Democrats Need to Make a Moral Argument for Their Positions

As has often been pointed out, many working and middle class Americans consistently vote against their own economic interests by supporting Republicans. The clearest example of that right now is the GOP plan to cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations, while they refuse to consider an increase in the minimum wage.

What strikes me about all of that, especially in the Trump era, is that these working and middle class Americans are not voting based on their economic interests—but on their values. While Republicans have dog whistled their racism for years now, they have been more overt on their appeal to values when it comes to their position on things like abortion and gay marriage. They have also been pretty successful in casting Democratic efforts to shore up the safety net as either “free stuff” doled out to “those people,” or as nothing more than an expansion of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. None of these things is based on the kind of pragmatism embraced by Democrats on what works, they are all moral arguments that touch on people’s values.

When it comes to elections, I would suggest that a lot of people actually attempt to get a “feel” for a politician and make their choices based on that. Those who wanted someone to vent their anger at the way their sense of morality is being threatened found a perfect vehicle in Trump, in other words, the “nostalgia voters.” While the kinds of policies proposed by Clinton might have actually addressed their economic concerns, they weren’t interested. That is why we continue to hear that people don’t know what Democrats stand for. The party is strong on policies, but weak on moral arguments—which is what most voters tune in to hear.

Neal Gabler is right when he says that “we urgently need a national conversation on our collapsing morality and how to fix it.”

…the best way to damage Trump may not be politically, but morally — attacking him where he is most vulnerable: his lack of values. The Trump presidency, which has set our moral compass spinning, demands moral debate as a context for Trump and his allies. It demands self-examination, not just a few toothless remarks about the scourge of racism, or a few questions about the president’s mental competence or his moral authority.

Because this is bigger than Trump, it demands looking at the sources of our moral quandary, not just its result.

Here is what I think: We should be having a national conversation on morality generally — on what morality means, on how it applies to politics and on how it applies to our daily lives, even on how it has been misused and abused…

I know a lot of liberals may shudder at the thought of connecting morality on the left to politics the way conservatives have connected their morality to politics on the right. The danger is more self-righteousness. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. We talk a great deal about identity politics and interest politics. Why not a morally driven politics — a politics that looks to tolerance, kindness, charity, compassion and community in nondogmatic and expansive ways, not, as conservatives would have it, to buy off constituencies, but as liberals should have it, to do what is right and good.

I don’t think this is simply a matter of coming up with a catchy slogan. Instead, I think that Democrats have to start talking about their positions in the language of morality. Here is how Oxford defines the word: “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” So the question becomes: what are the principles Democrats use to distinguish between right and wrong? Unlike Republicans, they don’t have to get caught up in issues of dogma, but can be expansive in embracing universal values.

Along those lines, I would point to the work of someone like Karen Armstrong, who has documented the universality of the golden rule—compassion.

Here is why she has a sense of urgency about this:

If we don’t manage to implement the golden rule globally, so that we treat all peoples, whoever they may be, as though they were as important as ourselves, I doubt we’ll have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.

Do you see how that is the exact opposite of the greed, dominance, racism, sexism and nationalism that is at the root of Trump’s appeal? The golden rule becomes not only a statement of principle for liberals, but a condemnation of the immorality that undergirds conservatism in the era of Trump. I believe that is the moral question we face as a country right now…the difference between those two approaches.

Back in 2008, Barack Obama gave a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church where he basically said the same thing and addressed the essential deficit that exists in this country.

I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. I’m talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, that in the words of Dr. King, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

There is a kind of selfishness that has crept into the Democratic message of late. Too many politicians buy into the idea that it is their job to come up with a response to every voter’s question of “what have you done for me lately.” While Republicans used that in the past to frame the Democratic message as being all about giving away “free stuff,” Donald Trump came along and grabbed it, raising the selfishness theme exponentially.

A politics based on the moral principles of compassion and empathy allows Democrats to do the kind of coalition-building they need to answer these questions (which I posed previously) in the affirmative:

  • Are men prepared to fight for a woman’s right to chose?
  • Are white people prepared to fight against racism?
  • Are citizens prepared to fight for those who are undocumented?
  • Are white collar workers prepared to fight for unions?
  • Are the wealthy prepared to fight for the middle/working class?
  • Are those who have good health insurance through their employer prepared to fight for those who don’t?
  • Are members of the upper and middle class prepared to fight for those in poverty?
  • Are the middle-aged prepared to fight for seniors?
  • Are seniors prepared to fight for young people?

When Democrats abandon the principles of compassion and empathy, they lose the moral argument, leaving the dogmatism of conservatives as the only game in town.  The greatest policies the party can come up with don’t matter when that happens.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.