Moralize, liberally.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 4 2004 12:37 PM

Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

Moralize, liberally.

Editor's note: The day after the election, Slate's political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won't win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won't vote for the Democrats. Click here to read the other entries.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker
Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

The esteemed liberal blogger Atrios is discouraging an orgy of Democratic recriminations: "What matters isn't what was done wrong, but what needs to be done right for the '06 elections." I agree. But discussing the former helps us think about the latter—and has the added therapeutic value of letting me vent some frustration over John Kerry's ultra-risk-averse campaign.

In state after state, Bush voters cited two issues as key: terrorism and "moral issues." I think both of these Bush assets could have been drained of some value by an adventurous and creatively eloquent Democratic candidate.

On the terrorism front, Kerry failed to erase a paradox: The public gives Bush low marks on Iraq but says he's doing a good job in the war on terror. Of course, in truth Bush's failure in Iraq has made America more vulnerable to terrorism. Kerry nibbled around the edges of this issue. He said the Iraq war had diverted resources from the fight against al-Qaida, annoyed allies, etc. He never stressed the central point: The war has made lots of Muslims hate America, and the more Muslims who hate America, the worse shape we're in.

With this theme nailed down, Kerry could have gone on to show how Iraq is emblematic of Bush's larger failure: indifference to how the world regards America, even as we enter a technological age in which grass-roots hatred abroad will morph easily into massive lethality at home. In other words: Regardless of what happens in Iraq, four more years of Bush will mean your children are more likely to die in a terrorist attack.

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Instead, Kerry's critique of the war made it sound like an isolated mistake and even a reversible one: Misdirected resources can be redirected, and annoyed allies will ultimately forgive. Conveying the full proportions of Bush's Iraq failure without sounding like a wimp would have been a rhetorical challenge, but, as I argued in an op-ed after the Democratic Convention, it would have been worth the risk.

Four years from now, a sufficiently charismatic Democratic standard bearer could not only make this broad-gauged critique of Bush's foreign policy but go beyond it by depicting the war on terror as, in part, a moral challenge with uplifting aspects: Our mission includes demonstrating America's basic goodness to the world, helping to draw the world's diverse nations and peoples into a single community, etc. In any event: We can't afford to cede the "national greatness" theme to the neocons. Evangelicals are hardly the only voters who would like to see America as a nation with a calling.

As for domestic "moral issues:" They seem to leave Democrats in a quandary. The salient "moral" issues—abortion, gay rights, school prayer—aren't issues on which substantial compromise is thinkable. If you imagine a Democratic Party that caves on these, you're imagining a party that has lost both philosophical integrity and vital constituencies.

But compromise on these issues may not be a prerequisite for attracting some voters who care about them. Though these issues are symptoms of moral anxiety in Middle America, I think the anxiety's ultimate source is more diffuse, and includes concerns that even many liberals share.

Especially if they're parents. I've never met an American parent—left, right, center—who seemed enthusiastic about the culture in which children now grow up. Unless you put your kids in an isolation tank, their electronic and social environments will conspire to channel them toward MTV-land: a realm in which sex, money, alcohol, and rock-solid abs jockey for pre-eminence in the hierarchy of human needs. And along the way these kids will encounter lots of glorified violence—more of a concern on the left than the right, maybe, but something very few parents applaud.

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