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
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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.

This aura of amorality unsettles evangelicals and other conservatives, and energizes their position on the salient "moral" issues. They think school prayer could help stem the tide of MTV culture, and they see abortion-rights advocates as hedonists who want to "have their fun and not pay for it" as my high-school history teacher back in San Antonio, Texas, complained. A vote against abortion is a vote against Britney Spears.

In reacting against MTV-land, morally conservative parents home-school their kids, or send them to religious schools, or in some other way seek seclusion from secular culture. And the resulting cocoon cuts their chances of encountering anyone who might change their views—like, say, a homosexual who turns out to be not so bad once you get to know him/her.

Aside from Tipper Gore and a few others, liberals have failed to stress that—whatever their views on abortion, gay marriage, and prayer in the schools—they share conservatives' underlying unease with pop-culture values. You don't have to be Jerry Falwell to feel like moving to another planet when you see the Jerry Springer Show.

I think Kerry had a chance to seize this issue back in January, before he was the Democratic nominee. The moment—what might have been his Sister Souljah moment—came during halftime at the Super Bowl, when Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson's clothes off.

Criticism of Timberlake and Jackson came mainly from the right. Liberals scoffed at the idea of getting worked up over "one exposed breast." But the problem wasn't the breast; the problem was how it was exposed—through an act of stylized male sexual aggression, an apparent preamble to rape. (After Timberlake's advance, Jackson pretended to recoil in fear.) Does anyone with a son or a daughter want to see such behavior glorified? For that matter, do liberal feminists?

This wasn't the most egregious specimen of contemporary culture, but it was about the most prominent—a national, even global, advertisement of American values. By denouncing it, Kerry could have endeared himself to millions of American parents and gotten pundits commenting on his maverick moral streak. Then on to Jerry Springer ...

One thing that may have kept Kerry and other Democrats away from this issue is the dreaded liberal cultural elite. Whenever you start moralizing in a remotely Victorian way, some artists, writers, and directors start screaming about censorship. (And Katha Pollitt gets really annoyed—as we may see soon!)

Of course, they've got it wrong: Censorship is officially imposed restraint (e.g., the fines that the FCC levied over the incident), not mere criticism. What's more, criticism can be an antidote to censorship. Moral sanction and legal sanction are the only two kinds of sanction there are, and, human nature being what it is, a society needs one or the other to stay healthy.

If Democrats felt a little freer to moralize, they wouldn't, of course, take over Bush's evangelical base. Still, without giving an inch on gay rights, abortion rights, school prayer, etc., they can make some inroads into the "moral" component of Republican support. But so long as they consider it their sacred duty to applaud Quentin Tarantino or to quietly endure Britney Spears, they may stay where they were this week: 140,000 votes shy in Ohio.

P.S.: I suspect liberal bloggers may organize multicity demonstrations on Inauguration Day. If so, my advice is to make the demonstrations thematically simple and hence broadly inclusive. The basic message, chanted again and again, should be along the lines of: "He doesn't speak for us." That's something lots of us can agree on, and something the world should hear.

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