal obligations. They managed to hide the business interests that they serve behind the cloak of religion and patriotism.

The Republicans seem to have been the better communicators and propagandists this time around. It is tempting for liberals to avoid self-critical reflection on their ideology and policy by arguing about propaganda and electoral tactics, or by complaining about the power of the churches.

Politics is a complex system and that rational debate on values is open-ended. I respect his commitment and his willingness to keep talking, keep debating, keep fighting. I am pleased that Professor Reich, unlike other liberals, is not openly criticizing the voters for their values. I think he is right when he says the Democrats need a better moral picture. On the other hand – and he doesn’t seem to get it – the liberal politics he promotes are electorally handicapped. Americans, whether or not they are religious, like to feel that they are right. They like the idea that they are good people living in a great country. They instinctively like the idea that truth, justice and democracy are objective, real, and living in America.

Liberals almost admit to being incapable of making firm moral choices – everyone if free to do what they want and no one should judge anyone else’s choices. Liberals talk the politics of non-judgmental, value-free inclusion, which means balancing the demands of many groupsfor public resources and public recognition. Liberal balancing becomes a dance among interest groups. Liberal tolerance becomes a flirtation with cults, fads and kooks. Liberal Democrats come across as silly, self-absorbed, condescending and narcissistic. It is simply propaganda – liberal Democrats say yes to every request – the have promiscious in their relationships with identity and issue interests.

Liberal ideologists have become too absorbed in their own rhetoric. It has been difficult for them to talk passionately about a firm and clear vision of social justice, as the successful Democrats did in earlier eras. Reich is right – the modern Democrats are not very passionate, or at least not very convincing at looking passionate. His idea that liberals should be more passionate about their liberal values is intriguing, but I can’t figure out which, among many sets of values respected by Democrats, he wants to promote.