Presidential Moral Leadership Really Matters

Maybe it’s because my family is dominated by academics, but I’m fortunate not to have any close or even remote relations that watch Fox News or regurgitate the network’s toxic talking points. A lot of people aren’t so fortunate. Luke O’Neil has collected a bunch of sob stories for a Guardian piece on the familial divides driven by the network. Here’s a typical example:

I don’t watch Fox News because of course it warps your psyche, but it must have changed tone after Trump was elected. My dad slowly became even more xenophobic and angry than he used to be.

My wife and I are worried about letting our daughter stay with our respective parents, because their toxic anger and resentment is slowly becoming their entire identity. I hate what Fox News has done to almost everyone in my family. It’s absolute poison and the only thing I think is worse is that there are people who think that destroying the morals and conscience of multiple generations is worth a few more bucks. I absolutely refuse to believe that people like Hannity don’t know what they are doing.

I wish I could do something, but who has the time or energy to combat that?

This hits on a theme I often discuss, which is the destruction of people’s morals and conscience. As things have taken an increasingly darker turn in our country, and really throughout the world, in the last two decades, I’ve come to see moral leadership as more and more important. I don’t think human beings are fundamentally good or bad, but they are highly malleable. How they behave, even what they feel, can be influenced by whether they’re asked to be generous or resentful, welcoming or defensive, optimistic or angry.

Fox News definitely seeks to make a lot of “bucks” by catering to people’s worst instincts, and it is actually quite effective in transforming people. It makes them fearful and furious. A liberal who spends all day watching MSNBC will have reasons to be anxious and upset, too, but they’ll also be receiving constant messages about the value of tolerance, inclusiveness, and care for the vulnerable. For the most part, the moral instruction is consistent with what you might hear Pope Francis say about the poor and with Martin Luther King Jr.’s aspiration that we judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Fox News has such a broad reach in American culture that it is measurably damaging people’s morals and conscience. It’s turning good people bad, much in the same way that civil or sectarian conflicts harden populations against each other, sometimes for centuries. But it’s still just a news outlet. Its influence is nothing compared to the influence of Donald Trump, who has transformed one of America’s two major political parties into a smoldering dung heap.

I sometimes rolled my eyes when President Obama exhorted us with moral language and insisted that America was fundamentally good, and far better than how it was presenting itself. But, just by making that effort, he incrementally made us better people. Sometimes we are blessed with the right leaders at the right time, and sometimes we seem to be plagued by poor leadership. Right now, the West seems to be lacking competent leaders, and it’s having a crippling effect here at home and in Europe. But, in some cases, we’re also suffering from outright bad moral leadership.

I began my adult life as a secular-minded philosophy student, impatient with moral arguments and suspicious of leaders who spoke in moral terms. My initial problem with the Bush administration was that their reckless disregard for the truth prevented people from having reality-based conversations. I no longer see this as the primary threat we face. What I see now is a daily devolution of the basic goodness and generosity of our people. Every day this gets worse, the path to recovery back gets longer, and the prospect of societal breakdown grows.

Our next president will hopefully bring as much of the country together as possible, but what they absolutely must do is exert moral leadership to stem and reverse this tide. If they can.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com