The Moral Case for Liberalism

As the days have gone by since the election, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that a major handicap for the Democratic party in the past few elections has been that Republicans are seen to be “standing for something,” while Democrats are seen to either just be non-Republicans or to simply have a laundry list of specific policy proposals that may or may not have anything to do with each other. Rightly or wrongly, Republicans are seen as having a coherent vision for how they want to shape policy; Democrats are immersed in policy details. Bush was perceived to be principled; Kerry was seen by most people (on both the left and the right) as simply “not Bush.”

Furthermore, I think that this election demonstrated conclusively (to me, anyway) that a large number of swing voters don’t make their decisions based on specific policies, but instead decide how to vote based on broader, more intangible themes. When asked to identify their views on specific policies, large majorities of voters typically agree with the Democratic position rather than the Republican. For example, the majority of voters thought that the deficit should be reduced before tax cuts were enacted; most voters wanted to see the assault-weapons ban extended; most voters want abortion to remain safe and legal; a recent survey showed that even self-identified Bush supporters generally preferred Kerry’s foreign policy positions to Bush’s position on most specific foreign-policy issues; and even in last week’s “anti-gay” election, exit polls show that most voters believed that homosexual couples should be entitled to civil unions or marriage.

Yet an enormous (and probably increasing) number of voters regularly choose to support Republicans in elections despite the fact that they disagree with them on most specific policies. Why? Because voters’ general sense of what they think Republicans generally fight for trumps the details of what voters know or don’t know about their specific policies. Think about it: the overwhelming perception is still that the Republican Party is the party of small government, respect for free markets, and strong national defense. The reality that current Republican policy has dramatically increased in the size and scope of government, repeatedly corrupted the functioning of free markets, and dangerously overstretched and weakened our military is irrelevant.

I would argue that this fundamental trust in underlying Republican principles has its roots in the fact that those principles have been ceaselessly and successfully sold as being “moral.” Since they spring from inherently moral principles, voters assume that specific Republican policies will generally tend to be inherently good as well.

For 25 years there has been a consistent stream of intellectual and media output from the right explaining that conservative principles are moral, and (more subtly) that liberal principles are immoral. The result is that the number of individuals who identify themselves as conservative has steadily increased, while the number of people who identify themselves as liberal has steadily declined. Many (most?) people now agree with conservatives that letting people pay less of their hard-earned income in taxes is not just better, but is morally superior to paying high taxes; that being strong and independent in foreign policy is morally superior to relying on allies for international assistance; and that letting individuals succeed or fail based on their own work and initiative is morally superior to allowing individuals to earn government assistance even if they do nothing to deserve it.

It is time for the left to counter. Democrats must work on articulating and publicizing the coherent worldview that underlies liberalism. And to really provide an effective counterweight to conservative intellectual thought, liberals must take this one step further: they must articulate the deeply principled, deeply moral underpinnings of their beliefs.

Put another way, Democrats need to explain what lies deep, deep down in their hearts: why do Democrats want to make the policy changes that they talk about in the first place? What are the overarching principles that motivate people like Al Gore, John Kerry, or Barack Obama? For Democrats, what is the whole point of government power? Most voters have no idea. Democrats need to make clear that they believe deeply in their policy positions for fundamental reasons of principle, and that those principles are morally good.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Jimmy Carter is the only Democratic presidential candidate to receive 50% of the vote in the past ten elections. He has always been recognized as being unusual in the depth of his convictions and principles, and even more unusual (especially for a Democrat) because he has never shied away from talking about the morality of those principles. For some reason, ever since JFK most Democratic politicians have shied away from discussing morality and why the principles of liberalism are fundamentally good. It’s time for that to change.

I’m convinced that Democrats will not fundamentally alter their inability to reach a majority of voters by tweaking policy positions on one or two key issues, or by finding just the right candidates that appeal to one or two additional demographic groups. Bill Clinton was an example of both of these band-aid approaches, but he did not arrest (and arguably hastened) the steady rightward trend in elections. Instead, the left needs to devote the coming years to publicly articulating the underlying morality of liberalism, and putting forward a moral world-view that can compete with the conservative one that Republicans have been incessantly advocating for a quarter century.

If the left is willing to make it, the moral case for being liberal is strong. Being liberal means having compassion for all people – including and perhaps especially those who cannot fight for themselves. It means recognizing that human society depends fundamentally on the willingness of people to cooperate, and work together, and help each other in times of difficulty. It means having automatic and unwavering respect and tolerance for the opinions and beliefs of others. It means being unflinchingly responsible about what we pass on to our children and to future generations, even if it makes things more difficult for us personally. Most generally, it means putting the concern for the well-being of others on equal footing with the concern for oneself. This is a good, and just, and morally strong belief, deeply grounded in both religious and secular morality, and should be trumpeted by the left instead of glossed over.

To my knowledge, in the past several years only one nationally prominent Democrat has successfully articulated some of these deep underlying principles: Barack Obama. In fact, I think that’s exactly why so many Democrats found Obama’s speech at the DNC so inspiring and exciting – he dared to assert that the basic moral values that make a person liberal are fundamentally right. And while I think that in the future Democratic candidates should be even more explicit in highlighting the fundamental morality of the liberal worldview, Obama’s words were exactly right:

[I]t’s not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.

These are the words, and this is the attitude of a Democrat who understands that there is a deeply moral case to be made for being liberal – a case that the left has not consistently made in nearly a half century. And this is exactly what the left needs to articulate, high and low, far and wide, from millions of different voices, from now into the future.